Matching Reading to Energy Levels: Reading Strategies of a PhD Student in Anthropology

Anders Norge Lauridsen:

Not that long ago, one of my supervisors held an informal presentation about his reading strategies. It was part of a series of lunch seminars for PhD students themed “Academia Behind the Scenes”, and although “reading strategies” may not emanate sexiness, it turned out to attract quite a bit of attention. After all, we are all, both at the PhD level and later, faced with the challenge of making it through ginormous amounts of literature in a long but limited time.

Listening to my supervisor, I realised that his “reading habits”, as he preferred to call them rather than “reading strategies”, were strikingly similar to my own. My own reading is of course also based on habits (a bit about them in the end), but I very deliberately try to take stock of my mental energy over the course of the day to choose reading that matches how “fit” I feel. In fact, thinking about it, it amounts to an actual reading strategy that effectively helps me devour the mountain of literature piece by piece.

Basically, it’s about starting the day with the most demanding reading – demanding in various senses, which I will return to – and then throttle down to easier texts as the hours pass and the energy level decreases. What it mainly takes is practice, practice, and more practice which I cannot help you with. But what it also takes is awareness of which texts are most essential for your thesis, which necessitate abstract thinking, and which take you away from your academic and linguistic home fields. Making you aware of these things is perhaps something this essay can help you with.

The privilege of autonomy

To begin with, it should be said that PhD work obviously consists of much more than reading. Writing is another big part, and so is teaching, supervising, participating in various meeting and research seminars, etcetera. Much of that takes place at a set time, but when it comes to reading, we usually get to enjoy a special privilege that others later in academic careers may look longingly back on: the freedom to manage a very, very large portion of time more or less as we please – that is, of course, depending on how commanding one’s PhD supervisors are. We have the great liberty to decide for ourselves in which order we want to perform our tasks which is not to be taken for granted. For me this was put into relief the other evening over dinner when my nurse partner responded to my telling about this blog post with this joking remark: “Well, imagine if one could do that as a nurse and just be like; ‘well, I don’t really feel like taking care of Mrs Jensen in ward 4 right now, let’s just leave her until next week’!”

Now, the question is of course how to administer this large portion of time to prevail over the mountain of literature. One (unstructured) way would be to simply start with whatever sits on top of the heaps of books, piles of papers, or folders of PDFs. Another way would be to schedule when to read what, starting right from – in increasing order of structuredness – morning, Monday, or first of January. The shortcoming of this scheduling approach is of course that it’s unable to predict which days and hours one will feel fresh and rested and which will be the diametrically opposite. If the neighbours have partied until the wee hours of the morning, it’s futile to begin reading that tortuous Heidegger essay in German that you put on today’s schedule last Monday.

Feeling fresh and rested? Take on the most demanding reading now

Mount Literature is fortunately not a monolith. It’s comprised of texts from various academic fields and subfields, texts in different languages and of varying degrees of tangibility. Some texts directly address the core of one’s PhD subject while others merely provide contextual understanding.

On a typical day, the energy level is highest in the morning and then decreases steadily over the course of the day – at least for me. Therefore, I try to economise on my best hours by allocating the bright morning hours to the most demanding texts, spending noon with the moderately difficult ones, and restricting myself to solely simple reading later in the afternoon. What is important here is to realise that a text can be demanding in several ways. Out of these I find the following four ways the most pertinent for my reading strategy: 1) how relevant it is for my PhD thesis, 2) how abstract it is, 3) how familiar I am with the scholarly tradition it’s part of, and 4) how good I am at the language it’s written in.

Four kinds of textual demandingness

Thesis relevance. If a text addresses exactly what one’s thesis is about, it may in most likelihood end up serving as a something one builds on, writes against, or relates to in some other significant way. This requires that one really engages with the text, reading it very, very meticulously, for which a fresh head is absolutely preferable. In case I come across a text about tradition or spirits in Madagascar (which is exactly the subject of my research), it automatically gets a good morning time. If it’s, say, a book chapter about spirit possession in Niger, which could potentially be of some relevance for my work, it usually gets a time in the middle of the day. If it’s a news article from L’Express de Madagascar about sapphire fever, for instance, or the construction of new roads near my field site – both of which I would read to keep myself abreast of the societal context – then even a tired brain in the late afternoon will suffice.

An example of what meticulous reading may look like

Abstractness. By ”abstract” I mean heavy, conceptual or theoretical texts. Reading those takes a lot of concentration, in other words a fresh morning head that is capable of seeing potential links to one’s own material and perhaps theorise further. In my case, that could be reading Deleuze. If, on the other hand, it’s a far from abstract text, a completely straightforward exposition of, let’s say, a series of 18th century historical events in some other part of Madagascar than where I fieldwork, then it can easily sit somewhere in the afternoon.

Scholarly familiarity. By ”scholarly familiarity” I mean how well versed I am with the scholarly tradition the text is part of. I am a sociocultural anthropologist with some of my educational background in history of ideas, so for me anthropology is my primary home field followed by history and philosophy. Now and then I read texts from other disciplines, it may be from literary theory, cognitive science of religion, sociology, or environmental science. Furthermore, although I consider anthropology my academic home, there are obviously loads of subfields within anthropology (medical, visual, economic, and so on) that I am less or not at all familiar with.

Language proficiency. When it comes to language, I usually start with my third language which is French. If I am to read 17th century French or a fieldwork transcription in half Malagasy half French it demands not only frequent dictionary lookups but also a keen morning brain. The bulk of what most anthropologists read is undoubtedly in English, but for those of us with field sites in la Francophonie texts in French obviously take up a significant part of our mountain of literature, for me perhaps 50%. Many anthropologists find themselves in similar situations with a second or third language, such as Spanish, constituting much of their reading, thus allocating ‘energetic hours’ for such reading is paramount. In my case, my mother tongue is Danish (enabling me to also read Norwegian and Swedish without too much effort), next comes English, and thirdly comes – from beyond the Germanic-speaking sphere and therefore more challenging – French. Accordingly, I usually start the day with French texts, then English from around noon, and in the seldom case there is something in Scandinavian, I take it in the late afternoon.

Colour codes according to level of demandingness (in my case)

In reality, not every day begins waking up fresh, rested, and ready to take the entire span from red over yellow to green. In case I wake up less rested and continue to feel like a zombie even after a shower and several cups of coffee, I simply skip the red section and jump directly to the yellow. If the night has been even more unrestful due to, say, the children constantly waking each other up, I take an entirely green day. Then of course comes the fact, that the calendar is often populated with all sorts of events and appointments, both work-related things such as teaching or meetings as well as personal activities from dental appointments to parent-teacher conferences. Reading then has to be content with being in the gaps, and perhaps red reading should be skipped if today’s other activities are highly energy-consuming.

And some good habits

In case of whole days open for reading, it takes self-discipline to just sit and read for eight hours straight, but some good habits can break up the reading in smaller, more digestible chunks. The pomodoro technique appeared ridiculously rigid to me before I gave it a try and realised that it works surprisingly well for me both with writing and reading – not alone, but together with colleagues so that the social setup actually forces me out of my work during the 5 minutes breaks and thereby gives me what a break is supposed to give. Moreover, I make sure that I get up from the desk regularly by fetching coffee in the kitchen, picking up and returning books at the university library, alternating between standing and sitting at my cherished height adjustable desk, and by  taking a daily stroll in some green area in the vicinity after lunch.

While this short piece has dealt with prioritisation and temporal organisation of PhD reading, much remains to be said about actual ways of reading. Texts vary in their relevance, abstractness, language and scholarly frames of reference, as I have talked about, but with regard to the topic of how different texts call for different ways of reading, I will simply point to Joe Dumit’s brilliant piece How I Read. Happy reading!

Anders Norge Lauridsen is an anthropologist and a PhD student at the School of Global Studies (University of Gothenburg) conducting research on spirits, tradition, local history, and experimental methods in Anororo, Madagascar.