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Can academic reading be healing?

So often academic reading is experienced as a chore, or an anxiety, or an extractive industry. You might skim, mine, or categorise your reading. You might read to critique, to look for the gaps. Perhaps you are looking forward to the day when machine learning tools can do your reading for you. Perhaps you would like to keep up with the wider reading in your field, but don’t feel like you have time. All of these mean that we often have a fraught relationship with reading.

Of course there are some direct ways that we might find healing in our academic reading. We can literally find information that offers a solution to a mental, physical or practical problem. It can be affirming to see positive representations of people like you or your work in publications. It can be reassuring to see other scholarship confirming you are on the right track.

That’s not what I’m talking about today. Today I’m circling back around to engage with Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s ‘reparative’ reading strategies, as well as to talk about how I make generous reading work in real life.

Reparative reading

In her fabulous chapter in Touching Feeling (1997) subtitled ‘You’re so paranoid, I bet you think this Introduction is about you‘,* Sedgwick sets out a dichotomy of ‘paranoid reading’ vs ‘reparative reading’.

Paranoid reading is exactly how we are trained to read as academics. We read with an eye for what is missing, we don’t trust anything that is claimed without solid proof. We are looking for reasons to reject articles, we are looking for issues that need resolving in feedback. Doctoral examiners take very seriously the responsibility that they must read theses with what has been called ‘a hermeneutic of suspicion’*–reading texts with skepticism, doubting the author’s intent, looking for places where the author is deluding themselves or concealing weaknesses.

When we are reading to assess, as when we mark, peer review or examine, we are required to use this paranoid reading strategy. ‘The examiner doesn’t know you and doesn’t trust you’ is a basic piece of advice I keep giving doctoral candidates over and over. The purpose of assessment reading is about forestalling pain (Sedgwick is drawing on the psychoanalytic theory of Melanie Klein here): we want to stop bad things happening in research, we don’t want to give qualifications to people who shouldn’t be trusted. This is essential, when it is essential.

But we are not always reading for assessment.

When I am reading for academic purposes, sometimes, yes, I am looking for gaps or cracks or issues. But more often, I am reading to understand what other people think, I am looking for interesting ways of tackling a problem, or insightful ways to see a solution. In those cases, paranoid reading strategies don’t help much, when we are, shall we say (again using Sedgwick on Klein) seeking of pleasure, when we are looking for good stuff.

To start reading from a position of looking for the potential for ‘pleasure’ has, Sedgwick argues, two implications:

[an] empathetic view of the other as at once good, damaged, integral, and requiring and eliciting love and care

and

the often very fragile concern to provide the self with pleasure and nourishment in an environment that is perceived as not particularly offering them.

(Sedgwick, Paranoid Reading, Reparative Reading, p. 137)*

It is worth noting that, at no point does reparative reading assume there are no gaps, no issues, no problems.* Instead, it constitutes a relationship between imperfect text and imperfect reader in which ‘care’ is the defining modality, and for which ‘pleasure and nourishment’ are the defining goals.

We may have been taught, I certainly was taught, that to take such a trusting, hopeful, helpful, positive attitude is to be ‘sappy’ or ‘anti-intellectual’ (Sedgewick, 1997, p. 150).

But I have learned to be much more generous as an academic reader through the process of reading with others, and this leads me to the second of my sections.

Reading together

I have been reading the drafts of doctoral candidates who were sitting right in front of me for over a decade now. As an academic advisor, writing coach or doctoral supervisor, it’s not hard to read their drafts with generosity.* They are sitting right there, being nice people, honestly struggling to get their research into writing. I work hard to see how the research they are passionate about can be best reflected in the text. I have no trouble being ‘reparative’, supportive, helpful, in such circumstances.

But when I am reading the work of senior, established, published scholars… my reading strategies tend to be much more negative.

The best place to learn to read positively, is, though, the same thing that helped me read student work positively. I need to be there with others. Having another person in the room also committed to generous reading, challenges me to be more positive, and interrupts my negative, un-generous assumptions.

So often, ‘ugh, how could they not include this obvious citation?’ or ‘wow, this feels really simplistic’ are gut feelings rather than measured judgements. Being judgemental (rather than judicious) gets in the way of me seeing how scholars from other disciplines or stages of research are able to bring insights that I might miss in my rush to feel ‘sophisticated’ or ‘expert’ or, to be honest, ‘clever’. When I take a breath and look again, I often find something to value in the writing.

Generous readings don’t have to be purely positive readings. Sometimes, as I read generously, I find something that pushes my thinking forward even though I don’t agree with it, or it isn’t quite how I would approach it. Generosity is about largesse, about expansion, about inclusion, and thinking broadly and openly gives space for better thinking.

And sometimes the article is just bad, and I hate it, having someone to share my feelings with helps me to feel better. In this case, reading together is reparative, not of the text but of ourselves. Universities are often environments that do not particularly offer care or pleasure or nourishment, and reading with others can be spaces where such care is made possible.

I ‘read together’ in a number of ways: sometimes with my co-authors, sometimes via Twitter, sometimes with you on the blog (this ‘you’ is both an imagined audience and is made up of real people who I know, and both ‘you’s are so important for my reading and writing, thank you!).

But perhaps the most consistent strategy I’ve found for generous reading is to belong to an academic reading group. For years now, I’ve been a member of the Idea of the University Critical University Studies reading group run by Dr Jeanette Fyffe and Dr Tai Peseta. It’s a loose coalition of readers who meet fortnightly, and sometimes I’m there every time and sometimes I can’t get to it (I haven’t made a meeting in 2022 yet!) Members of that group, including Dr Jamie Burford (drawing on approaches including Sedgwick’s), advocate for generous readings and I’ve been learning from that. More recently, I’ve started a reading group to explore texts related to residential colleges and wellbeing with Dr Fi Belcher, and here we are moving in a reparative direction, less in terms of reading the texts with empathy, and more for the ways in which the texts allow us to expand and receive empathy, for our students and colleagues and ourselves working in often traumatic situations.

For years, I’ve been advocating writing in groups, like Shut Up and Write. It turns out, reading in groups is also a great strategy. Pick a group that matches your time, interests and reading style. Or start your own: Fi and I are unashamed that we started our group so we would finally have a deadline to get those books and articles out of the ‘to be read’ pile! Next up is Sara Ahmed’s Complaint which I have been meaning to read since it came out in August last year.

All of this is just to say*

Reading can seem like a luxury or a chore in academic life. And we need to do our chores, but we can also afford to have our little luxuries, our care of ourselves and of each other.

Or perhaps, we need to give ourselves permission, to hear the command, to see in some of the best academic reading that is waiting for us to have time for, that thing that Audre Lorde writes in ‘Poetry Is Not a Luxury’:

It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams towards survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action.

Audre Lorde, ‘Poetry is Not a Luxury’, in Sister Outsider (1984), p. 26.

Let’s do it. Let’s read. Let’s heal and be the healing.

Notes

* The joke in Sedgwick’s title is a pun on Carly Simon’s 1993 hit ‘You’re so vain, I bet you think this song is about you‘.

* by Hans-Georg Gadamar (1960), Paul Ricœur (1965) and others.

* In the second quote Sedgwick is drawing on Foucault’s ‘care of the self’, and that we might call more commonly now ‘self-care’ after Audre Lorde, A burst of light (1988).

* Indeed, Sedgwick writes her chapter from the place of the HIV crisis, homophobia, racial violence, and her own advanced breast cancer.

* ‘Generous reading’ has not been formally defined (see Lucy K Spence (2010)) but I’m working towards a version that is less ‘uncritical’ than that described by Spence.

* There is a joke here about the William Carlos Williams’ poem (about the plums, you know the one)

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

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