Effective, Ethical Reading Strategy

You’re in college. You have a lot of reading to do. You may also have reading for work or internships. You are likely to graduate into a profession that requires a lot of reading. How do you handle the load?

How do you manage to read

  • effectively (for understanding),
  • ethically (for fair and careful use of other people’s words and ideas), and
  • efficiently (so as not to get bogged down?

At first glance, these three imperatives: effective/ethical/efficient might seem to be mutually exclusive. Researchers often become overwhelmed, lose focus, or pursue too many low-value “rabbit holes” in their reading.

Casey Boyle, a rhetoric and writing professor at UT Austin, has offered some useful strategies for managing the tensions between reading effectively, ethically, and efficiently. I have used these strategies myself, assigned them, and have heard repeatedly from students that they find them helpful. Boyle first offered these strategies in a blog post in 2016. This page distills and quotes from Boyle’s insights in what amounts to a handout that I can link to in all my courses; that’s why it’s here on my website.

Here’s the basic problem: researchers often get bogged down because they have just one reading strategy: reading everything front to back, first word to final word, as if it were a narrative into which the reader becomes immersed (think Harry Potter, your favorite fiction reading, sacred works, etc.).

Immersive reading, parsing or taking pleasure in each line or even each word as the work unfolds, is truly one of life’s most edifying experiences, but it is not necessarily the only or best reading strategy for writers who have to respond to or otherwise work with texts.

On the other hand, we also don’t want to be superficial skimmers who barely understand what we read, distort it through our lack of understanding, or can only identify “the main point” as a middle-school student might do.

Different situations require different strategies; this is a truism applicable to any human activity, whether it’s playing an instrument, driving a car, playing a sport, or, yes, even reading. How do researchers read effectively, ethically, and efficiently? As Boyle puts it, researchers need:

something like a reading ethics that is not the moralized imperative about reading all the things but a productive practice for how we read, especially texts that are academic or philosophic in nature. These ethics are far less concerned with what one ought to do and much more concerned with the practical and pragmatic techniques one might use for reading and/as responding. Such reading ethics do not disavow reading completely, accurately, or fairly. Instead, these reading ethics are interested in producing inventive responses.

Producing inventive, ethical responses to others’ texts is exactly what you will need to do repeatedly–in college and beyond. To help us to develop inventive, ethical responses, Boyle offers a six-step reading response strategy. I ask that you learn and apply this strategy.

Here is a visual summarizing this strategy, followed by explanations of the six steps that Boyle offers:

Six-step reading response as a table with word ranges
Six-step reading response, visualized and with word ranges

Step One: Writer’s Exigence (~75 words)

Why exactly did the writer bother to write at all? What’s the problem and cost? What is the writer trying to call attention to, advocate, explain, resist, extend?

Step Two: Writer’s Response (~75 words)

What, specifically, is the writer trying to do about the exigence?

Here, you articulate as best you can what the writer is offering in response to the exigence s/he established. What’s the intervention being made? This is usually easy to identify in a general way but harder to articulate in a productive way. When we get readings “wrong,” it’s most often a case of describing a writer’s response in terms not of their own.

Step Three: Crucial Terms and Concepts (~75 words)

[T]his step asks a reader to explicitly identity key concepts and terms. It’s vitally important that these terms/concepts be identified as they are the gears that make the essay machine move. These items connect an essay to a longer lineage of writers and working with these gears helps understand what kind of machine you’re working with. … We might want to write up a few sentences in response here in addition to a quick list of single words and terms.

Step Four: Core Citations (~75 words)

Here, readers should identify 3-4 key citations that a work uses. Key citation might be understood as the backbone of an essay without which a fine essay would crumble. Again, these are often easy to spot, but can be tricky if a citation is mentioned briefly but knowing where it occurs in the argument will best determine if that citation is key or not.

Step Five: Reader’s Questions (~100 words)

In this step [you, the reader] ask questions of a work. These might be questions of understanding–what does X mean by saying Y–or they might be questions of critique–how could X describe Z in such a way? . . . This response emerges long after a reader has already given as much effort as possible to understand from where a writer is coming and what a writer is bringing to the conversation. [Emphasis added].

Step Six: Speculate How Writer Would Respond to Reader’s Questions (~100 words)

In this step, we try our best to step into the writer’s shoes and respond to the questions we raise in step five. This is tough but shouldn’t be discounted. When we try to do this, we are being generous by allowing a work to have another say, extending it through our own thinking. This is not to say that we must always [fix] any problems we find with a work but that we try to be as generous and forgiving as possible in identifying weaknesses, limitations, problems that we might use in response to the work. To do otherwise would be unethical scholarship…

If you can learn to craft these kinds of reading responses, you will grow in your ability to understand perhaps dense, voluminous, or difficult texts; to keep a productive focus on your purposes for reading; and to work responsibly with texts produced by others.