Unmotivated Reading as Work


One of the most circulated and discussed articles in online academic circles last week was Bruce Henderson’s Chronicle piece arguing for the importance of acknowledging reading as a key part of our scholarly labor. I really liked this article, less for his coining of the awkward neologism “consumatory scholarship” to describe the practice of academic reading, but more for his reminder that discussions of professional activity and labor needs to highlight that reading new (or new to you) scholarship is a vital aspect of academia. Sometimes such reading gets folded into measures of more typical measured productivity—reading can end up as citations in your own writing, hopefully augmenting and refining your ideas. Or new reading can be featured on a course syllabus, strengthening your teaching and perhaps leading to avenues for a new class. Or in a few instances, reading can be an officially endorsed end itself, as with faculty reading groups sponsored by administrations or programs to encourage collaboration or new avenues of interdisciplinary development.

But what of “useless reading,” by which I mean reading with no immediate purpose except to expand our intellectual horizons? Such work might eventually end up inflecting our own writing and teaching, but is not motivated immediately by that end. Without such useless—or better, unmotivated—reading, scholarly discovery would be meager, as it is usually through horizon-expanding exposure to something new and unexpected that we develop truly forward-looking ideas and perspectives. Additionally, without unmotivated reading to discover new ideas and fields, all of the books and articles that we are professionally encouraged/required to write would sit unread except by the few insular experts who are already invested in what we are saying (and probably already know what we think, reading only to root out their own citations to prove that they too are being read, or at least cited), rather than encouraging an expansion of knowledge and understanding that I think most academics hope to accomplish through our writing on our best days.

As Henderson and many commenters on his article attest, such unmotivated reading is rarely rewarded by academic administrations, and in the temporal juggle to prioritize how to spend our time, such work nearly always falls below the immediate demands to teach, attend meetings, grade, prepare classes, answer emails, attend conferences, do your own research, write your own essays and books, and review manuscripts for presses (your order of prioritization may vary!). This last item comes closest to unmotivated reading, as we read work that is motivated not by personal use value (for teaching or research), but because an editor asks us to. And this type of reading is on my mind a lot lately as I’m asking the entire internet to review my own manuscript (Complex TV – check it out!), and not surprisingly, most people aren’t taking the time to do so! (Of course, many people are, and I offer my sincere gratitude for those who have, or plan to do so.)

Last week I posted a survey about this open review process, and while there’s still time to fill it out, one partial result stands out: in the question about why people may not have read more of the manuscript, the option of “I have not had time to dedicate to reading” has received 100% agreement! A clarifying comment from one respondent expands this rationale:

With so many texts clamoring for my attention, I must be highly selective with my reading time. Consequently, I mostly read material that relates directly to a current project, whether that be a book, a journal article, a reading list for a course, etc…. Since we are all pressed to maximize the efficacy of our research time, how do we justify peer reviewing an in-progress manuscript? Where does that fit on the annual report many of us are required to submit to our academic deans? Reviewing a proposed manuscript for an academic press is considered academic service (labor), which my university rewards. How do I get my dean to recognize the legitimacy of academic labor on MediaCommons?

I have many thoughts in relation to this comment still to come, as I think it strikes at the heart of the conundrum that shapes the limits of experimentation in scholarly publishing: to get new things to count and matter, we have to invest ourselves into things that don’t count and don’t matter, at least under current systems of evaluation and labor legitimacy. But one key innovation of the open peer review process that we’re doing at MediaCommons is that it is open—if you read my book or other work, you can make your engagement public by leaving a trace of your labor through the breadcrumbs of comments. You can send your dean a link to your comments done for a publisher in the open, rather than just the line on your C.V. saying that you read an anonymous manuscript anonymously. You can converse with other reviewers in the comments, building scholarly networks and associations that might lead to something more traditionally “valued.” While such public reading will certainly be seen as unusual at first, if more of us embrace it in various forms, hopefully institutions will start to recognize what is lost when we’re not reading, or only reading behind closed doors.

Last week, my friend Kathleen Fitzpatrick came to Göttingen to give a typically great lecture on her work on open peer review and academic publishing. In the discussion, we turned to this topic of academic labor and the challenges of getting people to spend time reading new work, especially in an untested open review format. One of the members of the audience was a colleague of mine here at Lichtenberg-Kolleg in Göttingen—Wouter Hanegraaff, a Dutch scholar of religion and “Western esotericism”—who productively engaged in the conversation. He wrote to me this weekend announcing that in reaction to this conversation, he started a new blog called Creative Reading. Wouter’s epigraph is particularly fitting:

“As academics we are expected to write and publish, but we are not supposed to waste our time reading”. This remark by a colleague – as absurd as it is true – inspired me to start this blog. Yes: as an academic in the field of the Humanities I spend much of my time reading, and on this blog you can see how that works. If scholarly writing has any value at all, then the reading that precedes it deserves respect as an integral part of the creative process that leads to knowledge and understanding.

While the type of things Wouter reads about and researches are far from my field, I’m excited to read about his reading, learning from both what he is learning and how he is learning. I hope such endeavors can help fuel a trend of using the new tools of digital writing to make our old practices of reading more visible and valued. In that spirit, I have added a new category to this blog, Reading. I’ll use it to post my thoughts about what I have read, and hopefully encourage myself to prioritize unmotivated reading by shining a light on it.

Appropriately, my first bit of semi-motivated reading to highlight is the just-published draft of “Open Review: A Study of Contexts and Practices,” drafted by Kathleen Fitzpatrick and Avi Santo as part of a study group on open review that has been meeting for the past year. If you’re at all interested in academic publishing and/or digital scholarship, it offers the best overview of the practices, possibilities, and pitfalls of new models of open peer review as I’m practicing with Complex TV. I spent my morning reading it and offering feedback, and it was time well spent. Please read it (publicly) and join me in the comment threads!


2 Responses to “Unmotivated Reading as Work”

  1. 1 James Zborowski

    Inspiring stuff! Thanks.

  1. 1 Open-Access research, a promise not yet realized « flycz

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