How much is too much?

January 18th, 2011 § 1 comment

A recent study at the University of Chicago which tested the effects of reading on rats has shown that yes, it is possible for there to be “too much reading.”  The team of (Electro)Biologists published findings indicating that rats assigned more than 400 pages of contemporary English-language fiction in one week could not be relied upon to answer even simple questions about their reading consistently, while those assigned eighteenth or nineteenth century literature in similar quantities died.  (Rats assigned mediaeval or early modern literature did not seem to alter significantly from the expectations of scholars in the field.)  Perhaps the most startling result however was in the case of rats assigned large amounts of critical theory.  Those assigned Marxist theory divided into hostile groups (or “factions”), those assigned feminist theory ceased participating in the experiments, and those assigned psychoanalytic theory exhibited no alterations in behavior (research on this last group is ongoing).

When questioned about the implications of this study for human beings, the researchers provided a clear series of strategies for managing reading, aimed at individuals enrolled in graduate school in a reading-heavy field such as the Humanities.  Their recommendations are summarized below.

The “odd man out” strategy: If one is enrolled in three reading-heavy classes, they might focus on two of them and take the third a little easier.  This strategy is useful for those classes of which only one aspect is re;event to the student’s primary interests, so that the other aspects of the class may be lost without being missed too much, and an essay may still be produced at the end.

The “cherry picking” strategy: The savvy student may be able to locate the most essential components of the assigned reading to their own work without regard to what class they are for.  The advantage is a consistently high dose of relevant reading, but the disadvantages are numerous.  The student misses out on the advantages of the instructor’s pedagogical vision, they fail to encounter new material that might radically affect their thinking, and they might miss so much of one class that they have no essay to write at the end.

The “speed reading” strategy:  While the most labor intensive of the three, this strategy has the advantage of a particularly low loss rate.  The student employing this strategy simply reads most everything very quickly, only slowing down to actually think about what they are reading when something interesting pops up.  When employed in conjunction with the “odd man out,” this strategy seems to be the most effectively useful to many successful students.  The combination involves speed reading one course while reading the other two more carefully.  Or one might do this while also cherry picking, so that select other texts from the other courses are also speed read.

The most important point made by the report was the following one: if a student attempts to read every word assigned without at least speed reading some of it, they will rarely succeed from week to week.

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