How to Read an Article

TL; DR: My tips for How to Read an Article (PDF)

This year, I’m teaching a newly-revamped version of our Intro to Media Archives and Preservation course. (Download the syllabus as a PDF here.) There’s a lot of reading, which poses some key challenges: First of all, how do you assign a ton of reading without completely freaking your students out? How do you convey to already-overworked grad students that there’s value in re-reading something they read a year or two ago, or reading things that aren’t directly related to their research interests? And finally, how do you not offend people who have already graduated from college at least once already when you suggest that maybe they don’t know how to read in the first place?

From my own perspective as a mid-career professional, I think it’s GREAT that the last decade or so has seen so many new books and articles fleshing out a canon of professional literature that used to begin and end with Anthony Slide’s Nitrate Won’t Wait and Penelope Houston’s Keepers of the Frame. I am jealous that so much of the stuff I had to learn the hard way–by digging through bound volumes of barely comprehensible technical journals that hadn’t been digitized or fully indexed, asking around amongst senior colleagues, enduring 20 minutes of mansplaining to get 12 seconds worth of actual new information, trial and error when no one was watching, etc.–has now been thoroughly synthesized by very smart people and expressed in whole chapters of (compelling and witty, painstakingly researched) prose that you can just download from the library and read in the Kindle app on your smartphone.We’ve come such a long way since I was starting out in this field, and there has never been a better time to be studying this topic!

From the perspective of a graduate student who only just found out that you can actually go to school for this, though, I can see where the tidal wave of readings could be really daunting. Because so much domain knowledge has now been neatly packaged by scholars and practitioners, there’s an increased expectation that domain workers will be well-versed in ALL of that knowledge. When professionals already working in the field pushed back against the creation of graduate-degree-granting programs in media preservation back in the early 2000s, one of the concerns they commonly expressed was that (to paraphrase, in the voice of a cartoon farmhand) “these snot-nosed kids with two years of book-learnin’ are going to run around and take all the good jobs from folk like me, with my twenty years of good old-fashioned bench-learnin’, but I guess that’s not good enough for anyone anymore, now that we got all these here fancy dee-grees and peer-reviewed journals and such.” They might go easier on the snot-nosed kids if they actually looked at the book list in my syllabus for this quarter. Two years of book-learning can really be a great deal, especially if you’re doing it full-time.

As rich as the canon on media archives now is, there are still many blind spots and gaps in the written knowledge of our field. A lot of the literature is still pretty cinema-centric and/or focused on film as a physical artifact (or, in some cases, cinema-studies oriented and/or focused on “the archive” as a concept, rather than a physical place or functional institution). How much does a student who’s interested in, say, the preservation of complex, time-based media in the context of personal medical records really want to know about the history of silent cinema and the percentage of early films that are known to have been lost? Why should they bother with readings that approach their research areas only tangentially?  Well, in short, because they will have to ground their narrowly focused, groundbreaking research in some sort of larger intellectual context. If they’re going to be the ones writing that new component of our canon, it will help to see how others have approached (or revisited, or refined) the broad-strokes descriptions of media preservation history, theory and practice. The cinema-centered, film-focused, existing literature has many flaws, but still presents a complex enough picture that I can use it as a starting point for extrapolation and talking about what’s missing, suppressed, under-researched, or still unknown.

Now, to the question of teaching graduate students how to read: One aim of this course is to provide students with comprehensive foundational knowledge about the history/ies of media archives in the U.S. and abroad, and the ways in which fundamental archival theories are applied to moving image collections and preservation practices (or foregone entirely in favor of models borrowed from libraries, archives, or business). As a gateway elective for the Media Archival Studies specialization track in our MLIS program, though, it also needs to function as a first-term orientation to graduate-level reading, writing, and thinking–to set expectations high, and also provide tools to ensure students can meet those expectations. So I’m opting to acknowledge that yes, there is a tidal wave of literature out there; and yes, people (including me) are going to expect you to have read all of it by the time you finish this degree program; but no, that doesn’t mean you have to open the book at page one and read straight through to the final words of the conclusion. In his syllabi, my UCLA colleague Jean-François Blanchette recommends, among resources, the excellent “How to Read a Book” essay by Paul Edwards, which presents various methods for getting through a 300-page book in 6-8 hours. The trick, I would say, is not to drink the tidal wave, but to surf it. I’ve gathered my own tips and reflections on how to read scholarly literature here–along with Edwards’ piece, it’s something I’ll be offering to students this term as a way to survive my class with sanity intact. Because not doing the readings is just not an option.