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Different reading strategies II: Engaging at the meso-level

In my most recent Twitter poll, I asked what I could write about that would be most helpful to my readers (many of which are undergraduate and graduate students). I was asked to continue writing about reading strategies. The previous post I wrote on was what I think is the fastest technique you can use (and one of the most effective if all you have time for is to write a rhetorical precis on the paper/book chapter. I often use the “skimming, scanning and scribbling” strategy when I’m really, really pressed for time and when I’m looking to see if I can reach conceptual saturation within a literature review I might be writing (see my recent post on literature reviews, conceptual synthesis matrices and annotated bibliographies).

Because I HAVE to be strategic when I read, I choose carefully which articles I engage with more in-depth. Recently, I’ve been reading on the human right to water, on street vendors and waste pickers, on the water and energy nexus, on field experiments, and on environmental NGO mobilization. So when I use my buffer day to catch up on reading, I select a few particular pieces that need to be engaged with in more in-depth, what I call “meso level engagement“. This means, articles or book chapters I do not have the time to read in painstaking detail, but that I recognize may have some important ideas and that I shouldn’t discount. These pieces, almost invariably, end up motivating me me to write an in-depth memorandum.

My process for doing meso-level reading is quite simple. In addition to applying the 3 steps model (abstract, introduction, conclusion) I also choose one or two visible, particularly important ideas per page. I don’t fret over the fact that some articles may have many great ideas in the same page (I will discuss when this happens later).

Regardless of whether you’re doing meso-level engagement reading or skimming and scribbling, I believe you should always be cross-linking ideas and authors. When I was reading for my doctorate’s comprehensive examinations I realized I needed to demonstrate that I had mastered a field. In graduate school, I was even more old-fashioned than I am now, and more analog, so I would write index cards filled with notes, ideas and summaries of specific articles, books and book chapters. Then I would lay them out on a table and map how Author A’s ideas on Concept B would relate to Author C’s ideas on the same Concept B, and how Concept B and Concept C aren’t all that different from each other.

In the case I show above, I found a key idea in the paper (Hayward’s 2016 global right to water piece) where I can easily see how it relates and connects to other themes I’ve been studying (in this case, Risse’s 2014 philosophical piece on the right to water as a moral duty to our planet). Because I can easily see the connections across both articles and sets of ideas, I can now more easily summarize what this (Hayward 2016) article is about. Note that I also link to other literature I’ve read, such as the planetary boundaries body of works.

For me, the litmus test of whether a paper is relevant enough to write a memo about is finding myself at the point where my highlighting is going to go beyond one or two key ideas per piece (see my tweet below). At this point I either start writing the memorandum in my laptop or write by hand in my Everything Notebook, under the plastic tab associated with this specific project (in this case, my Human Right to Water project).

For me, this meso-level engagement often ends up giving me the five or ten key articles, books or book chapters on a specific topic from where I can build a literature review. That’s because when I feel that I must write the memorandum either by hand or computerized (aka when the number of solid ideas I’m highlighting surpasses 2-3 per page) I almost always find numerous connections across themes, authors and topics. I also check the reference list to see if there are cross-references to other key articles.

This method does require a deeper level of engagement than skimming and scribbling, but it also provides a faster route to a solid literature road-map and to reaching conceptual saturation relatively quickly. As far as book chapters and books (and physical copies of journals) I do NOT scribble on the margins, but I use a similar technique to the one shown here by Dr. Lisa Schweitzer, with Post-It notes (mine aren’t as vehement, though!)

Hopefully this series of blog posts on reading strategies will be useful. I am going to send them to my own students!

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