I Learned to Read in Graduate School

I didn’t learn to read until I was in graduate school. Because of Noam Chomsky.

Sure, I was in the highest reading group in first grade, and I certainly had to read books in high school and write essays about them.  In college I was reading my textbooks and passing my classes and I thought I was doing pretty good.

But it wasn’t until my second year of gradschool that I actually learned how to put knowledge written on the page into my brain.  Before that, I had been reading negligently.

My mama tells a story about how when I was very little, less than two years old. I used to guess long words by the first few letters, and then relative length of a word.  So once when I was waiting in the car, I read a sign in the parking lot of the old Point Tavern in Tumwater and got scared.  The sign seemed to read “CHILDREN TO GO” and I immediately asked my mama, “where’s dad, I want to go get him.”  My mama, because she is hilarious, told me I couldn’t go in there, because Russians.  The thought of Russians terrified me, what with their insane recursive dolls and their unnatural love of literature.

The chicken was really good there. No actual children to go. Also, no actual Russians.

There were no actual Russians at the Point Tavern in the mid-1970s, they were just a boogyman token, meant to keep me out of the Point Tavern. A few minutes later, my dad came back to the car with a bag of fried chicken, and my mama told the story to my dad about how I had misread the CHICKEN TO GO sign.

Another time, in high school Honors English, Mrs. M had a test question based on READING, something she hadn’t gone over with us in class.  The question was, what were peering at us in the night like red eyes in the Red Badge Of Courage? The answer, of course, was enemy campfires.  Everybody had gotten it wrong except for April W. (and maybe Jonothan C.) April gave some ridiculous explanation for her correct answer; she said she remembered the image from her reading.

Remembered it from reading? Gross! red badge of courage

Teenagers are disgusted by things they don’t understand.  Anyway, I wondered if remembering something you read was a learnable skill.  For most of my life I had been reading everything and remembering nothing. I used to laugh when I’d get reading assignments, because I would do the reading, and understand nothing about what I had read until we discussed it in class.  That’s how I scraped by.

Finally, I found myself in my second year of graduate school, in an advanced syntax seminar, reading Chomsky’s Minimalist program.  Our prof asked each of us to lead a discussion on a chapter.  This is a terrifying task to someone who has gotten through life without any retention. I needed to find a way to retain what I read.

So what I did was to fire up my Microsoft Word and set it to outline mode.  I numbered each paragraph on a page with a pencil.  Then  I would read a paragraph from the Minimalist Program, and summarize each paragraph with a single sentence, carefully noting the chapter and paragraph number.   Occasionally I’d have to add a second sentence to include more detail, but the premise was this:  every paragraph has a point.  My job is to paraphrase that point.

The process was tedious at first, but the effect on my comprehension was IMMEDIATE.  When I got to seminar, I went from being the guy who was faking it to the guy who had understood the reading.  My classmates would later tell me that I seemed thoughtful and well-prepared for each seminar; something I had never been accused of before.

Eventually, I got pretty fast at summarizing paragraphs that I had read.  My mindset shifted; reading was no longer something I did with my eyes.  I came to think of reading as something I did with my fingers on a keyboard.  If I hadn’t outlined a passage I didn’t consider the passage as read.

At the time, I never had time to review my reading notes outline. I would type out the outline and then hit save and then never see it again  I was always too slammed to find time to open them again.  However, my retention had improved so much that I didn’t actually need to look at my notes a second time, and I was aware of this.  Apparently processing the information a single time by summarizing each paragraph was enough to make it stay in my brain.  I had finally learned the secret of retention, six years after April W.’s enemy campfires glowing red like eyes in the night.

Discussion questions.  What the hell is the point of reading if you can’t retain?  Also, why hadn’t anyone taught me to take reading notes before?  Also am I a total freak show for needing to summarize and type in order to understand Chomskey?

Ask me later about how I learned to take notes.

4 thoughts on “I Learned to Read in Graduate School

  1. Pingback: 1p – I learned to read in graduate school – Exploding Ads

  2. As with many (most?) things in life, “it depends” has to enter the discussion. In this case, what do you need from the reading you are doing?
    If you need to write a / lead a detailed discussion of a text, a paragraph-by-paragraph recording of your understanding seems warranted.
    If you are reading a text on mathematics, you might not summarise anything and spend an order of magnitude more time working on a proof / understanding the mechanics of what was written.
    Paul Graham of Y Combinator fame has an interesting view on this.
    Taking Graham’s example of Constance Reid’s Hilbert, if you are reading it with Graham’s (partial, I assume) purpose of furthering your model of the world, taking very few notes makes sense. If you are writing a paper, taking detailed notes makes sense.

    In short, I would start by looking at a structure like this: (off the top of my head, very little thought has gone into the contents.)

    | Main aim > | Influence mental | Background for | Discuss in academic | Enjoyment |
    |————————— | model of world | deeper study | environment | |
    | Text type ⱽ | | | | |
    | Novel | No notes | ? | Detailed notes | No notes |
    | “Light” history | Few notes | Few notes | Does it make sense? | No notes |
    | Detailed/technical history | Few notes | Detailed notes | Detailed notes | Few notes |
    | Theoretical, academic | Few/detailed notes | Few/detailed notes | Detailed notes | Does it make sense? |

  3. I learned to read studying for the lsat. I could always retain but the lsat method allowed me to read for arguments: First, last sentences of paragraphs, circle words that signal a rhetorical turn like but and however, summarize arguments in margins. I could plow through stacks of articles so quickly and could see where there was no argument. Just blathering. Thanks, LSAT!

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