Reading and Writing; Speaking and Listening

Roddy Roediger

The literature. What are we to do about it? It mushrooms, it expands, it explodes. Every day there are more and more journals and books. Our desks pile high with books unread, journals unopened, manuscripts carefully downloaded and put in neat piles. What we can know becomes an increasingly small fraction of what there is to know, even in a narrowly defined field (never mind the field as a whole).

As mentioned in an earlier column, I am teaching a one-hour course on “The Psychology of Academia” and the class is reading essays on time management for beginning professors. Several authors in that volume have written about devoting time to writing and to keeping that time sacrosanct. However, no one advised beginning professors to set aside time to read. Maybe the authors thought that, of course, academics must read. No need to tell them that. But do we?

I recall a study published years ago in the American Psychologist (which, of course, I can’t find now – who can find all the stuff they have read?) in which subscribers to journals were asked, in the year after a full volume had been published, to check off on a table of contents which articles they had read from the previous year. Of course, there would doubtless be selection bias in who would respond, probably favoring readers as opposed to people who can’t be bothered opening their mail, but even so my recollection is that the answer the researchers found was rather dismal. The average response indicated that something like 3 percent of the articles had been read from the previous year.

My own strategy has generally been to skim critical journals, reading titles and abstracts, and occasionally looking at figures and tables. Of course, some articles I would read carefully, but to be honest, they were few in my earlier days and are fewer now. It’s too hard to really keep up. And I might do better than most.

Sure I read all day: e-mail (several hours worth), memos, dissertations, masters’ theses, vitas, letters, grant proposals, and many papers on which I serve as referee. After serving as associate editor and then editor of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition for eight years in the 1980s, it occurred to me that I had a rather firm grasp on the rejected literature in my field, but a rather hazy fix on the published literature. Thanks to constant reviewing, that remains true. Skimming the literature and savoring the occasional article directly in one’s area are the only ways to cope. I doubt that I am alone in this belief.

Still, we write and put all this time and effort into our papers. Word processing makes multiple revisions easy. In the 1970s and before, it was common for academics to write papers by longhand and have a secretary type the manuscript. The paper would be reviewed, a revision would be made to the original by hand, and the whole thing would be typed again. That was it, if one was lucky and got a paper in on one revision. Getting papers typed was a big deal, so care and thought went into revisions. It still does, but word processing has let us natter over manuscripts past the point of diminishing returns. (Could anyone really tell your 12th version from your 11th?) But stop and think about it – we are putting in all this effort into papers that, if we are lucky, maybe 10 percent of the readers will peruse with any care.

I’ve heard it argued that we should not look at our literature with the glorified title of “archival publications” (as if someone were really going to care about our precious thoughts in 40-50 years time) but more as newspaper articles that some will care about today, but that are likely to be forgotten tomorrow. Still, I find that hard to accept; we soldier on, believing that some of our writings will live on for a while after we depart. And some will: George Miller’s classic papers from 1956 (I like two of them very much, but only the “magical number” paper is famous) may be read for years to come. Some papers make it.

One can read the older literature as a prospector seeking to find great veins that can be mined for nuggets. On occasion, I assign my lab group the following task. I tell them to go back to a particular year/volume of the Journal of Experimental Psychology, say 1922 for one student, 1936 for another student, 1944 for a third student, and find the most interesting paper on learning and memory from that year. They read it and report to the lab group on what they find. Each student almost always finds some remarkable study that (usually) is forgotten today.

There is no good solution, really, to the burgeoning literature. There are only methods of coping. Skimming is one strategy, even for books. Take a book, even a 500-page monster, and say “If I really concentrate, what can I learn from this book in an hour?” The answer is a lot. Skim, look at chapter titles and headings, dip into the interesting parts, concentrate hard, and don’t be distracted. Evelyn Wood had a point, if she had referred to her teaching technique as skimming rather than reading. To paraphrase Yogi Berra, you can learn a lot, even by skimming.

Another strategy is listening. I have often tried to go to meetings and sessions in my area (human memory narrowly, cognitive psychology, broadly) and sit there and listen all day. Speakers have 15-20 minutes to get their points across, so ideas or findings that might consume 30 pages of journal space or several hours of reading time can be gleaned in 15 minutes. Going to talks and posters at the APS Annual Convention or other meetings is like getting a leg up on next year’s journals. It’s hard work and the mind can be overcome with PowerPoint slides, but it’s one way to cope.

The emphasis on listening leads to a related point – the need to be a good presenter. After all, at a professional meeting, an audience of 100-200 people in the field sits engaged before you, waiting to hear what you have to say. You have this thin slice of time to show your best stuff. Don’t blow it. Although old-timers can moan about the good old days (when it was possible to keep up, etc.), speaking is the one arena in which I believe the field has dramatically improved.

Thirty years ago there would be talks with no data, presentations with ceaseless handouts, people putting data on a blackboard, and so on. Confusion often reigned among members of the audience. Slides could be used, but were expensive and sometimes cumbersome, and projectors were unreliable. Then overhead projectors became accepted, along with slides. Although it took people a while to stop showing typewritten overheads that were impossible to read, researchers got the hang of the new technology. Now we have moved to PowerPoint presentations, which are often too slick or border on silly, presented too fast, hard to read, and distracting (when the speaker turns his/her back to the audience and reads the slides) or even nauseating (when a speaker repeatedly bounces a laser pointer over the slides with a jiggly hand). Still, the technology has forced people to be better organized and has doubtlessly improved the overall quality of presentations for most people.

It’s my observation that during the process of graduate education in most departments, professors repeatedly hammer home the critical importance of writing well, but most programs give much less attention to speaking well. The Compleat Academic has Daryl Bem’s great chapter on how to write an article, but no chapter on how to give a great talk. The APA gives us the behemoth Publication Manual (the 5th edition is 439 pages long!), but there is no similarly authoritative guide to giving presentations. Yet, in many ways, developing good speaking and presentation skills is equally important to good writing skills. More people might hear your work in a talk than read it in the journal.

Let me get back to where I started: our sprawling literature. I have been comforted many times by a memory from my graduate school days. It was the custom at Yale then – and maybe still today – for graduate students to run the colloquium series, from deciding whom to invite, to extending invitations, to setting up schedules. When the great speakers came through, the students rather than the faculty took them to dinner. So it happened that in or around 1972, Ulric Neisser found himself at dinner with four eager Yale graduate students. I’ll go out on a limb and recall that besides me, it was Jim Pomerantz, James Cutting, and Jim Neely. We were worrying over dinner about the burgeoning literature in our field. After all, Cognitive Psychology began publication in 1972 and Memory & Cognition in 1973. How could we keep up with all this new stuff, we wondered? (Our cares seem quaint now – the number of cognitive journals has probably quadrupled since then).

We discussed matters for a while, with Professor Neisser patiently listening. Finally, one of us screwed up the courage to ask him how he kept up with the literature. After all, he had recently published his great text, Cognitive Psychology, which named the field, so he must be omniscient. To our astonishment, the great man said words to the effect: “Actually, I don’t really worry too much about keeping up with the literature. I assume that if something really important happens, someone will tell me about it.” Luckily for us all, I have found that to be true.

Observer Vol.16, No.12 December, 2003

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