Tim Burke teaches his students how to read

Now that the school year has begun, I thought it would be interesting to discuss the question of student reading habits.  Tim Burke at Easily Distracted has a permanent post called, “How to read in college” that I really like. 

 For one thing, Burke effectively models the reading-process he’s after with his own writing.  This handout  clearly emerged from his own teaching process, and his need to codify what he’d undoubtedly repeated to students every semester.  And I think that these are the kinds of good, concrete descriptions and explanations my students require to complete the work for my courses. 

TB is using the old pedagogue’s tricks of paradox and redefinition, to show students that the most important thing that they can learn to do in college is “skim.” 

Skim?  Isn’t that what we already do, Mr. Professor? 

Oho, when I say “skim,” I mean something very different than what you are already doing:

The first rule, in some ways the only rule, is skim, skim, skim. But skimming is not just reading in a hurry, or reading sloppily, or reading the last line and the first line. It’s actually a disciplined activity in its own right. A good skimmer has a systematic technique for finding the most information in the least amount of time.

In a step-by-step reading of Benedict Anderson, TB shows how his definition of “skimming” entails something closer to selective reading, or maybe selective attention, designed to “find[ ] the most information in the least amount of time.”  This is a trick that we (often) learn to do unconsciously, but our students haven’t mastered yet.  That’s because they haven’t gone through processes like master’s essays and comprehensives.  But how to teach students who aren’t even familiar with the notion of a thesis or a signpost?  This is the kind of bridge even a bright and successful comp student needs when moving into courses requiring significant amounts of reading.

The most intriguing thing for me, though, is how Burke, a professor of African history, acknowledges at the end that these “skimming” techniques will not do for literature or literary classes.  Fair enough, and good for Burke for acknowledging the existence of multiple modes of reading.  But how do we (meaning lit profs) teach our students this “trick” of summary and selective attention for narrative or lyric texts, for example?  When we ask students what this poem of Dryden’s is “about,” what kinds of answers are we looking for?


2 responses to “Tim Burke teaches his students how to read

  1. Dave, thanks for this information and link. I’ll be reaching for it soon, I think. I can’t comment about the central question–that is, how do lit profs teach students to skim–but I can comment about the extent that TB’s techniques can take students in a history class. One of the classes I teach most frequently is “History and Theory” and students read major theoretical works and then historians’ uses of particular theories. How do we teach students to skim Foucault or Marx or Braudel? Personally, I don’t and suggest that students must read those texts very carefully. But the historians we encounter–that’s another story. They get lost in the minutiae and can’t find the thesis of the argument. They think some random reference to an Act passed in 1761 is central to a Thompson article, but they can’t get to the heart of his argument OR his particular uses of theory. The art of the good skim (not the I read Harry Potter in 17 hours skim–which I have been known to do myself) but the skim where you gut the book / article of essential information is something lost on many of our students and I often spend an entire semester teaching them how to read critically.

  2. dave mazella

    Hey Sharlene,

    When I think about the various “modes” of reading in different classes, I always have in mind this very interesting article by one of the mainstays of C18-L, Russ Hunt, at


    called, “Modes of reading, modes of reading Swift.” He and a colleague developed a series of articles (see the bib) about point-driven reading (which is how I’d characterize Tim’s advanced “skimming” technique), as opposed to narrative reading (your glutting on Harry Potter) and so on. It’s lit-oriented, but should be applicable to your thinking about teaching.

    Take a look and tell me what you think.

    Best, DM