An argument for reading more and writing less

With so much pressure to publish, when will we ever have time to read and reflect? asks Christiaan De Beukelaer 

January 31, 2020
Person sitting and reading in sunlight
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As an academic, I find writing an immense privilege. It’s a conversation that is slowly and carefully crafted. It is a form of conversation that exists beyond the frenzy of 24/7 news coverage, beyond auto-refreshing social media and beyond the shouting that often emerges in group conversations.

As a writer, I can conjure up conversations between people across space and time. Think of it as a dinner party with people who are both dead and alive. Although unlike an actual dinner party, the conversation is well-organised, respectful, kind-hearted and slow.

A writer, however, is never solely a writer. They must be an avid reader too. And they must balance being a dinner party’s creator with their role as a silent listener to other conversations. Only with this balance, and building on other conversations, can we contribute most meaningfully to knowledge and understanding beyond our own written dinner parties.

However, this requires great humility. And owing to ever increasing institutional pressures to publish as much as we possibly can, this humility is increasingly difficult to practice.

On 26 November, UCL professor Uta Frith published the article “More Speed, More Haste, More Stress, More Waste,lamenting the detrimental effects of academic over-publication. One of the solutions she proposed is to restrict the number of journal articles any researcher should be allowed to submit in any given year.

Her suggestion hardly comes as a surprise. Shortly after receiving the 2013 Nobel Prize in physics, Peter Higgs made two important observations about publication pressures.

First, he mentioned that he would have never been able to establish a career in the current publication-focused academic climate because his publication “output” was quantitatively sub par by any contemporary measure. Second, he said he would not have been able to achieve his ground-breaking publication that led to the eventual discovery of the Higgs boson in the current environment.

Both these authors work in the hard sciences, cognitive neuroscience and physics, respectively. And within their disciplines, publication outputs have increased well beyond what I am used to at the University of Melbourne’s Faculty of Arts, where I work.

This is why I want to add a reflection on the publication-obsessed world of academic research from my disciplinary perspective, which sits somewhere between the humanities and the social sciences: the importance of reading, of verstehen.  

The importance of reading brings up the paradox of writing: the more we collectively write, the less we’re collectively able to read. Because the more time we individually spend writing, the less time we individually have to read.

Recently, a colleague admitted to me that they only read article abstracts simply because they lack time to read full articles anymore. In disciplines where writing (and reading) involves more than communicating findings in a technical manner, this worries me.

At the same time, when I recently submitted my promotion application to senior lecturer (this is roughly the equivalent of going up for tenure in the US system), my application did not include any published work. Simply because the promotion procedure does not require it. That’s right, while the promotion committee seemed to care a great deal about how much and where I’ve published, they were happy to assess the quality of my work by those proxies alone. This too worries me.

I agree with calls to publish fewer texts. And applaud commitments to quality over quantity.  But rather than simply restricting output – which is one of the few areas in which junior faculty can distinguish themselves in the hunt for a real job – I believe we need a change of culture. We need a culture that values reading and listening on equal terms to publishing and speaking.

A culture of restraint and self-regulation, however imperfect, is already in place. When writing for peer-reviewed journals, the unwritten rule is that for every paper you submit, you need to review four papers written by other authors.

We need more such expectations. Expectations to read (and thus listen) more. And expectations to write (and thus speak) less. The ratio should be far greater than 4:1.

To be honest, I am not sure how this would work in practice. But I would like to be part of a different academic culture. One in which, for example, there is a real expectation that we read each other’s work; actually read it.

Because much of the reading we’re able to do is the equivalent of listening to respond, not listening to understand; it’s listening to make your own point, rather than to truly understand someone else’s perspective.

And that’s a big challenge in a world that is, according to Pope Francis, “mostly deaf” – as he argues in the documentary that Wim Wenders made about him. 

But what I propose is simple: let’s listen more and speak less; read more and publish less. Or as Pope Francis said: “talk little, listen a lot, speak just enough”.

At the risk of tanking my own career, I am trying to listen and read much more. Which means I may publish little in the future, but hopefully just enough.

Christiaan De Beukelaer is a senior lecturer in cultural policy in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne.

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