Revisiting deep and surface reading

Daphne Loads  When it comes to thinking about reading at university we often rely on easy oppositions between deep and surface approaches.  Deep is good, surface is bad, the logic goes.  And the language sucks us in.  Surely we want to promote the kind of deep reading that leads to in-depth reflection and analysis?  And to discourage the superficial reasoning and shallow thinking that comes with surface reading?  This idea is everywhere.  We warn each other not to judge a book by its cover.  We tell our students to read for meaning and understanding and not to get too hung up on the individual words and sentences.

However, like all metaphors, this one has its limitations.  It can lead us to think of the linguistic features of a text – things like the choice of vocabulary or the rhythm of the phrasing – as being on the surface, and therefore unworthy of our attention.  After all, the real meaning lies beneath, doesn’t it?  Reading becomes a matter of getting through layers of language to reach the ideas inside.  We rush to remove and discard the packaging in order to get at the contents.  Words are merely the husk; meaning is the nutritious kernel.

cateysBut, of course, it’s not that simple.  The words a writer chooses are part and parcel of what s/he says.  This applies to academic papers and policy documents, just as it does to poems and novels.  For this reason, sometimes it’s worth taking time to linger on the surface of a text, appreciating the play of light and shade, the colours and textures of words, the reflections that bounce off their forms.  Take, for example, this extract from an academic paper.  In it, the writer talks about her difficulties in finding a way of incorporating the self into research that is somehow found or revealed through writing:

This trouble started when I began searching in earnest for a methodological framework that encouraged me to write richly of my experience as an academic developer, as itself an act of research.  Indeed, I was seeking both a scholarly argument and a turn to writing that might value this ‘self-knowledge’ of its own accord, neither as a contaminant to that disciplinary academic Other (Krieger, 1991), nor a supplement to it, nor an escape from it.  I found autoethnography late one evening in the quiet of the university library (Peseta,2007).

Nothing here is superficial.  Notice how the writer’s words act out her meanings.  The first two sentences show us the trouble that she is in.  Caught up in thickly-matted phrases, she hardly knows which way to turn.  She seems to lose herself between the two repeats of “as.”  It seems unlikely that any framework will offer her the encouragement she is looking for.  Her appeals to traditional authority in the italicised Other, and the reference to Krieger, lend her no support.  Then, just as the word “escape” appears, she manages to slip away.  That third sentence comes as a relief: she has found a way through.

It may seem strange to dwell on the surface of academic writing in this way.  Such close reading has its place in literary studies, perhaps, but not in the reading of journal articles?  And yet it seems to me that when we pay due attention to language, the surface/deep binary melts away.  By re-engaging fully with the texts we read, we can discover fresh insights and ask important questions.  The extract above helps me to think about the nature of academic writing.  Why is it such a struggle?  And that in turn leads me to think more carefully about reading.  Who am I as a reader?  Where do I focus my attention?  What is my contribution to meaning?

Or am I trying to be too deep?


Peseta, T. (2007) Troubling Our Desires for Research and Writing within the Academic Development Project International Journal for Academic Development 12(1): 15-23


One comment

  1. Really interesting Daphne. I often think that ‘reading’ involves so many different things that both surface and deep approaches and everything inbetween are important skills to develop. I was thinking about the different ways that I read a scientific paper – sometimes I just skim it to get an overview, sometimes I read to learn about the methodology, somethimes I get inspiration for the type of language, or the way of explaining things that is used, sometimes I want to use it as a resource for references and a way into the literature in the field. Sometimes I even want to find out what to read the results section to discover what the authors found out!

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