Do You Read Like a Professor…or a Student?

A friend sent me an article that provoked this question, “Why You Read Like an Expert — and Why Your Students Probably Don’t.” It all comes down to what we do when we first pick up a book. For some of us, if it looks interesting (or is assigned) we turn to page 1 and begin reading. What distinguishes many professors is something called a “sourcing heuristic”–that is they follow a set of practices to assess the source they are considering reading. Many of them will flip over to the back cover, look at what it says about the author, who has endorsed the book, and who has published it. They will flip through the bibliography and look at who they cite (if it is a work of scholarship). They might pull out a smartphone and look search the author’s work–what else have they published, has it been widely reviewed and what did they say.

Why does this matter? It really doesn’t unless you care about the credibility of the author. But in an era where anyone can post something on the internet, or self-publish something that looks professional.

I suspect that some of you used a sourcing heuristic before following my blog. You looked at my “About” page, you Googled me, you looked at my Facebook page or LinkedIn page. You looked at what I’ve reviewed and written about to decide if that was of interest to you and if I had any clue what I was talking about. That’s fine with me–I do the same thing.

What I’ve reflected on is that most “rules of thumb” are not reflected upon but rather develop as we immerse ourselves in whatever disciplines or professions or serious interests we pursue. We learn of the publishers that publish the quality works in this field. We know the leaders or the “stars” and we either read their works or the ones they endorse. We find out who writes helpful reviews in our fields of interests, whether it be medicine or mysteries.

Something else that shapes our sourcing heuristic is our “community of discourse.” We all tend to have people who share our outlooks, our values, our beliefs and our natural inclination is to read the things they are reading.

What this raises for me is that sourcing heuristics can be walls or windows, depending on what our rules of thumb are and how deeply we’ve reflected upon these. Do we listen to important voices outside our fields or to those who hold a different perspective. Do we use sourcing heuristics to find the best of what is written by those in different communities of discourse, not just ours? After all, it doesn’t quite seem fair to read the best of what we like but inferior examples of perspectives that differ or disagree with ours.

The discussion in the article reflected the academic world. What I wondered is whether these folks practice any sort of sourcing heuristic for their more casual reading, if they do any! Does quality of writing matter here? I hope so. I suspect though that the sourcing heuristic that rules generally is that of the favorite author who reliable spins a page-turner.

Have you developed a sourcing heuristic? What are your rules of thumb in deciding whose work to read?

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