A Phenomenon About Speed Reading.

I read with only one gear:  First gear.

I invested some time in a speed reading book a few years ago and the only thing I can remember is that when I tested my reading speed, I realized that I would almost certainly get flagged for a learning disability if someone were to evaluate me.  To be clear, my comprehension is superb. (Modesty aside.) But the slow speed would surely catch someone’s attention if they were evaluating me.

The speed reading book didn’t hold my attention.  I enjoy hearing every word I read in less than real time–mulling over any ideas that catch my attention.  I was done with the voluminous readings of grad. school, so I didn’t really see any advantage to investing my time on learning speed reading.  I went on to other things.

Fast forward to today:  I’m using my new online text for two sections of Music Appreciation this summer.  It’s a LOT of writing for the students and a shit ton of reading for the teacher (the slow-ass reader, me.)  

I’ve been gradually working on faster reading techniques over the past year and I thought I had a pretty good handle on how I was processing information.  While the goal of a course or a text is to get the students to dig in and explore each topic, the reality is that too many students are enacting convoluted contortions to minimize the amount of time they have to spend on the class work.  I’m not going to get started into that rabbit hole today, but I think any of us teachers will admit that it’s frustrating sometimes.

Meanwhile, back in my teaching garden:  The result is I’m trying to balance between accidentally reading too fast (because I’m learning the weird sensations of reading very fast) and my chronic tendency to revert to a …  Beautiful. Comfortable. Slow. …reading gait.

That’s all been exposition to set up the scene last week.  In a quiz, I asked the students to describe a creativity analytical tool I use called, “Question Theory.”  The quiz asked something like, “ What is Question Theory, and how could you use it in your own life?” A surprising number of students don’t recognize the concept from the text and proceed to invent an elaborate (sometimes humorously so) original way to combine the ideas of Questions and Creativity.

You might have guessed from the early directions of this essay that I accidentally read a student work too fast and made the terrible error of mistaking it for nonsense.  She was actually that rare student who seems to be excited about an idea from the course, and she ran with it.

In my defense, I think she technically didn’t answer the basis of the question.  In her apparent exuberance, she skipped right over the answer to, “What is Question Theory?” and wrote rather eloquently about some meta-aspects of its use.  This is not meant as a criticism–her answer demonstrated an unmistakable understanding of the definition she had skipped. [It was very interesting!]

But I missed it!  I had never encountered something like this before while reading at that faster pace.  I was driving faster than my headlights. [Metaphors!]

A day or so after grading her assignment, I got an email from this student arguing that she should not have gotten a zero on that question!  She had charts and graphs, footnotes and citations all supporting her claim for those 12 points! [That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but she really was adorably eager to support her case–and she did so thoroughly.]  

I sent her an apology and started watching out for her essays as I (more slowly now) got back to my voluminous grading chores.  When her name came up, the work was consistently excellent. Seeing her name appear in the rotation began to make me smile while wondering, “What is she going to write this time?”

I called my friend Amy who is a creative writing teacher and (so I learned) reads 900 WORDS A MINUTE!  Ridiculous.

So I says to Amy, “I’ve been experimenting with reading at faster speeds and I made a big mistake, I had no idea that, when you’re reading fast, really good answers can sometimes look like bullshit answers?”  

Amy responds, without hesitation, “Oh Yeah, that happens to me all the time!  I even have a line in my syllabus about how students need to advocate for their answers when these mistakes happen.”

I remember that clause in some of my teachers’ syllabi.  I didn’t know that was what it meant? I thought they were pouring over my every word in the same first gear that I always used…


Thanks to my excellent student and to my brilliant friend Amy!  


Bonus Link

Bonus Link 2 (Not exactly related, but interesting and accidentally found while looking for the first Bonus Link.)

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