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Reading Instrumentally

A few years ago at a kind of instruction in-service we held in my department, my coworker Kristin talked about a way of reading that she was beginning to teach in her classes. She called it “reading instrumentally” and talked about how she was trying to get her students to read articles for more than subject comprehension — to read them in order to use them as springboards for finding new material. Since then, I’ve started teaching this, or bits and pieces of it, in more and more of my classes. For me, it’s the best answer I can come up with so far to the problem of the Term Economy.

The idea is that reading for comprehension is good and important and all that, but that the point of the article is only one of many things you can learn by engaging with it. Just reading the first few paragraphs of a work slowly and carefully, you can glean a whole host of names and terms that you can then use when crafting further searches or deciding where to search next. For example, you can note down concept names, other vocabulary, researcher’s names,  relevant institutions that might produce or publish information for the topic, or types of evidence used in this kind of argument. After reading the first few paragraphs of a few likely articles, you can go back and start using these new concepts and terms and research/institution names to craft more focused searches. At this point, you’re more likely to be using vocabulary that a more expert person would have used in the first place.

Here’s one concrete example.

Cooks, Bridget. “Fixing Race: Visual Representations of African Americans at the World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893.” Patterns of Prejudice, 41.5 (2007): 435-565.
ABSTRACT Cooks examines the Johnson family cartoon series published in Harper’s Weekly during the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. Her analysis addresses the series’ caricatures of African-American fairgoers in the context of the landmark exposition, a national celebration of America’s cultural leadership and accomplishment since its ‘discovery’ by Christopher Columbus in 1492. The Johnson family cartoons are remarkable because they are the only racist images in the issues of Harper’s Weekly in which they appear, highlighting the importance of their message that African Americans were an unwanted presence at an event that served to solidify America’s national identity. The series provides insight into some of the social anxieties of white Americans regarding the presence of African Americans at the exposition. It also explores white American discomfort with racial and economic diversity through the antics of the imaginary yet symbolically representative Johnson family. Cooks’s discussion includes a visual analysis of the cartoons and comparisons of the Johnson family images with photographs and illustrations of African-American labourers at the fair and with depictions of proper behaviour by white American fairgoers. This examination of the cartoon series questions the roles of race, class and social hierarchy in turn-of-the-century America, and illustrates that acceptable mainstream attitudes clung to ideas of racial prejudice.

Just from this I get a whole bunch of clues about how and where to look for evidence that might reveal attitudes about race in the late 19th century. I might not have thought to page through Harper’s and other magazines at the time. How would I find out which other magazines to look at? I could look at caricatures in general, cartoons (oh, and I bet there were caricatures and cartoons in newspapers at the time, too, so I could look there), advertisements, and anything else that exaggerates normality or abnormality. I could do more research into the World’s Exposition, since it’s positioned as being a representation of America. Terms like “national identity” and “social anxiety” might be useful. The abstract also makes it clear that one great way to build an argument about difference is to make an argument about what the ideal sameness might be. It also compares caricatures to photographs, which is kind of a similar rhetorical move — making arguments about exaggeration by comparing it to its opposite: realism.

If I read a few paragraphs of the article itself, I’m sure there will be useful citations to follow, possibly some argument about why Harper’s is a good source (which might hopefully mention some similar periodicals as part of this argument), certainly other historians who are interested in race in America, possibly some theorists (which would be a jackpot, particularly if this were a literary article, since searching for theorists is one of the hardest things to do), possibly some other types of scholars who might have an interest in this kind of topic, and hopefully some clues about where to go looking for photographs, either from citations for the photographs used or from other context.

Once I realized that this is how I approach most of the searching I do (since I’m almost never searching for topics in fields in which I’m an expert), I decided to back up and start teaching this as a way to read result lists and abstracts, too (part of my exploding the article idea). So now I often have students help me pick relevant terms out of both controlled vocabulary and abstracts, or point out clues hidden in article records that might point us to related genres or topics or avenues into the literature. Then we search again, and then again, usually (hopefully) finding whole pockets of literature that we’d never have stumbled on otherwise.

Published inIn My ClassroomSearch and DiscoveryTeaching and Learning


  1. Exactly. I incorporate these skills in my upper level and grad infolit courses. Another thing I focus on is using database generated keywords as search terms, and how to mine an article’s bibliography for other secondary sources.

  2. This is a nice use of the pearl-growing technique for information retrieval in an instruction setting. The trick, of course, is having a good pearl at the outset to seed the search. Do students ever ask what to do if they don’t have a relevant article at hand?

  3. Most of the time these days we don’t start with a relevant article. Most of the time we start doing these same things with result lists, and then open an article to look at more closely.

    I emphasize to the students that we don’t have to open the “best” article — that any relatively on-topic article will have lots of good citations and terms, and that their goals should be two-fold: use what you have to find more, and if you don’t have anything use a handful of relatively ok abstracts to find a handful of relatively better abstracts to find 2 or 3 pretty good articles, and then do this with those articles. This, too, reinforces the idea that research doesn’t happen in a linear way (find topic — research — write) but that it happens in iterations over time, where your searches help you refine the topic and do better searches, which helps you refine your topic more and then do even better searches. It might be several times through that loop before you start reading whole articles, and it might be several times through several articles before you feel like you can search like an “expert” for any left-over gaps you need to fill before completing your research.

  4. […] advantage in searching efficiently and effectively. She also works with students to help them find ways to uncover the specialized vocabulary that researchers in their disciplines use — both so that they can […]

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