When and Why Do We Read? The Time and Value of Reading in the Twenty-First-Century University

    Project Details


    Introduction: Building upon previous studies on time-use in the university, this project specifically investigates the interconnected issues of when and why reading happens in the humanities today. While researchers in all disciplines read as part of their profession, it is in subjects such as English, History, Philosophy that it is the absolute key to the successful production and transmission of knowledge. For academics, reading is an essential activity for their research and teaching, and much of the humanities student’s time is meant for reading. While reading formats (online or print) and genre (articles, novels, or archives) shape reading, they do not determine when or why it happens. This study uses a vector of ethnographic comparison established by our previous collaboration, the Lockdown Reading Project, to compare the opportunities for, and value given to, reading at the English and Danish university. We expect our study to show how the value given to reading, its prioritisation and its place on schedules, course plans and summer reading, affect the way humanists in these two settings approach learning and teaching through reading.

    Rationale: As our lockdown project (based on 800 surveys and 60 interviews) showed, people’s reading tended to increase with an increase in leisure time. For many, time gained from the usual commute, led to more reading. For students and academics, though, the pandemic university in both countries was often one of increased workloads and remote learning. Students read in isolation without the community offered by in-person learning, and academics spent considerable time learning new technologies and preparing online materials. The time faculty had for reading was curtailed. This pandemic picture of overworked academics struggling to find time to read comes against a generalised backdrop of excessive workloads in the English system, often taken up with more teaching and administrative demands. With recent redundancies and department closures in England, especially in the Humanities, this is only set to get worse. In some English universities, we also see that the central activity of reading has been somewhat sidelined. The 1-hour allocation for lecture preparation on certain workload models is not enough time to read a novel or history book, let alone write a lecture on it. ‘Reading Weeks’ in some universities have been retitled ‘Consolidation Weeks’ and reading is now often subsumed under ‘independent study’. Whilst this may seem innocuous, it would appear that reading, and the time dedicated to it, is something high tuition fees and an emphasis on graduate outcomes can no longer justify, at least not in name. Likewise, reading is, it seems, seen by management as something of ghost labour, an invisible part of the work they require - not productive in itself. It is unlikely, for instance, that an academic applying for sabbatical would be successful if they simply listed ‘reading’ as their main focus for a period of leave; reading is not seen as an ‘outcome’ on its own. Likewise, university leaders’ and politicians’ discussions of HE in terms of ‘delivery’, ‘provision’ or something ‘captured’ online (exacerbated by the pandemic) fail to register the importance of reading for students, or the time it requires. The time for reading and its value within today’s English university have been squeezed out, re-named and undervalued. The rationale for this study, then, is to see when, how and why academics and students read. When does reading take place? Where does it appear on academics’ work schedules and in student handbooks? What value do students give it, especially in an increasingly marketized system as in England focused on graduate employment? Do these changes affect how students prioritise reading? Do they value it in itself, or just as a means-to-an-end? In documenting the realities of reading time and practices in today’s university, we will provide specific findings about the current conditions under which students and academics read. Our interviews with faculty and students will provide a snapshot of whether reading is prioritised above other tasks; if students see it as valuable in itself; if it happens on a weekly or daily basis; on the role of summer research reading for faculty; and on the relationship between instrumental reading of emails and research reading. The rationale for comparing English and Danish cases lies in the fact that while Danish citizens benefit from some of the lowest working hours per week in Europe, British workers consistently clock some of the highest. This extends to the university setting, where Danish students study without fees for 5 years while being paid a basic income. This economic difference within these systems ties into the ways in which reading does – or doesn’t – happen for students and faculty in these two systems, and the value given to reading. By focusing our comparative study on a country outside the UK, we will be able to investigate how the highly marketized, instrumental English system and the increasing focus on graduate outcomes may affect the value given to reading, the time dedicated to it and, ultimately, its purpose. In Denmark, the reading landscape is shaped by the way working and holiday hours are tightly calculated, and parental leave and summer fiercely protected – but the outcomes in terms of scholarly reading are often poor. Comparison of these two settings will be vital to the originality of our conclusions.

    Methodology: Between September 2022 and April 2023, we will interview 15 British and 15 Danish humanists, with a view to the balance of gender, age and rank (50:50 staff:student) in our sample. Participants will be asked to keep a journal of their reading habits during a term week. At the end of this week, we will interview them in semi-structured conversations. These will be conducted in-person and in English at Universities of Cambridge, Sussex and Portsmouth, Copenhagen and Southern Denmark. We choose these universities because they represent a range of institutions. Cambridge is an ‘ancient’ Russell Group university, Sussex a 1960s ‘plate glass’ university, and Portsmouth a ‘Post-1992’ university. The University of Copenhagen is a research-intensive institution and the country’s oldest university, whereas Southern Denmark is a modern institution that prides itself on its ties to business and industry. This range will enable us to examine how factors such as research income and student demographics might influence the value placed upon, and the time made available for, reading. We will undertake qualitative analysis of the transcripts and reading journals to gain a sense of the lived realities of reading in these different universities, focusing specifically on when, how and why reading happens. This will involve analysing potential problems affecting reading in current settings, and the possibility of producing recommendations on how better to re-establish and embed the value of reading.
    Short titleWhen and Why Do We Read?
    Effective start/end date1/09/223/06/23


    • Reading
    • Readers
    • Time
    • Work
    • University
    • Students
    • Books