Supercharge Your Academic Reading By Focusing on Concepts

When asked what they annotate when reading, many first-year students will say: “the important stuff.” Ask them what exactly “the important stuff” is and many will confess that they’re not sure. Drawing on reading instruction from their high school year, some will cite the “main idea” or “themes” as important. Others will say they look for the four ancient Greek modes of persuasion: ethos, pathos, logos, and kairos. Those ideas are helpful to a degree. At least, students have some principle for identifying the important stuff in a reading.

In my experience working with students in first-year writing classes and reading- and writing-support sessions, students’ reading comprehension, focus, retention, and ability to use their reading to solve problems improves rapidly when they pay attention to the interplay of concepts in their readings.

What Are Concepts?

A concept is a mental representation of a sample of the world that human beings and animals use to make generalizations or inferences about the world.

Concepts can represent material objects (TREE), non-material ideas (JUSTICE), or actions (RUNNING).

Why Focus on Concepts?

Concepts enable us to make sense of the world as we encounter it – to analyze it, interpret it, react to it, and work with it. As Artificial Intelligence researcher Nick Hay and his colleagues at put it:

Concepts are abstractions that we derive from everyday interactions with the world.  They form the reusable building blocks of knowledge that are essential to humans for making sense of the world. When we have a conceptual understanding of something, we have in a way a mastery of that thing.

Because concepts are such powerful “reusable building blocks” of thought, students should pay close attention to them in their reading.

How Are Concepts Used in Academic Reading?

  • As a lens to categorize, analyze, and interpret examples of things (by things I mean: objects, phenomena, conditions, behaviors, ideas, actions, emotions)
  • To give a name to a complex thing, making it easier to represent and discuss
  • In conversation (or debate) with other thinkers about how best to understand things
  • To make connections between related but dissimilar things

How Can I Recognize Concepts When I Read?

Since concepts give names to objects, ideas, and actions, look in sentences and passages for the nouns that contribute most to their meaning.

Practices not principles are what enable us to live in peace.

Kwame Anthony Appiah, “The Primacy of Practice”

Concepts can be expressed as noun phrases, too:

Sociologists traditionally define the ‘transition to adulthood‘ as marked by five milestones: completing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying, and having a child.

Robin Marantz Henig, “What Is It About 20-Somethings?”

Concept nouns are often modified with adjectives. In this example, Anna Holms first redefines the concept of diversity as used in corporate settings as an empty gesture rather than a real commitment to change. Then she uses a well-chosen adjective to modify a familiar concept (capitalism), giving it a thought-provoking name (racial capitalism). The effect is to tie the moral credibility companies and executives are seeking from this virtue signaling to the profit-and-loss logic of capitalism.

Diversity has become both euphemism and cliche, a convenient shorthand that gestures at inclusivity and representation without actually taking them seriously.

Many Silicon Valley firms are scrambling to hire executives to focus on diversity…. But at the biggest firms, women and minorities still make up an appallingly tiny percentage of the skilled work force. And the few exceptions to this rule are consistently held up as evidence of more widespread change–as if a few individuals could by themselves constitute diversity.

When [diversity] is proudly invoked in a corporate context, it acquires a certain sheen. It can give a person or institution moral credibility, a phenomenon that Nancy Leong, a University of Denver law professor, calls ‘racial capitalism’ and defines as ‘an individual or group deriving value from the racial identity of another person.‘ It’s almost as if cheerfully and frequently uttering the word diversity is the equivalent of doing the work of actually making it a reality.

Anna Holmes, “Variety Show”

Sometimes, readers have to nominalize other parts of speech to recognize them as concepts. Consider this sentence:

One of the most perverse dimensions of ethnic thinking is the “racialization” of culture–the tendency to think of another people as not just culturally [different] but genetically different.

Steve Olson, “The End of Race: Hawaii and the Mixing of Peoples”

Olson himself uses the nominalized term “racialization” to name the process of thinking about cultural differences as genetic differences, but sharp readers will also nominalize culturally different and genetically different, as I have just done.

Sometimes writers will use language that explicitly alerts readers that they are about to present an important concept. Here’s Daniel Kahneman winding up to introduce us to one of the most important cognitive biases in fast thinking. The phrases that alerts readers to an upcoming concept is are in red; the concepts are bolded.

Decades later, I can see many of the central themes of my thinking about judgment in that old experience. One of these themes is that people who face a difficult question often answer an easier one instead, without realizing it. We were required to predict a soldier’s performance in officer training and in combat, but we did so by evaluating his behavior over one hour in an artificial situation. This was a perfect instance of a general rule that I call WYSIATI, ‘what you see is all there is.’

Daniel Kahneman, “The Surety of Fools”

Examples – A Concept’s Best Friends

Concepts are generalizations that we make from our encounters with exemplars. We know what the concept ice cream is from our experiences with the range of ice cream flavors and formats (cones v. sundaes) by distinguishing ice cream from foods similar (popsicles are not ice cream) and different (neither are lobsters).

As a result, when readers encounter an unfamiliar concept, they should look for examples nearby in the text to clarify the meaning of the concept.

Sometimes the examples come after the concept is named:

A Discourse is a sort of “identity kit” which comes complete with the appropriate costume and instructions on how to act, talk, and often write, so as to take on a particular role that others will recognize…. Some…examples of Discourses: (enacting) being an American or a Russian, a man or a woman, a member of a certain socioeconomic class, a factory worker or a boardroom executive, a doctor or a hospital patient, a teacher, an administrator, or a student, a student of physics or a student of literature, a member of a sewing circle, a club, a street gang, a lunchtime social gathering, or a regular at a local bar. We all have many Discourses.

James Paul Gee, “Literacy, Discourse, and Linguistics”

Sometimes, the examples come before the concept is named:

Two recent cases show that the Supreme court is sympathetic to that shift [to think of our civil rights less in terms of groups than in terms of our common humanity]. In the 2003 case of Lawrence v. Texas…the Supreme Court struck down a Texas statute that criminalized same-sex sodomy. Many assumed that the Court would use this case to decide whether to give gays the judicial protections currently accorded to racial minorities and women. But while the Court struck down the statute…, it did not do so based on the equality rights of gays. Rather, it held that the statute violated the fundamental rights of all persons–straight, gay, or otherwise–to control our intimate sexual relations.

Similarly, in the 2004 case of Tennesse v. Lane, the Supreme Court considered the question of whether two paraplegic individuals could sue Tennessee for failing to make its courthouses wheelchair accessible….Again the Court ruled in favor of the minority group without framing its ruling in group-based equality rhetoric. Rather, it held that all persons–disabled or otherwise–had a ‘right of access to the courts.’

In an era when the Supreme Court has closed many civil rights doors, it has left this one wide open. It is much more sympathetic to “liberty” claims about freedoms we all hold than to “equality” claims asserted by a subset of the population.

Kenji Yoshino, “The New Civil Rights”

At the end of each example, Yoshino gives provisional names (in italics) to the two distinct rationales for civil rights under discussion but leaves the job of consolidating the complex concepts developed in the examples into the shorthand names he’ll reference throughout the article until after the defining work of the example makes clear what each concept means.

Not all examples are important. Readers familiar with a concept may find that a light skimming of the examples to ensure that it’s not being used in a new way is enough to move on.

But other times, as in Malcolm Gladwell’s “Small Change,” careful study of the examples are essential to understand the writer’s point.

In “Small Change,” Gladwell takes on the claims of “digital evangelists” that “the new tools of social media have reinvented activism.” To challenge their views, Gladwell needs to draw a crucial distinction between two concepts: the low-risk social media activism promoted by the digital evangelists and the high-risk activism practiced in the US Civil Rights Movement during Freedom Summer when activists were kidnapped, beaten, arrested, shot at, and killed and black churches and homes were set on fire or bombed.

Gladwell uses examples not only to make the distinction between the two kinds of activism clear but also to support his argument that activism that aims to “challenge the status quo” is built on the “strong-ties” between close associates that enable people to accept personal risk. While useful for “diffusing innovation and interdisciplinary collaboration, the “weak-ties” social media is so good at fostering do not “motivate people to make a real sacrifice.”

To support the idea that high-risk activism depends on participants being so closely connected to one another that they are willing to make personal sacrifices for their compatriots, Gladwell offers a densely-packed paragraph of examples. The paragraph does it’s work first by showing diverse examples that form a pattern of high-risk activist movements around the world built on the strong-ties of close personal connection.

This pattern shows up again and again. One study of the Red Brigades, the Italian terrorist group of the 1970s, found that seventy percent of recruits had at least one good friend already in the organization. The same is true of the men who joined the mujahideen in Afghanistan. Even revolutionary actions that look spontaneous, like the demonstrations in East Germany that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall, are, at the core, strong-tie phenomena. The opposition movement in East Germany consisted of several hundred groups, each with roughly a dozen members. Each group was in limited contact with the others: at the time, only thirteen percent of East Gemernas even had a phone. All they knew was that on Monday nights, outside St. Nicholas Church in downtown Leipzig, people gathered to voice their anger at the state. And the primary determinant of who showed up was ‘critical friends’–the more friends you had that were critical of the regime the more likely you were to join the protest.”

Malcolm Gladwell, “Small Change”

Remember, examples are always examples of a concept. The first few examples in this paragraph are literally single-sentence examples of strong-tie movements across a range of times, places, and political commitments. In the context of an article giving heavy focus to the US Civil Rights movement as the ultimate example of high-risk activism, those examples are there to show that Gladwell is not cherry-picking his evidence.

In the second half of the paragraph, in the East Germany example, Gladwell shows us another way that examples add value to concepts by elaborating on a single example at length. By choosing a non-obvious example (the protests seemed spontaneous, so how could they be rooted in strong ties), Gladwell tests the applicable limits of the concept. He also demonstrates how the analytical power of the concept of strong-tie high-risk activism lets us see deeper into events than we otherwise could. More importantly, his more elaborate explanation in the East Germany example makes readers trust the claims he made in his one-sentence examples.

What to Do With Concepts Now That You’ve Found Them

  • Make a list of them to use in your own discussion, problem-solving, or writing
  • Combine them to one another to form larger emergent concepts
  • Subdivide them to discover smaller component concepts
  • Come up with your own examples to test or extend the concept
  • Use them to understand other cases or situations
  • Find the limit-case beyond which the concept doesn’t apply

Get Help Reading For Concepts

I hope this primer will help student readers improve their comprehension of dense complex texts and enable instructors to better assist their students.

If you’d like to learn more about this approach to reading or help learning how to locate concepts in reading, book a reading support appointment with Eric Drown or Megan Grumbling.

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