Just a Minute

“Even Proust has lost a reader or two in the middle of a paragraph.”

Yesterday, a student got a penny to drop for me. I had just explained that a paragraph (of at least six sentences and at most two-hundred words) takes about one minute to read. I have sometimes even suggested that a 100-word paragraph should take as long to read as a 200-word paragraph. That is, the shorter paragraph can be more difficult, word for word, sentence by sentence, to get through, and, indeed, should be more difficult, so that every paragraph represents (almost) exactly one minute of the reader’s attention and the paper as a whole is a series of such moments of attention, delivering claims in key sentences that are spaced at most two minutes apart. I hadn’t gotten that far when the student stopped me and said it takes her a good deal longer than one minute to read half-a-page. Remembering back to my own undergraduate days, I guess I’d have to grant the point. The texts we give students to read can be a bit hard going.

At the time I said simply that that is nothing to be ashamed of — the course readings are indeed difficult (and not always in our students first language) — but that she could expect her time to improve through training. Also, she should nonetheless be kind to her readers — peers in her discipline, fellow students in her cohort — composing her paragraphs so that they can reasonably expect to get their point in a single, attentive minute. Thinking about it later, I realized that this is a pretty profound insight.

An undergraduate education should raise your level of literacy. It should make you a better reader and writer of scholarly texts. The one-minute paragraph is a benchmark that is worth striving for, both in your reading and your writing, but it’s not one that you can expect to have mastery of from the beginning. That means that you will find yourself either reading paragraphs more slowly or, if you do read a 20-page paper in 40 minutes, getting less out of it than you could. You will also find yourself writing paragraphs whose message and posture is less than clear to the reader after a single minute of reading, and composing essays that don’t exactly make your ideas clear and present to the reader in the ten or fifteen minutes their length would normally suggest. But after three or four years of struggle and effort, both your reading and your writing should have picked up the pace a little. You should be approaching the ideal reading competence and should now be in a position to read a text in your discipline one paragraph, one minute at a time, understand what the author meant and how they know, and moving on to the next. And your own writing so should be as accessible to a knowledgeable peer. Like I say, you will simply have become more literate, just as you also have become more conversant and more reflective in your subject.

The penny dropped when I reminded myself that the “knowledgeable peer”, the reader, also becomes more reflective, more conversant, and more literate — in short, more knowledgeable. The first-year undergraduate is writing for other first-year undergraduates, while the writer of bachelor project or honors thesis is writing for other bachelor or honors students. It is to their criticism that they are opening their ideas. So the paragraphs can become harder and they’ll still take just a minute to read. That’s the ideal to strive for. Meanwhile, an undergraduate can, at least occasionally, try to read a text “at speed”, giving each paragraph only one minute, and see what they get out of that. That reading will be imperfect, of course, but it may be just what the course’s learning objectives required at that level. Ideally, it would be. But I’m sure the ambitious students will work a little harder, gear down, and pull a little longer, or, in any case, read the text more than once. Easy does it!

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