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Overwhelming Readings in Cousework


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Hi, I'm a first-year Ph.D. student in History. Unexpectedly, I'm now being overwhelmed by enormous amounts of the assigned readings each week. The problem is TIME. To catch up the classes and readings, I have to burn out myself everyday, and my daily routine already totally collapsed, which makes situation worse and worse. Can somebody give advice?

Edited by toryhis
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This is an EXTREMELY common issue!!  Ask your peers who are ahead of you in the program.  The most important chapters to read are the introduction and conclusion.  Listen to your professors' guiding questions for patterns (i.e. "So, what is X arguing here?  What sources is X looking at and how do those sources shape that argument?" etc.).

The key is to think very broadly about how the books in your course connect to one another and why they're important enough to be assigned. Also, read at least 2 book reviews to get a sense of what the book's about and what to look out for when "reading" it. 

Truthfully, to take a graduate seminar, one simply needs to be very well versed in content covered in survey courses.  Everything else is just details and historiographical debates. If you've never taken ,say, an undergraduate survey course on China and you're taking a graduate seminar, you'll want to really beef up your knowledge and take the time to learn from others. If you're a an ace in Modern European history (from Enlightenment onward), you should be able to grasp the content and focus on the argument and specific supporting examples. However, say, you're in a seminar focused on a theme/concept such as postwar, know it's just a concept and you do not need to be an "expert" on the aftermath of American Revolution if you're a 20th century US historian.  

 

My $.02 on for a Friday night...

 

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Read the introduction, conclusion, beginnings and ends of chapters, and, if time permits, one middle chapter in full to get a sense of narrative style. If you’re totally lost, try reading reviews.

Graduate seminars exist to discuss ideas and train future historians, so make it’s more important to have an understanding of and opinion on a book’s general significance and usefulness than it is to be able to recite any particular detail. But you occasionally will get a nutcase who will cold call students about trivial details or demand in-depth knowledge of tertiary aspects of books, so ask around before you take any class.

My general (though not universal) experience is that professors are so relieved that someone else is willing to state a reasonable opinion about a book that they will forgive you if you missed something, so long as you approach seminar with the spirit of honest inquiry.

Edited by AfricanusCrowther
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Also I don't really know anyone who didn't find the first semester difficult (for so many reasons). Take the advice above re reading, talk to other people in your program, trust that you'll get the hang of it. I did too much of the reading in my first semester, not realizing that a) skimming is expected and normal and b) pretending you've read the whole book even though you skimmed most of it is also normal. 

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All of the approaches put forward are useful, but as I've recommended to @historygeek, I'd strongly encourage a heuristic tool known as IPSO. It's great for teaching undergrads, but you also will see benefit to applying it to your own reading. 

Issue: What is the issue at hand? Why is the author writing? 

Position: What is the thesis statement? Who is the author in dialogue with? 

Support: How is the author using evidence, what sorts of evidence, how does s/he engage with objections, etc.? 

Outcome: So what? If this argument is correct, what are some possible avenues for further research. 

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On 9/13/2019 at 6:17 PM, telkanuru said:

[N]o book should really take you more than 2-3 hours.

Exceptions to this rule of thumb will include books that are described as "works that one ignores at one's peril." Or "essential reading." Or works that generate significant scholarly debate. Sometimes "the standard work on..."

Pay attention to how your professors roll through reading lists/bibliographies. Make eye contact. Pay attention to the body language. More often than not, non verbal cues are being given as to the level of effort one should give to reading it. (The most helpful verbal cue is any mention of a book being used as a "reference." That descriptor means that one is only expected to read every word of it if it's directly in one's historiographical wheel house. And even then, lots of skimming will be in order._

Notice how they can summarize 800+ page books in two sentences, if not one. Did they read every word and every footnote? Even if they did or didn't, the challenge you face is learning how to get what you need from a work with the least amount of effort and then move on to the next work.

(Four additional tactics. First, find articles by a historian that were published before a major work. Often--but not always--articles serve as blueprints for ongoing projects. Second, read book reviews written by the historian whose work you're reading. This can sometimes help you kill two birds with one stone. Third, start making a habit of reading all relevant short book reviews in the top journals in your field. Fourth, if you come across a book that really moves you, give yourself permission to read it at a more leisurely pace -- even if doing so sets you back a bit with your other reading and/or leads to some longer nights.)

A caveat. The tactics presented in this thread (and others in this forum) entail risk. Eventually, you will get something wrong and/or someone will want to pull your card and play stump the band. Under such circumstances, know what to say and how to say it. Phrases like I think I missed that point or I will have to circle back to that argument will work well enough. Under no circumstances should you fib. If you get feed back like "sometimes [insert name] seems under prepared" then it is probably time to switch up your reading tactics and to work much harder.

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I appreciate all the great advice in this thread thus far. 

On 9/15/2019 at 5:26 AM, Sigaba said:

 Second, read book reviews written by the historian whose work you're reading. This can sometimes help you kill two birds with one stone.

@Sigaba, would you be willing to elaborate on this? My interpretation is that reading book reviews written by the author in question will 1. familiarize you with their writing style and 2. give you an idea of which debates they are a part of, which other authors they are in conversation with, etc. But if you had other benefits in mind, I'd be interested to hear them.

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44 minutes ago, Balleu said:

I appreciate all the great advice in this thread thus far. 

@Sigaba, would you be willing to elaborate on this? My interpretation is that reading book reviews written by the author in question will 1. familiarize you with their writing style and 2. give you an idea of which debates they are a part of, which other authors they are in conversation with, etc. But if you had other benefits in mind, I'd be interested to hear them.

What @Sigaba is suggesting is that reading the author's reviews of others' works gives insight on his/her areas of expertise and how s/he read works slightly outside of his/her realm.  Few reviewers ever get to review books directly related to their work because they're already part of the conversations that helped the author shape the book, which, in turn, the author thank them in their acknowledgments. As such, people mentioned in the acknowledgments aren't permitted to review the book in question. Reading the author's reviews of other books gives you a sense of how critically s/he engages with the scholarship and research and his/her capacity to be even-handed. Most scholars are fair but you get the occasional outliers who are extremely critical of others' in a negative sense and their own works will usually reflect their self-righteousness.

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On 9/13/2019 at 8:56 PM, toryhis said:

Hi, I'm a first-year Ph.D. student in History. Unexpectedly, I'm now being overwhelmed by enormous amounts of the assigned readings each week. The problem is TIME. To catch up the classes and readings, I have to burn out myself everyday, and my daily routine already totally collapsed, which makes situation worse and worse. Can somebody give advice?

Two other suggestions I have:

1) If you are struggling, make sure to drop down to the bare minimum number of classes you need to take per semester, usually 4 classes. An extra class can break the camel's back.

2) If you can, try to schedule intelligently. One semester I was able to have two days of back-to-back classes, and the other 3 days (almost) completely off... The off days were great for doing reading and hw... Of course, I was only able to get this perfect schedule once, but it was great!

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12 hours ago, Balleu said:

I appreciate all the great advice in this thread thus far. 

@Sigaba, would you be willing to elaborate on this? My interpretation is that reading book reviews written by the author in question will 1. familiarize you with their writing style and 2. give you an idea of which debates they are a part of, which other authors they are in conversation with, etc. But if you had other benefits in mind, I'd be interested to hear them.

I had in mind the above more than the below. An additional benefit can be that a reader may trace development of a historian's views on a topic can be traced through her reviews.

11 hours ago, TMP said:

What @Sigaba is suggesting is that reading the author's reviews of others' works gives insight on his/her areas of expertise and how s/he read works slightly outside of his/her realm.  Few reviewers ever get to review books directly related to their work because they're already part of the conversations that helped the author shape the book, which, in turn, the author thank them in their acknowledgments. As such, people mentioned in the acknowledgments aren't permitted to review the book in question. Reading the author's reviews of other books gives you a sense of how critically s/he engages with the scholarship and research and his/her capacity to be even-handed. Most scholars are fair but you get the occasional outliers who are extremely critical of others' in a negative sense and their own works will usually reflect their self-righteousness.

FWIW, in my areas of specialization, reviewers get to address works in their wheelhouse. At times, it seems that reviewers are picked for this very reason.

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