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On Reading Effectively in Graduate School


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Hey everyone,

 

Like other people here I am heading off to graduate school in the Fall. As my final undergraduate semester winds down, I'm trying to mentally gear up for the more advanced study to come, and I had a question about reading effectively in graduate school.

 

In a couple of other (older, too old to respond to without serious thread-necro) threads, I saw a bunch of prospective and current graduate students discussing the reading workload in graduate school, and how they coped with it. The gist of what I got from those posts was that at the graduate level I should expect between:

  • one book per week, per class, and probably about 100-200 pages of articles per week, per class, as well.

and

  • one monograph's worth of reading a day, either in the form of a book or a collection of articles.

The first suggestion echoes what a student at my future program told me I could maybe expect based on his experiences, but the second one is a bit closer to my actual expectation. Does this seem to hold true for most of you, falling somewhere in between the first and the second?

 

Now, it seemed that everyone in the threads I was looking at was of the agreement that it was simply not possible to remain sane and also read every word of every page of every assigned reading in graduate school. Strategies for getting through the reading (some of which seemed to come secondhand from undergraduate and graduate instructors themselves) included some combination of strategic reading (targetting key sections such as prefaces, intros, the introductions to chapters/sections, first lines of paragraphs, conclusions), but absoluetly no one advocated reading every word.

 

I'm not unfamiliar to skimming. As an undergraduate I've come across plenty of books during research projects and independent studies that were of dubious value to my research, and which I evaluated before committing to further reading or discarding. But I've never regularly skimmed the assigned class readings, and thinking about doing that in graduate school brought up some questions for me:

  • Do you ever worry that while skimming you're missing out on some key, crucial detail buried in the middle of a chapter that refers to some source you've never heard of or makes an inference that would completely change the way you think about a topic if only you had read the book more completely? How do you handle that?
  • Do you ever go back and re-read later on the books that seemed most interesting? Once you reach the dissertation stage, do you cut back on the skimming (after determining that a text is relevant to you) or does it never end?

I really love reading books cover to cover, especially ~most~ of the academic texts in my field that I've come across. There's always a few that are unutterably dry, uninteresting, repetitive, or poorly composed and which I do just skim to get through, but I've treasured the experience of gutting monographs for perspectives, insights, inferences, and just raw data that I didn't have before, and while I'm sure I could skim all the assignments in graduate school, I'm concerned about all the things I will miss doing so, and I'd love to know how other students handle that. I mean, I'm in grad school to LEARN, not just to pass, right?

Edited by NorthernLights
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There are many many strategies for this.  The only piece of universal advise I will give is that you can not read every word but you should turn every page.  As for me... when I was in course work I read every word of the introduction, the conclusion, I than looked at the notes to see what kind of sources the author used.  In part this is to decide if he or she could possibly reach the conclusions they do using those sources (this turns out to be a surprisingly easy way to spot massive problems in books).  I than pick a couple of chapters that seem most interesting or like they are key to why the book was assigned.

 

If chapters are repetitive, pick one.  Nature's Metropolis for example has three commodities chapters which are brilliant but for the sake of a grad seminar you really only need one to get the argument.   

 

Some people read the first sentence of every paragraph, which can work, but I don't use that very often. 

 

It may seem like a waste, but at least skim acknowledgements, after a bit you'll learn to read a lot into academic family trees.  Learn to read pictures and maps critically.  Are they there just for the sake of being there or are they part of the argument.  Hint, if they're not captioned well it's not a good sign for the book.

 

Articles will always take longer to read than the equivalent number of pages in a book.  They have to be read more closely.  Just the nature of the beast.

 

As for reading loads.... my masters program (respectable state school, not big name), was 1 book per week plus 1 article.  My phd program (ivy, big name), is between 1-2 books per week or the equivalent number of pages in articles but rarely both that many articles plus a monograph. 

 

In my experience "Reading" for course work, "Reading" for comps, and Reading for your own research are all very different and what I just said applies to course work.

 

For comps it's read the book until you get it and put it down.  In my program comps lists can be up to 250 books.  You can't spend a lot of time with anything and you learn to be super efficient.  It was my experience that books I really liked in comps I really had to have the discipline to put down.  If I liked it I had gotten the argument.

Edited by New England Nat
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 Learn to read pictures and maps critically.  Are they there just for the sake of being there or are they part of the argument.  Hint, if they're not captioned well it's not a good sign for the book.

 

Friendly advice from the art historian: there are tons of great books out there that can give you a little extra boost on the "reading pictures" critically. Ways of Seeing by John Berger is a really short effective read for that (it's also a documentary you can find on youtube), but I've also browsed "How to Read World History in Art" and I think that could also be helpful. It's more of a laymen's book and I found it at barnes & noble's, but it was interesting from what I recall. Captions are very important, and incredibly helpful as sources of further information/citations. The best captions explain not only what you're looking at, but where it is found/came from/other non-immediate context. 

 

I also suggest that you should definitely read the index or appendix of your books, as well as the bibliographies. I'm still in my UG final semester but have had about 5 seminars with graduate students and I'm always amazed when they complain the databases don't give them everything and research is hard -- but then never back track on the bibliographies of their monographs! If I'm just doing my own research or trying to find something "specific" I look for keywords in the index/appendix, and mark the pages they show up on with post-its, similar to reading chapters based on "reasons why the book was assigned". If I own the book I also highlight and annotate key phrases/points in chapters or paragraphs. That's especially helpful for when I need to recall a citation for something or I'm bringing the article/monograph in for seminar discussion. 

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That's exactly the kind of thing I'm talking about, m-ttl.  Bonus points to a caption that gives you the medium that the picture is in.  The best print place I know to learn how to read pictures is Print the Legend: Photography and the American West by Martha Sandweiss.  Though get a used hard cover.  After the first printing of the soft cover Yale Press printed it on cheaper paper and made the pictures all muddy and there is no way to know which version of the soft cover you'll get.

 

Anyway, I learned this stuff from Marni herself, and I think if I caption a picture wrong in a monograph she'll hunt me down even if I'm a senior scholar some day.  The good thing about Print the Legend is that it is about an age of transition and she takes you through photographic technology, display methods, and how to write about images that no longer exist themselves.  A ton of things a non-art historian or non-photographic historian would miss that turn out to be incredibly useful in treating a photograph as a historical source rather than an illustration.

Edited by New England Nat
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Not quite on topic but related: a POI recommended Pierre Bayard's very entertaining "How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read," which I found to be a good way to break the spell of the "I'm illiterate if I didn't read every word" panic. He argues roughly that the ideas in books rarely matter as much as their relations to other ideas, and that figuring out those networks of ideas rarely requires reading whole books. Even more relevant to grad school coursework, he says that sometimes reading carefully is actually a hindrance to the comprehension of broad context, which is really why books matter in the first place. 

 

I don't mean to suggest any particular conclusions from that about how you should approach course reading, but it seems important to remember that at least in some cases, "not-reading" is just a different kind of reading, not an inferior one.

Edited by levoyous
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Not quite on topic but related: a POI recommended Pierre Bayard's very entertaining "How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read," which I found to be a good way to break the spell of the "I'm illiterate if I didn't read every word" panic. ... etc.

book ordered. :)

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Amazed no one here's mentioned reading reviews as a strategy for getting basic arguments down. In history sometimes these are just a few paragraphs more or less summarizing entire books. I really wish they were available for volume chapters or articles.

 

Often searching for citations of a work in question will bring up a brief takeaway description written in another work as well. 

 

I should warn you, though, there are tough profs out there who will really expect you to churn through detail in a way that will catch you out if you don't at least get down the basic points in each chapter of a book. 

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Amazed no one here's mentioned reading reviews as a strategy for getting basic arguments down. In history sometimes these are just a few paragraphs more or less summarizing entire books. I really wish they were available for volume chapters or articles.

 

 

 

Lafayette discussed that tactic back in 2012. <<

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  • 2 weeks later...

I am just finishing my MA now and starting the PhD in the Fall. From my experience, you need to understand why this book is being assigned. Is the professor assigning it so you can analyze the methodology? The argument? Content? You should utilize what you think is an appropriate strategy depending on what you are supposed to get out of reading the book. 

 

Furthermore, I agree with what has been stated so far. I usually read the intro and conclusion word for word and look at the bibliography. Bitter Fruit by Stephen Schlesinger and and Stephen Kinzer is a great example of why you should look at the bibliography. It is a book about the Ameican coup in Guatemala in the 1950s and after looking at the bibliography for about 30 seconds you realize they never consulted Guatemalan sources. This is extremely problematic for a diplomatic history. Book reviews are also very helpful though I only read them after I read the book to see if I have the same impression of the book as scholars in the field. 

 

It is impossible to read every word when you have research, reading for other classes, and assistantship duties. I would recommend though, if it is a seminal work in your field, try and read as much of the book as possible. Most books I read in graduate school though, I read the intro and conclusion in its entirety, the intros and conclusions of each chapter in their entirety, and the first sentence of each paragraph in each chapter. If you feel like you are confused about any specific chapter, then read reviews to see if that is the fault of the author or if you need to read the chapter more completely. 

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I'm an English grad student, so I hope you don't mind if I contribute. Our reading loads seem to be roughly similar (as one would expect). We typically get either a novel a week for a course or the equivalent of a novel a week if we're reading poetry (or a play a week). They are usually accompanied by three or so secondary sources, which include journal articles or chapters from a longer critical work (adding up to roughly 100 pages of secondary reading typically).

 

At my current MA program, you take 3 courses a semester, so the reading load can feel quite heavy on top of working/teaching (I am looking forward to my PhD program, where the course load is 3-2 and teaching load is 1-1). When approaching secondary sources, which I imagine make up the bulk of the reading in history courses based on the comments here, the most important sections are, as others have said, the introduction and the conclusion. From there, I typically read the first few pages of each chapter to understand what each one is contributing to the argument. If there is one that I believe contains a key concept, I will read that chapter in full. Sometimes I also read the first half of the chapter and then flip to the last few pages of it to see where the author concludes. Other strategies include speedreading, where I force my eyes to move very quickly over the text. I usually retain about 80% of the material (depending on if I am able to focus while doing so). Other than that, I try to pick up on 2-3 key points/motifs that I believe are integral to what I need from the text (or what the course needs) and try to skim for those points/motifs throughout. Also, having camaraderie with your fellow classmates helps. If you don't do all the reading, you can speak with a classmate and see what they may have gotten out of the reading that you may have missed. Also, if the seminars run in history like they do in lit courses, the course will be primarily driven by class discussion. In this case, you will definitely have some freedom to discover what 5-10 other people retained from the reading. If they bring up a point you may have missed, mark down the page number and return to it later.

 

I also have the opportunity to read during my morning commute since I live in a city and take public transportation, which is valuable since I work 3 jobs and am taking 3 courses.

 

I agree that if the book is important to your field, read as much as possible. Also, journal articles, at least in literature, tend to be much more theoretically dense than the longer works we read, so I usually devote more time to them because they're harder to skim (due to taking longer to comprehend).

Edited by shortstack51
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Amazed no one here's mentioned reading reviews as a strategy for getting basic arguments down. In history sometimes these are just a few paragraphs more or less summarizing entire books. I really wish they were available for volume chapters or articles.

 

Often searching for citations of a work in question will bring up a brief takeaway description written in another work as well. 

 

I should warn you, though, there are tough profs out there who will really expect you to churn through detail in a way that will catch you out if you don't at least get down the basic points in each chapter of a book. 

 

Indeed. My supervisor stresses reading as many book reviews as you can before reading a book, as that may mean you don't have to read it. I've found this works great, and has especially saved me from plodding through a lot of German.

 

I do, however, find that my reading load tends to be a lot lighter than that of my colleagues who work on modern history. Since I don't read modern history, I have no idea why this is, although it's possible that having to do a bunch of it in non-English languages may be part of the cause.

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