So You Want to Go to Grad School? Part V: How to Read

So you want to apply to grad school? Are you sure? You read PART I: On Deciding to Apply and PART II: On How to Apply,  PART III: Are You Sure? , and PART IV: Surviving and Thriving in Grad School. The fifth post of this series is about how to read in grad school.

Some of the details may be particularly useful to students pursuing history degrees, especially food history. However, most of these tips are applicable for other humanities and social science degrees.


Of course you know how to read-- but do you?

There are different kinds of reading. You are probably already aware that you already read a history monograph, an economic textbook, a vintage Wonder Woman comic, a blog post, a recipe, and a novel in different ways. You might savor every detail reading your book about a young woman who has forsaken her office job in London in order to open a cake shop in rural Scotland.  You skim medical websites quickly while silently praying that your symptoms are meaningless (looking at you WebMD). You flip through a catalogue half-heartedly. You already know that there are a variety of ways to read.

In grad school you will have more reading than you likely have ever faced before. During your comprehensive exams you may have to read a book a day- yes A BOOK A DAY! How does one even begin to process that much material.

Here are some tips for reading effectively.

1. Read strategically. Be a Raccoon.

You will not be reading every single word. You will be a raccoon (to paraphrase comedian Maria Bamford's description of raccoon tendencies). 

You are going to get in there. And get what's good...so you can get back down to the river with your friends. 

When you are done reading an academic article or book, you should be able to succinctly tell me the following about the text:

A. What was the thesis? Main argument?

B. Were there any side arguments that were significant?

C. How does this text fit within the literature? Historiography? (what is it adding to the arguments already out there? does it challenge dominant trends in the literature?)

D. What methodology did the author use?

E. Evidence? What kinds of sources did the author use.

F. Organization? How did the author organize the flow of the argument and narrative?

G. Critiques? Do you see any problems? Praise?

H. Epistemology? (this is less important based on your field)

I. Anything else of interest you would want to remember? Maybe something that will be useful for your dissertation.

J. Title, Author(s), Publication Date. It can be useful to make a chart to map out the historiography (on this chart mark when each book was published).


2. How Can I Read a Book A Day?

You don't actually read every word. 

Here's my system, which allows me to answer A-I above.

1. Read the introduction chapter slowly and carefully. Here the author should lay out the arguments of the book and will tell you about their methodology, evidence used, and organization.

2. Read the first paragraph or two of each chapter slowly and carefully. This paragraph should lay out the arguments of that chapter. 

3. Read the topic sentence of each paragraph slowly and carefully. This sentence should tell you what information will follow in that paragraph. It will signal whether or not you think you will need to read the rest of the paragraph carefully.

4. Read the conclusion of each chapter carefully as it will wrap up arguments and signal if you might need to return to any other part of the chapter.

5. Read the conclusion chapter carefully. 

You aren't reading a book as much as processing a book. 

*There will be some books that will be particularly important to your research that you will return to and read slower and more carefully.*

3. Take Notes

A. Create a template document with A- J in bold (thesis, methodology, etc). 

B. Fill out one page of notes for every book you read. 

C. Email this document to yourself and save the email in a special folder (in Gmail you can create organizational folders). 

D. Eventually you will have read so many books you may not be able to remember if you read a book before. Or you might need to reference a particular book but can't remember every detail you would like to recall. Type the book title into the search bar on your email account and BAM there is the information at your fingertips, already typed.

4. Theory Heavy Books

I recommend reading a wikipedia article about the theory ahead of time. You still need to read the book, but some philosophers and theorists are particularly difficult to read (looking at you Spivak and Butler). If you have a sense of the argument in advance you will be able to better understand the original text.

Also some theorists such as Spivak and Butler make a lot more sense when you hear them describe their theories aloud. Thanks to youtube and other streaming services you can access their public appearances.  

5. Read a Book a Week.

Are your comps done? Is your course work done? Great. 

This does not mean you can stop reading (and why would you want to!)

I have been advised to try to read a history book a week if you are a historian. I don't follow this advice completely. BUT you should be reading consistently.

I advocate reading within and outside of your field. You can learn new methods, be exposed to new theories, and continue to lean cool things. 

6. Read Non-Academic Stuff Too

Have you lost the pleasure of reading? After reading scholarly article after article reading may begin to feel like a chore. 

Regain your love of reading by reading whatever you want! 

When I need to give my brain a break I indulge my love of tales about women who start their own businesses centered around books and food (there are a lot of books in this sub-genre). I read how-to books (lots on brewing). Memoirs by women kayakers, farmers, and climbers fill my shelves. And I have read every Buffy the Vampire Slayer comic ever read.

As professor of french and comparative literature at Williams College, Brian Martin once told me:
If you are writing a dissertation, you are a writer. Own that!
Writers become better by reading other writers.

You probably loved reading at some point. Regain that love!

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