How can I become a more "insightful" reader?
June 8, 2018 10:41 AM   Subscribe

I just completed my first year of grad school and am now taking a summer course which is almost over (woohoo!!), but I just feel like I'm not as intelligent than the rest of my cohort. For example, they always say such insightful things about our readings and I feel like everything I say is so dumb. As a result I think my professors think I'm an idiot! I am scared to start an assignment because I'm afraid of being judged as stupid. How can I become more "insightful" about my readings?

I'm taking a course based masters and maybe I'm just feeling a bit tired and burnt out, but I never feel like I have anything good to say about any of the literature we have to read. I'm supposed to write a response/reflection on several readings we've done and I honestly have no idea what to say. One of them was so irritating to me all I could think was "who gives a shit about this?" which, clearly, I cannot state in a response.

Sometimes, when I read these articles I just find myself thinking... nothing. How do I become a "deeper" reader and have more insightful things to say? My current course is in an area of my field I don't have much experience in, I feel a bit hesitant to disagree with any of the articles. I don't know what to say beyond "so and so had an interesting point" or "it reminds me of blah blah." At this point, my thoughts seem to have about as much depth as a thimble. I have to have a response written by the end of the weekend and I have no thoughts in my head. Is there a way to read for depth that I'm not familiar with?
posted by anonymous to Education (22 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
Take notes!
posted by parmanparman at 11:07 AM on June 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

All those articles are part of a long conversation; they're responding to each other and batting ideas around, some trying to support them and others trying to knock them down. It's bewildering until you start getting a feel for the conversation, much like coming in on the middle of a movie or a cocktail party. What's going on? But the more you read the more you should be building up layers of words, phrases, concepts, and names in your mind that will start to connect to each other, so that you'll read "As X says..." and think "Oh yeah, I know who X is!" As for those people who "always say such insightful things," they may have more background than you or they may simply have developed their bullshitting skills—when I was in grad school I was good at tossing around names and concepts I was only vaguely familiar with and making it all sound knowledgeable and even witty (if I was on my game). I seriously doubt your professors think you're an idiot; they're very used to student fears and doubts (as well as student bullshitting). You could try asking one of your professors for help with context, but basically you need to stop beating yourself up and realize that everybody flounders before they can swim. You'll be fine.
posted by languagehat at 11:14 AM on June 8, 2018 [19 favorites]

Can you talk to your professors about your participation in discussions? They will be able to compare you to a large number of similar students - I suspect you're not doing as poorly as you think.

To write a response, you need context more than reading the article over and over. A shortcut is looking at a textbook (or wikipedia if you're hard up) for an outline of the topic overall. You can also look at the titles of the articles they cited for quick context and maybe read abstracts from relevant ones. Where does this article fit? What other perspectives are out there? You can definitely expand on "it reminds me of blah blah" to get a viable response.
posted by momus_window at 11:17 AM on June 8, 2018 [3 favorites]

I came here to say what languagehat is talking about, but less well: when I feel like you do, I seek out additional context about the subject matter. I flip through bibliographies, I hunt around for articles that disagree with the subject matter and generally try to broaden my understanding of a given topic so that I can form better opinions about it myself and speak about it more easily off the cuff.

Additionally, it may be worth talking to your professors about topics during office hours to get some direction about further reading, if you have trouble knowing where to start.
posted by mordax at 11:17 AM on June 8, 2018 [5 favorites]

My experience in grad seminars and teaching university students is that "lack of insight" is rarely a lack of reading ability but more about not being trained to ask questions. Does that make sense? Anyway, here are a few strategies.

First, push for specificity, to not stop at "that's interesting" or "that's not interesting" and move to "because."

For example, if I were a teacher trying to elicit more depth from a student's ideas, I would ask some of the following questions of the statement in your first example: which of so-and-so's points is most interesting? Why? How does it build on the ideas that come before? How does it diverge from them? What does it imply?
Of your second example, I might ask: Why? What makes them different? Is one of the ideas more or less compelling for you? How do you think these similar ideas inform each other? Do they inform other areas of study? How?

Second, really listen to your professor or to the students you find regularly insightful: Are they showing their thinking? How do they approach these texts that you're reading?

Sometimes "nothing" is a reasonable initial response. Sometimes the claims in these articles are so narrow that their conclusions are inapplicable outside the confines of that study. Sometimes the argument is unconvincing. (Why? Why not? Where is the paper most convincing? Where is it least convincing? Again, why?) Sometimes the writing is impenetrable to cover unclear thinking.

Try analyzing the piece as follows: Write the author's outline from the paper. What is their thesis statement? What evidence bolsters that argument? What might undermine their argument? How do they choose to address that? Do they choose to address that?

Finally, you might consider what your questions are in relation to the work you're reading. What (academic ideas) do you spend the most time thinking about? Why are they interesting or compelling to you? How does reading the assigned material change the way you are thinking?

I don't think you have to have answers to all of these questions or think about them all in relation to every piece you read but they are places to start.
posted by platitudipus at 11:18 AM on June 8, 2018 [17 favorites]

If you’re not that interested in this but it’s related to your field, you could always do what I do: just totally axe grind by vaguely associating what you read with something that you’re actually interested in, and then write about that. It’s kind of obnoxious to do this in class discussions, but I feel like it’s fair game in reaction papers.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 11:23 AM on June 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

The trick is that you need to read differently in graduate school. You can't just let the reading wash over you. You have to read critically and engage with the content as an individual.

You may need to allot more time for reading as you get started so you have adequate time for the pre-reading, reading, and post-reading parts of digesting assignments. Over time, though, you will get more efficient and still have things to say/questions to raise in response.

Critical Reading for Graduate Students
How to Read for Graduate School
posted by Miko at 11:38 AM on June 8, 2018 [11 favorites]

Start with: how does this work make me feel, and why?

Write down a bunch of things the work makes you feel, as you're feeling it. Then look critically at the passages that are especially interesting to you, and pull them apart with critical reading. Look for literary conventions and try to see how they're operating.
posted by Dressed to Kill at 11:40 AM on June 8, 2018

I went to a fancy university for my first shot at grad school (this was a mistake, but that's beside the point). One class I took was taught by the Grand Old Man of a department, a renowned expert, etc. etc. I was astonished one day when he took a moment to tell the class that when he reads new papers in his own field, he reads them four times.

So, that was step one of what I was doing wrong.
posted by wintersweet at 11:53 AM on June 8, 2018 [6 favorites]

Sometimes even a response like "Who gives a shit about this?" can be a worthwhile starting point. Like... who DOES give a shit about this? Is the paper applicable to other topics or ideas that you DO give a shit about? Or is the paper so narrowly focused or focused on some irrelevant topic that it genuinely is impossible to give a shit about? (If so, why might it have been assigned anyway?)

If you can get from an initial "who gives a shit?" to a genuinely engaged critical response - I think that can be a good step, and often it can spur you on to see what is working in the paper or why the author made the choices they did.
posted by Jeanne at 12:03 PM on June 8, 2018 [3 favorites]

I feel a bit hesitant to disagree with any of the articles

Skepticism is not the only tool you should have in your toolbox, but it's a good one for practicing insight generation. If you had to write an article disagreeing with the one you just read, or questioning its value, what points would you call out? What assertions does the author need to back up? What counter-arguments have other authors made and do you agree with them? Are there situations where the author's argument works better/worse than others?

"so and so had an interesting point"

This is another useful tool. Why is the point interesting? Did it surprise you? Does the author make you think about something in a new way? Or, did the author confirm something you suspected but weren't sure if you could back up? I think newer researchers (I am a professional researcher and I also mentor new hires) can be hesitant to speak up here because it feels a little embarrassing when someone says "no, that's not actually surprising, that's obvious to people in this field." Your hesitance can be a gift because it ensures that you also question your own understanding before going out guns-blazing with your arguments. But it's also important to create opportunities for this type of learning moment because it will help you hone your insights over time. To do this, it helps to form a hypothesis before you read each article.
posted by capricorn at 12:16 PM on June 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

Outline the author's main points, then decide whether or not you agree with them. As a facetious example, here's the Hokey Pokey:

1. Put right hand in - ok.
2. Take right hand out - disagree, no one should be forced to take their right hand out.
3. Put right hand in and shake it all about - ok, but why do they have to shake?
4. Do hokey pokey.
a. Turn yourself around - seems unnecessary but no problem.

Your reaction paper then becomes why you believe people should not be forced to take their hands out, and why shaking may be unnecessary.

For a less facetious example that's facetiously simplified, here's Kant's first two formulations of the Categorical Imperative:

1. First formulation.
a. Act on maxim... - is this actually how people take action?
b. Such that, by your will... - what are you actually willing? couldn't you define maxim overly narrowly?
c. It would become a universal law of nature. - is this even possible? can you think of a universal law where no exception could ever be made?
2. Second formulation.
a. Treat humanity as end in itself, not means to end. - fairly innocuous.

Your reaction paper is then about whether we actually act on maxims, and if we do, how we frame them. There are, of course, plenty of other criticisms of Kant to be made (and many have been, often in long manuscripts), but this at least gives you somewhat thoughtful things to say as a first-year grad student in class discussions and reaction papers.

Some good questions to ask:
-Is this assertion true?
-If it's not true, how does it weaken the author's argument?
-Is something missing?
-Does this concept remind you of other concepts you've read about?
posted by kevinbelt at 12:29 PM on June 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

Get a stack of note cards and a pen.

Skim the whole thing and build a mental structure : what is the thesis? What are the main points? Do you agree or disagree?

Once you know this, re-read carefully, and annotate annotate annotate. (I like to bracket thesis + arguments and star interesting passages.) Having skimmed first, you know what to look for and can pay closer attention.

Then take a note card, and write the title, author, subject matter, and a brief summary. Record the page or line number of your annotations, so you can zoom quickly back to them later.

On the back of your card, write a brief reflection piece. "This was good/bad/interesting/dumb because..." Try to connect it with 2 or 3 other papers, authors, or subjects. If you can't think of any, search around for responses - I start on Wikipedia and then back up with the bibliography. The more you do this, the more quickly the connections will come. A lot of this is just brute reading, really. But these steps also put it in memory. And do write it on cards if you can - computers are great for search and even make a backup in a Google doc, but the physical act will imprint the information better than typing.

Right before class and/or the paper, reread your card back to front. Then you'll have everything at your fingertips.

This all helps with the important thing, learning. It sounds like you a very very smart and more worried about getting that across in class, so also: when rereading the card, practice an elevator pitch. Have your 1 or 2 sentence brilliant insight prepared from your legwork. Then you can stun everyone aloud, throw off the anxiety, and refocus back on the subject. (This is somewhat tongue-in-cheek but I guarantee you, most of those insights you hear in class are prepared, not sudden. Even a sudden insight is available because the foundation is there. This work is the foundation.)

This practice and others I derived from the very dry but great "How to Read a Book" by Mortimer Adler. You will feel silly reading this book in public but it is powerful for study.

(Also those card are gonna make essay writing about 1000% times easier and if you don't need them after graduation are a great cackle and burn experience ymmv.)
posted by hapaxes.legomenon at 12:30 PM on June 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

You have to read critically and engage with the content as an individual.

Your professors don't think you are an idiot. At the same time, they may not be doing a great job in helping you learn how to engage critically with the material. In terms of how to engage with the material, here are a few things I sometimes ask as I am reading

- Who do I think this is written for? Do I think they did a good job reaching/talking to those people?
- How does this thing I've read fit in to the web of the other things that I've read? To other things in the world at the time it was written? At the current time? Is it a better or worse example of whatever type of thing it is than other examples?
- Do I have strong feelings about any of this (good or bad)? Why do I think that is? Do I think this is a personal reaction (i.e. about something specific to me) or do I think other people would have a similar reaction?
- Is the author trying to make me feel something, maybe different from the actual words they are saying? How do they do that? Is it effective?
- What was I expecting to see that I did not see? What was there that wasn't really necessary?
- What would have made this work better?

I am more likely to be teaching than being a student but even sometimes I hit a "Who gives a shit?" point with things people write (or things people tell me to read) and sometimes I'll go try to find reviews (this is easier with books than articles) to see what other people found compelling about the thing. When I taught people how to quickly skimm essays for the GRE a lot of what we taught people was "anticipatory" reading. You finish a paragraph and you say "OK what is going to happen next?" whether you're right or wrong, it causes you to not just think about the words you read but also what might be coming up and that helps you remember the thread/arc of a piece of writing which can help make it "stick" a little better.
posted by jessamyn at 2:02 PM on June 8, 2018 [2 favorites]

If you're reading a few authors on a subject, you can try channelling them: "what would (e.g.) Clayton say about this analysis?". That forces you to engage with both the paper and Clayton's viewpoint more deeply, but it's a human-centric way to think about it.

Also, thinking before you read: "how would I have done this kind of analysis/experiment?". Then when you do read, it becomes a game of "I knew it!"/"I never even considered that!".

And nth-ing everyone that says you're fine. You're fine.
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 2:30 PM on June 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

Sometimes, when I read these articles I just find myself thinking... nothing.

Tension, fear, anxiety, PTSD, or something is blocking your inner voice.

Try listening to music which really moves you and then reading an article in the aftermath.

Or wait until really late at night and read an article as you're fighting off sleep to give your sleep-mind a shot at it.

Or swear a blue streak over something that makes you really righteously angry and then sit down to the article.
posted by jamjam at 3:13 PM on June 8, 2018

In my experience arts, humanities, and sciences all work somewhat differently from the perspective of a masters student, and that's reflected by both what is in the literature and by what is expected of students. While there are some fairly transferable skills of critical reading and textual analysis, this all plays out rather differently if you are working in physics, or philosophy, or any number of other MS programs. I am of course biased by my own discipline, but it's not too hard to imagine that MS students in social work read qualitatively different literature and need to do different things with it, compared to MS students in math. Or history or materials science or literature, etc., masters programs are a highly diverse, as they should be.

There is good advice above, but if you want to really do better going forward, you probably need some guidance that's at least broadly about your domain of study, and ideally something specific to your actual field. I have no idea why you chose to withhold this basic and non-identifying info, but the people who know how to answer this question best are the professors, and advisers in your program. Please ask them, it is literally their job to help you.
posted by SaltySalticid at 6:00 PM on June 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

To go deeper, try asking yourself a question about your initial response. And then once you've answered your own question, question that response, too. Even rhetorical questions like "who cares?" can be answered.

Some questions that usually work for this: how? why? so what?

Author had an interesting point in his essay On Biting. (why was it interesting?) It isn't uncommon for dogs to bite men, but this author wrote about a man biting a dog. (why did the author write it?) The author is questioning societal assumptions about just how civilized humans really are. (how?) By portraying a human doing the unexpected and violent act that we normally think of dogs doing to humans. (Who cares?) Maybe it would make a difference in how society treats dogs, if we realized that we are capable of the same biting violence they are, and if we realized dogs have the same vulnerability to the pain of being bitten that we have.
posted by Former Congressional Representative Lenny Lemming at 6:01 PM on June 8, 2018

I am an academic, but the science sort, so I can’t add to the specific advice above.

What I can do though is make sure you know about impostor syndrome. It is super common among graduate students of all stripes. By all means, improve your skills, as that’s what grad school is for— but also realize that at least some of the others around you are feeling the same way, it is a common psychological issue for grad students, and the change required in your thinking may be more that it’s ok if you don’t know everything before you got into this. Your professors and your fellow student are a resource, go ask them if you don’t know how to do a task. (Warning; some may be asshats and indeed act as if you should know everything already. Grad school can be unkind to the mental health).
posted by nat at 11:30 AM on June 9, 2018 [3 favorites]

If a reading just doesn't speak to you, do a reverse reference search and see what other scholars have written about it. Even though you won't have time to read those articles, the titles will generally spark some ideas.

Also compare the reading to previous assignments for the seminar. Seminars are designed to build out your knowledge from the first piece to a body of work.
posted by Kalatraz at 6:29 PM on June 9, 2018 [2 favorites]

In my doctoral program, we were required to declare a minor area of study outside of our program. I found it surprisingly helpful to make explicit connections between the ideas and readings in my minor and my major. A small bonus was that none of my classmates or professors had any experience or knowledge of my minor so not only were my connections new and interesting to them they couldn't really challenge the validity of my proposed connections!

I also echo what several people have said about reading academic material differently. Me and my classmates had many conversations about our experiences of "learning to read again" in graduate school. I have tried to make that explicit for some of my students and they're sometimes shocked when I explicitly discuss how I read articles in my discipline e.g., I never read it all the way through the first time but jump around to specific sections, I gloss over some details and only read them if I have to.
posted by ElKevbo at 8:26 AM on June 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

There are so many great suggestions here! A couple of my own:
-The “how might I use this?” question is important. The coursework you’re doing requires you to spend a lot of time living in other people’s projects and ideas, and it can be easy to feel stuck when you encounter good work but don’t know what to do with it. Having a section of your reading notes where you force yourself to jot down what the material can do for you is a good mental habit to get into. This can be as small as, “This will make a great footnote for my argument about X” or “I really like the clarity of the introduction and want to use this as a model in my writing” to as large as “This is one of the 4-5 foundational texts to help me think about an issue” or “This will help me explain my interests to friends who ask about them.”

-I always frame this facetiously as “I’m from the Midwest; I hate conflict,” but really, disagreement with what an article says is not the only mode in which to engage it. It is also, as your post hints at, a matter of subject position: inexperience can make you reluctant to criticize someone else’s methods (even if those criticisms are valid!) and this can be gendered, too. That said while encouraging yourself to try out disagreement as a thought experience, it can be just as helpful to ask questions like:
-“What additional evidence would support the argument presented here?”
-“This seems like an effective study/critical framework/etc. What else can it be used to study?”
-“What else can I put this in conversation with?”
The sandcastle model of responding can be useful to you here—you can think of critical engagement as building another tower on a sandcastle that someone else has constructed (more on this here)
posted by dapati at 1:36 PM on June 11, 2018 [1 favorite]

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