What are some strategies for academic reading?
January 23, 2007 2:26 PM   Subscribe

Gradstudentfilter: What are some strategies for reading 500-900 pages of academic text per week?

Some context: I'm taking two classes and this is the assigned reading load (roughly). I don't have an option about what or how much I read, nor how soon I must read it. I have to produce insightful analyses of what I've read for each class each week, so while a certain amount of faking/skimming is acceptable (necessary, even), I really do have to get through pretty much all of the material each week.

I'm not a very fast reader when it comes to academic stuff. About 20 pages an hour, at best. This puts me in the range of having to spend minimally 30 hours a week reading, and I'm finding it really hard to maintain my concentration for that long. I also find that I want to read more slowly, to sort out how things are related, what my analysis is, etc. I find that on the first day after my break (I take a day a week off for my sanity), I can read for about 6 hours with two breaks, but it goes steadily down from there, and my ability to concentrate starts to dissolve to the point where by the third day I'm needing long breaks every 20 minutes.

I've checked out some of the previous questions about reading faster, but they don't really have suggestions for sustaining long periods of reading materials that you may be more or less interested in.
posted by carmen to Education (42 answers total) 82 users marked this as a favorite
Honestly, for me (it was undergraduate, but I was a history major, so I had a several hundred pages of reading a week as well) the best way to deal with the reading was to do it away from home. I designated a specific place (in my case the library) where I would go and just read without distractions.

Also for the amount of time it takes, consider the reading to be your job and just do it, it is not supposed to be easy or quick. So while I am sure that someone will be able to give you some great suggestions as to how to make it go more efficiently, all I can suggest is to grin and bear it.
posted by BobbyDigital at 2:41 PM on January 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

You really have to provide insightful analyses of 500-900 pages a week? Ask whoever's assigning how important it all is and which are the key assignments.

If you don't get any guidance on what to focus on, then you're going to have to chose to prioritize some texts over some others on the basis of which ones you think are more important and which ones interest you. You'll learn much more if you spend all the time you want on a few texts and neglect the rest, than if you give short shrift to all of them.

(Sorry, I know that doesn't answer your question directly, but it's how I dealt with all the reading assigned in law school and I never felt it did me harm.)
posted by footnote at 2:43 PM on January 23, 2007

What kind of material is it? Fiction? A lot of memorizing facts (like anatomy classes or law classes), or a lot of theories (like philosophy or English lit analysis)?

My base strategy is to read with pencil in hand, underline the most important elements only (usually no more than one sentence or so per page), number in the margins if a writer is giving 4 examples of something, make simple notes in the margin (like "recap of sect 2") etc. Then I can skim back over what I've read, and my pencil marks form an outline of the key points. Upon finishing each chunk (eg an article) I write a very short, 3 sentences or so, summary of what's in the paper.

If you're really not interested in a given piece of reading, try to think of soooome project that it might help you with; some reasonably specific question you're interested in that it might help you answer. Then you can approach it with an eye toward answering this question of yours. It will be easier to get through if you come to it with an agenda (even if just a fake, ad hoc agenda).

Often the reading gets easier as you get more knowledgable about the discipline, because you have more background, and you have an easier time focusing only on the key points of each reading. (Ie, you can ignore more of the bulk of each reading)

As for how to arrange the time you spend reading, vary the time chunks and setting as needed. Start as early in the morning as you can, give yourself breaks of an hour as needed, be sure you are eating enough and doing some exercise -- even if just walking briskly to campus.
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:44 PM on January 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

This sounds like a flip answer, but isn't:

posted by Netzapper at 2:46 PM on January 23, 2007

Yeah, skim. First and last paragraphs of each section; delve in when it seems like you're missing something vital, but basically get the general idea and pick up enough details to make good fodder for analysis. You don't think book reviewers, even the insightful ones, read every word of all those books, do you? When grad school's over you can go back to good reading habits, but right now you can't afford them.
posted by languagehat at 2:52 PM on January 23, 2007

Break up your reading as much as you can. Read a little before breakfast, a little after, and so on throughout the day.
Become a book dork. Carry your book everywhere. Don't be afraid of hitting the pole while you're walking down the sidewalk, head in book (been twice for me now, but then I also read in the shower).
Accept that you're going to have to cut down on non-essential activities. That usually means cutting down on social activities until your classes are over.
When planning your week, count in the breaks you'll need from reading.
Think about what you read while you take breaks, unless you're too frazzled.
Remember that you will get faster.
And that you may be simply taking too much in, and that it's more important sometimes to just keep your head above water than to try and develop a deep understanding of what you're reading.
You can do it, but the rest of your life may have to be "on hold" for a while.
posted by nicholai88 at 2:54 PM on January 23, 2007

Here's a strategy that might work. This is not absolutely foolproof, and might not work equally well in all disciplines, but anyone who is an academic has some quick way of going through a large amount of reading on a regular basis. In fact, as an academic, you cannot spend the time to read every single book cover to cover all the way through, so a big part of grad school is figuring out how to read/skim quickly and well. Different things work for different people (one professor once told me she skimmed by reading the first sentence of every paragraph right through a whole book; I could never do this, though). You get better with practice!

1. Read the introduction/introductory chapter: this should help you situate the text in the context of the field, tell you what the major question is, and outline the shape of the argument.
2. Read the conclusion: this will summarize the argument.
3. Look at the index: this will help you figure out what the author is talking about most of the time.
4. From this, try to figure out what the argument of the book is, how the argument is structured, and what kinds of evidence the author uses. Write this down in a paragraph or so.
5. Then, and ONLY then, skim as necessary. By this point you should have figured out roughly what the essential or interesting parts of the book are.
posted by agent99 at 2:55 PM on January 23, 2007 [3 favorites]

I'm kind of curious as to what you're reading as well. For journal articles, in particular journals in scientific disciplines, here's a method of skimming that I've found helpful: read the abstract, introduction, and conclusion, and look at all figures and graphs. If you have time, it's worth checking out the methods, too. This is a bare bones way to read that will usually give you the gist of the article. This isn't totally ideal-it is difficult, if not impossible, to evaluate the article without reading the methods, results, and discussion, but it can be enough to fake your way through a discussion, or just know what the article is about.
posted by HighTechUnderpants at 3:01 PM on January 23, 2007

In philosophy, we had -- maybe -- 50 pages per class, per week to read in graduate school. Just enough, but maybe too much to wrap one's mind around and get any real work done writing. To my horror when I took a course in the political science department, they had Hobbes' Leviathan due in ONE WEEK with some other readings! (Rawls' Theory of Justice too, in one week -- all of it!) I don't think anyone can really be expected to consume the whole thing and think about it in one week, let alone have intelligent thoughts about it or discuss it.

That understood, what the political science students told me they did was to skim it for one or two things they could talk about intelligently if called upon in class. Now I'm a romantic about academia to a certain degree and really wish there was time to read that much. But faced with a task of such absurdity, I think the political science grad students had a good strategy.

Maybe it would be slightly better to focus on 1/4 of your reading and do a bang-up job on it, neglecting the rest. Really, this workload is not promoting learning or thinking -- just burnout.
posted by ontic at 3:01 PM on January 23, 2007

1. Grad school is a full time job. 30 hours a week (or more) is not an unreasonable workload. The good news is, unlike many jobs, you can divide up the work as you choose -- do a couple hours in the morning, then go for a brisk walk. A couple more, then go for lunch. A couple more, then go and shop for groceries and cook yourself a hearty supper. Then head out to your favourite coffee shop/bar/library for an evening session. With frequent breaks, the work will seem less laborious, and you will process what you have learned as you carry out other tasks. This also enables you to separate 'reading time' (where you are just plowing through) from 'thinking time' (where you are sorting out connections between different things you have read).

2. Grad school is a selfish endeavour. You are there to fulfill the requirements and learn what you need to learn to develop a dissertation topic and do your research. You may wish to master everything that is put in front of you, but that's just not realistic. Devote your full attention to materials you think will be of use to you, and learn how to 'fake it' for the rest (read intros/conclusions and skim the rest, read scholarly reviews of books you have been assigned in order to get context, etc.) This is not 'cheating' -- in a way grad school is a professional apprenticeship, and techniques like this are part of what you are there to learn.

Disclaimer: the above is part of what I found distasteful about grad school, and I did eventually quit.
posted by Urban Hermit at 3:05 PM on January 23, 2007 [6 favorites]

Do you have classmates who's intelligence and reliability is trustworthy?
Find three other such classmates, divide the readings by four, and deliver type-up summary notes to each other every thursday or sunday or whatever works for you. (I did this as a polisci student in the fourth year of an honours class; the class was half undergrad students and half masters students, so i feel like that was a fairly representative sample of the grad-student workload.)
posted by Kololo at 3:24 PM on January 23, 2007

Hello? Me? What are you doing spending time on MetaFilter?

What I'm doing is rewarding myself for every 10-20 pages read. That's all I can do.

I used to do what Kololo did as an MA student, but at the PhD level you just can't get away with that. In small seminars, the profs are looking for you to contribute insightfully with your perspective in mind.
posted by k8t at 3:33 PM on January 23, 2007

Response by poster: Sorry, I should have been more specific about what I'm reading (it's the distractedness).

One class is an ethnography a week. The other is either an ethnography or several chapters from several ethnographies and one or more theoretical articles. In the book-a-week class, skimming is acceptable, although insight is required. I, however, have not every really grasped what is meant by "skimming" (although thanks, languagehat, that helps), and my attempts have been mostly unsuccessful.

In the other class, though, we are dealing with developing philisophical/theoretical notions of self, subjectivity, and personhood from ethnographic data. The subject is pretty complex and a lot of the language is... vague? Not new to me per se, but sometimes used in different ways in different texts. There are a lot of concepts that require the details in order to understand.

The main problem that I'm having, I guess, is that I can't keep up the focus: I feel like my head is filling up with connections (there's a lot of theoretical overlap between the classes) and I don't have time to stop and sort them out, but they are really distracting. So I start reflecting on papers I could write, or how on subjectivity and the capacity for managing paradox/conflicting information in social forms are related and boom! it's been half an hour since I read anything yet I'm exhausted by thought.

On preview: hi k8t :)

What do you do to reward yourself? I like Metafilter but its two major drawbacks are that a) it's reading so those thought processes don't really get a break, and b) it can be pretty freakin' distracting in its own right.

I guess, to restate it a different way, I don't have a problem with committing the time to do the reading in theory, i.e., I'm not looking for ways to get out of doing the reading. What I'm having a problem with is actually focusing on the reading itself and not getting distracted in either academic or non-academic ways.
posted by carmen at 3:42 PM on January 23, 2007

Yes, MetaFilter or e-mail checking is a reward. (I should be reading right now, but I am not!!! ACK!!!) But maybe a little TV?

I also read with the TV blaring in the background. It keeps my distracted parts of my brain happy and lets me read longer. When I am at school/in the library, I listen to music. I couldn't read for very long without it.
posted by k8t at 3:47 PM on January 23, 2007

I still have problems with this, for what it's worth, so I'm not sure that I have a really good answer.

One thing that slowed me down a lot was excessive note-taking. I needed to have faith that I would remember the important points of what I was reading and didn't have to write everything down. Therefore, my strategy now is to take notes at the end of every chapter, and then take a brief break. No note-taking or break-taking in the middle of a chapter.

(If you're getting distracted by the connections in your head, though, I wonder if you can take a break and make a note of all the connections that you're making. That's good stuff to bring up in class, and once you've got it on paper, you might not need to dwell on it so much. You'll know you can come back to it later.)

I somehow managed to fool myself into thinking that I studied best with distractions. It's not true. I need to go the library and sit there, with no music and no friends around and nothing in front of me but my work and a cup of coffee.

I also need to schedule an end time to my studying. If I think I have all day and all night, there's no incentive to get stuff done now. It's easier to force myself to work if I know that I have a certain amount I have to get done by 8:00, and after 8 I'm done for the day.
posted by craichead at 3:49 PM on January 23, 2007

What program are you in? My first year of grad school (anthropology, University of Chicago) had a similar workload and skimming or sharing notes was not really an option. It was not so much memorizing details or specific facts- rather, we were expected to provide insightful analysis and argue the relative merits of a given text/writer, incorporating key elements of the secondary readings as well.

It seems like you are in a similar situation- don't sweat it, it can be done.

Part of it is thinking strategically in terms of your priorities and which texts are more or less likely to be central for a particular session (here collaboration with your classmates will help).

The rest is developing an approach to reading that suits you. Do you read better at the library, at a cafe, or at home? Do you prefer the daytime or the night. Do you need a certain level of ambient noise or activity around you, or total silence? Do you prefer a comfy chair or fall asleep easily?

It sounds like you have difficulty sustaining concentration for more than a couple of hours. After 2 hours or so, try doing something else entirely- clean the apartment, go for a walk, take care of administrative issues, whatever. Don't just take a 15 minute break, do something else and come back to the work later. If you've planned out your day relatively well, you should still get through what you need to do.

20 pages an hour is a pretty good rate, particularly if you are reading for deeper comprehension. Academic reading is exhausting, but as many have said here, it is a full time job. With actual classes, and additional requirements, do not be surprised to spend 50 or 60 hours a week working during your first year (at least at peak times).

Are you supporting yourself on top of funding/loans? That can produce a lot of additional stress, especially in the first year. If you are working, you might want to look into loans- not every one has a full ride, and it helps take some of the pressure off. Do you have a family- your school likely has a support group where you can get additional advice and support.

Above all, during your first year make sure you set aside at least one evening a week for you that doesn't involve school at all. Go out for a drink, see a movie, spend time with your partner or kids that does not involve a meal or you working on something school-related.

Talk to your cohorts- they are likely feeling the same thing.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 3:55 PM on January 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

On preview, what craichead says about notes and the connections in your head is totally relevant as well. Especially with taking a particularly philosophical approach to ethnography.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 3:58 PM on January 23, 2007

TheWhiteSkull - one evening a week for a date? What?!?! Is it even possible?
posted by k8t at 3:59 PM on January 23, 2007

Response by poster: TheWhiteSkull: I'm at the University of Toronto. I'm actually in second year, and fortunately not having to TA this term. I do take every Saturday off (in full), because I found last year if I didn't I went pretty nuts, although right now I'm considering whether to instate 2 hours of reading every Saturday morning.

I'm appreciating all these comments because I'm finding that what worked for me last year (the class situation and the living situation were both different) is just not working for me this year, and all these different perspectives are helping. Please keep it coming :) I'm going to go read for a while.
posted by carmen at 4:16 PM on January 23, 2007

Well, there is a certain expectation at U of C that your lifestyle should be, shall we say, monastic.

What I mean is that you should have at least one evening a week where you are not thinking about school at all, not catching up with something, and generally giving yourself a brain vacation. This is not going out after reading, putting the kids to bed, spending time with your partner or taking an hour to watch tv. This is your no school time.

For me this generally meant getting the hell out of Hyde Park.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 4:19 PM on January 23, 2007

Saturday off- good idea. Especially in Toronto. Actually, I'm a little jealous- I did my BA at U of T and grew up in the Annex. You should not have a problem finding distractions when you want them.

Who's your advisor?
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 4:24 PM on January 23, 2007

You've gotten a ton of excellent advice so far, and I'll just add one tiny and mundane-seeming thing: little sticky post-it flags! They help to remind you of key bits of readings during class discussions, and then they help you find the key bits again two months later, when you're writing the paper on whatever it is.
posted by paleography at 4:49 PM on January 23, 2007

My best friend and colleague who was an econ major had a similar assignment, each week he was supposed to be reading about 300 pages of writings on Adam Smith. He didn't even crack open the book until 48 hours before he was supposed to deliver a 10-page report on what he had read.

He read the chapter summaries and that was it. He wrote about them, and his writing skills delivered the goods: his professor gave him an A for the course and wanted to publish his paper. He wisely declined the offer.
posted by mullingitover at 4:52 PM on January 23, 2007

Two pieces of likely worthless advice:
1. If you're in a PhD program, realize that grades no longer matter. A-? Big deal. B+? Big deal. Now you *will* want good letters of rec, so be sure you impress the right people, but your transcript no longer has any relevance on your life. Huzzah!

2. Take periodic breaks from reading to do a fifteen minute freewrite about the reading. Plan to produce a page-ish of synthesis of your reading, and perhaps a few ideas/questions of your own. Write fast, don't correct, just dump your brain. I've found that the process of (hand-writing) a page of thoughts helps organize my thoughts and really solidifies any important ideas. And then I sound like a freakish genius in seminar. I love sounding like a freakish genius (be forewarned, everyone hates a talkative freakish genius. The secret is to stay thoughtfully quiet until you open your mouth and allow a teensy gem of brilliance spill out. Never, ever cough up factual info and hope to look smart. You'll only look like a know-it-all. But you already know that, I'm sure).

Oh, and don't ignore the beauty of a multi-pass read. Read once quickly, recognizing that you'll miss many ideas and concepts. Then read it again fast-ish and see how much more sense things make. Then skim and everything falls into place nicely.

Now to apply all my own advice and get back to my own reading...
posted by terceiro at 5:05 PM on January 23, 2007 [3 favorites]

Gotta disagree on the grades for the PhD program -- when I was at UChicago, we were told "B is for bad". They would kick people out/not give them further funding for more than a couple, in my program. Don't ask me how I know this.
Hopefully most other schools are better than that, but be careful about writing grades off entirely.
posted by katemonster at 5:15 PM on January 23, 2007

I like many of these answers, including the suggestions for how to approach skimming. When I was assigned lengthy history books that I couldn't finish, I found it helpful to look up reviews of the books in academic journals. I was usually in the library anyway, trying to finish my reading, so it didn't take an extra trip somewhere or too much time to do this. The reviews were generally short, quick reads (under 5 pages) and helped me get more out of the book I was skimming, and made me feel a little more confident about contributing to class discussions.
posted by PY at 5:18 PM on January 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

Take periodic breaks from reading to do a fifteen minute freewrite about the reading.
I totally agree with this. I actually think that's part of what my taking notes at the end of a chapter strategy does for me. It forces me to synthesize, pick out the important points, and evaluate the reading on my own terms, rather than fixating on details.

And you definitely want to write a short summary of the reading when you're done with it, because that will be super helpful when you're studying for your qualifying exams. And then the notes that you take for qualifying exams will be super helpful when you're writing your dissertation proposal and for teaching. You can cobble together entire lectures out of book summaries you wrote for exams.
posted by craichead at 5:23 PM on January 23, 2007 [2 favorites]

the relative importance of grades will depend highly on which school and department you're in, and whether you are supported by scholarships that require a certain GPA. in my department at U of T (chemistry) nobody's given me hell for getting a B -- yet. history may be different. you should ask around.

there was some good advice given in one of the other 'omg grad school ack' threads about how you cannot possibly expect to do everything that is expected of you. learning to prioritize things and pick out the important stuff is part of what you're here to learn.

as for heavy readings, i took a lot of history courses as an undergrad -- reading loads were more like 2-300 pages a week, so it's not quite the same thing, but i developed a few techniques that helped. one is that i noticed my reading comprehension was better when i was doing specific research for a paper, rather than a generally assigned reading.

so i've found it helps to read with an issue or "question" in your mind that you think the text will be able to answer or inform. this may lead to a one-dimensional sort of interpretation of the reading but it's better than being totally snowed under by the sheer magnitude and not retaining anything.

also, this is a bit of a mind game that i normally abhor, but it can help to try to figure out why the instructor assigned that particular reading. having an inkling of what you're expected to get out of the assignment can help you decide what to skim and what to read more deeply, if it comes to that.

ps. stay away from robarts, if that's where you work. there's too many people, too many distractions, etc. the only place i get any real studying done is in the middle of the night in the chemistry library when nobody else is there. try to find somewhere really isolated where you can get sucked in; it is the only way i've found to really plow through a lot of material.
posted by sergeant sandwich at 5:38 PM on January 23, 2007 [2 favorites]

I made some suggestions before: How to Read a Book in an Hour. Hope they help.
posted by LarryC at 6:13 PM on January 23, 2007

Learn to skim, and learn what you don't need to read. Take notes only if you are preparing to write a paper or are preparing for your quals.

Many, many, many social science books are organized as introduction, three or four case studies or detail chapters, conclusion. You only need to read the body chapters if you need to know the details. The intro and conclusion will almost always give you the author's theoretical perspective, big ideas, and indicate the weak points. (There are many exceptions to this rule, but most of the time you can make it work for you.) So, if the entire three hour class is going to be spent going over the details of some anthropologist's years in "his village," you need to read the body chapters. If the class is going to be spent looking at the interview techniques used by three different researchers, you need to read the chapters that detail their interviews. And so on. Even within chapters, there is often a lot of filler, or stuff that is important but not to you at this time, and you can just skip all that stuff.

What you don't need to do is read every page in every book with equal emphasis. Read with a question or a goal in mind --- don't read blindly. Approaching a book knowing "I have to concisely explain the author's theoretical approach" is really different than "I need to read the book."

Learn how long you can concentrate at a stretch, and pace yourself accordingly. I would strongly argue that email and Metafilter should not be used for breaks, but instead for a defined period at the end of the day. You spend enough time looking at the screen (especially now with all the online journals); reward yourself with a stroll to the coffee bar or anything else that gets you out of your chair. Treat grad school like a job, and part of that means knowing when you have done enough, for the morning, the day, or the week.
posted by Forktine at 6:18 PM on January 23, 2007

re: grades. I overstated. I think every school cut your funding (which is the same as being kicked out, as far as I'm concerned) for more than a couple of B's. But my point is that a couple of B's are OK. And on the job market, no one will ever know that you once got any B's at all. You can't be top of your class anymore, because in grad school (for a terminal degree like an MFA or PhD) you're in a class of one. You're already the top, congratulations! Now relax a little. (But only a little, of course.)
posted by terceiro at 6:20 PM on January 23, 2007

Response by poster: LarryC, I've never been able to manage to read 30 page introduction in 20 minutes. I've tried, but I can't get the hang of it. 20 pages an hour is, I think, my top speed at which I can retain comprehension (for academic materials). I really like the idea of what you said, but I don't know how to make it work for me.
posted by carmen at 6:33 PM on January 23, 2007

I don't know how LarryC would answer (perhaps, "read faster"? ;) but I would say, learn what not to read. Not every paragraph in those 30 pages matters. Skip the parts that don't matter at all. The parts that sort of matter, read the first sentence in every paragraph. The parts that really matter, read carefully.

How do you know what parts matter and what parts do not? By never opening a book without having a question or purpose in mind, and letting that question guide your reading. Even something as vague as, "I want to extract the main ideas for class tomorrow" is sufficient --- that tells you what to skip ("...this book was made possible with generous funding from..."; anything that smells like a lit review; etc).
posted by Forktine at 7:05 PM on January 23, 2007

My break system when reading or working is similar to one that Merlin had on his site. I set a timer for 10 minutes, read for 10 minutes, then break for 2. After an hour, I've done 50 minutes of reading and taken 10 minutes of break, which is pretty good. The upside is that I stay more focused and on-track between my "mini-breaks".

If you feel like you aren't able to get enough done in each work session, try 25 minutes with 5 minute breaks - once I get going (hour 2 or so), I can ramp up the time that I'm going between breaks.
posted by rossination at 7:30 PM on January 23, 2007

What program are you in and how far along are you in it? I have a feeling that as the semester progresses you will discover that you are not required/expected to read everything on your syllabi. Unless you are a philosophy PhD candidate at Oxford or a med student in a highly competitive program, I would say read as much as you can in the beginning of the semester and as time goes on determine what is necessary to read and skim/skip the rest.
posted by sneakin at 7:30 PM on January 23, 2007

1. If you're in a PhD program, realize that grades no longer matter. A-? Big deal. B+? Big deal. Now you *will* want good letters of rec, so be sure you impress the right people, but your transcript no longer has any relevance on your life. Huzzah!

Grant applications to NIH require transcript information. Don't shrug off your grades.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:20 AM on January 24, 2007

Note that 30 hours a week is not an extreme amount of reading if that's for a full-load of courses (in which case you should spend at least 35 hours a week on homework in addition to your in-class time -- it's your friggin' job if you're full time).

There's a lot of good advice here, but nothing beats just sitting down and doing it. If you read the 500-900 pages a week for a few weeks you'll find you can get close to reading a page per minute (depending, of course. my brother has a learning disability that makes reading tough; obviously your mileage will vary). I read 300 pages per week in addition to my labs, research assistantship, and class work just by sitting down and doing it for awhile every night.

The most important thing for me is to read in a different location than where I work or play. In other words, reading in my living room is way better than my office (believe it or not!) and loads better than the TV room...
posted by sablazo at 5:10 AM on January 24, 2007

Physical exercise. It gets mentioned for grad students all over the place but it's not just an idea. I'm back in my undergrad (also Anthro, but in a teeny department) and really need to start walking more.

The exercise does two things. It keeps your body healthier and it gives your big mind something to do while your undercover mind puts together the bits of the reading that you will need to be insightful about. You see, the insight doesn't always happen while your nose is in the book, so you have to get your nose out for some of it.

My next thought is to ask you if you're getting enough carbohydrates in your diet. Fiber is good to keep your lower half moving properly, but things that break down into sugar are really important for your brain. Thinking uses loads of energy, much more than watching television, and the only energy your brain can utilize is sugar, fat and protein are too big to sneak into your brain.

So, keep that fruit handy. I also ike cheese and crackers for studying. The cheese gives me protein and fat while the crackers keep my brain going. Snacks are a good thing to assemble during your break times if you study at home. They don't have to be elaborate, but again, it's a physical process. Putting something together is a different activity for your brain than reading. If you don't study at home, bring the snacks with you. You'll go broke trying to buy those awful slices of cake at Starb*ucks every day.
posted by bilabial at 5:41 AM on January 24, 2007 [4 favorites]

Carmen: Have you worked on learning to paragraph surf? You read only the first sentence of each paragraph. Go through the chapter quickly, flip, flip, flip. It takes some getting used to but is a powerful tool for processing a book quickly.

Also, it is not actually possible to do all the reading in grad school in the humanities or social sciences. Everyone pretends to, but no one does. Change your goal from reading X to understanding X. By understanding I mean that you comprehend the theoretical perspective of the work, its major strengths and weaknesses (with a few concrete examples to whip out when the work is discussed) and most importantly, where the work fits into the big scholarly conversation that is your field. This last point is really the key goal of a graduate education, far more than stockpiling a brainful of specific facts.

When you walk into the seminar room have something to say about each of the readings, especially if you haven't read them all. Make your point as soon as possible before the professor calls on you and asks about a part of the book you have not read.

Good luck!
posted by LarryC at 6:48 AM on January 24, 2007

it is not actually possible to do all the reading in grad school in the humanities or social sciences. Everyone pretends to, but no one does.

In my experience this varies a lot across departments and disciplines. There are skim-and-fake-it departments and disciplines, but there are also read-everything departments and disciplines. My own (literature) department actually has got a culture where most people really read almost everything assigned. But it's concomitant with this that students often will freely admit (and loudly complain) that they didn't have time to do all the assigned reading on a given day because there was too much of it, and that reading loads in many courses are pretty light. As compared to this, some other departments I know (e.g. history) have more of a pragmatic skim-and-fake-it culture combined with very heavy reading loads in their courses.

I do think it's clear, just from the quantity of assigned reading, that carmen is in a skim-and-fake-it department, so the skimming and selective-reading skills outlined above are the best advice. (And I love LarryC's earlier post on how to read an academic book in an hour; that's good advice for any student.) But having to do this is not a completely universal academic predicament.
posted by RogerB at 11:58 AM on January 24, 2007

Response by poster: Weird. I had a comment that I thought I submitted, but I guess I didn't.

RogerB, I'd say my department is actually somewhat between the skim-and-fake and the read-the-whole-thing. I happen to be taking two classes that have exceptionally heavy reading loads. Some selective reading/skimming is expected, but people are expected to have a pretty complete knowledge of the material (and my fellow students manage it pretty convincingly). My problem is as much one of concentration as one of reading--ethnography is sort of intermittently dense and light, but I've been getting so distracted that my two hour readings sessions start to dwindle down to nothing, or I'll read a page and then realize I've been lost in thought for half an hour.

Anyway, there's been lots of great help in this thread. I tried the paragraph-skimming thing today, and was able to use it quite successfully to narrow down my detailed reading to pursue key points. I've decided to use paragraph skimming to make initial notes and a reading strategy in the first part of the week, then read for detail in the second part. I hope that will help my concentration problems by making me less panicked about not getting things done, and by giving me a sense of where the reading is going, so I can focus on that (with specific questions:) ).

Thanks again to all the suggestions in the thread. It's been hugely helpful.
posted by carmen at 7:32 PM on January 24, 2007

How to read in college
posted by ye#ara at 3:10 AM on January 25, 2007

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