How to Read Like a Scholar

Gideon at Scholastici.us had some advice for students recently, saying that when it comes to scholarly reading, there really is no substitute for hard work, for actually sitting down and reading.

Most the time in school what you need to do is very simple:

Sit down with the book, a pen and paper, and perhaps a computer… And from that point, you read. That’s it. You go through and read the book, you underline important points and passages, pay special attention to introductions and conclusions, be sure to note special terminology, names and dates and that’s it. Maybe afterward take notes on the text.

There is a time for technology and clever tricks. There is also a time for elbow grease.

This is good advice, and yet it’s incomplete. Reading as an academic exercise involves not just gleaning the content form a book or essay but engaging with it. We read not just to learn some new set of facts but also to learn how facts are put together to form an argument, to learn what kinds of arguments are acceptable in our chosen disciplines, and to prompt us towards further research. Reading of this sort raises as many questions as it answers, or more.

While reading, students should keep the following questions in mind:

  • What is the author trying to say? This seems obvious, but it seems to be a stumbling block for many students. I’m convinced that the failure to ask this simple question is what leads students to avoid reading, to feel that reading is a chore or, worse, busy-work. Remember, authors — academic or otherwise — aren’t in the business of writing just to bore students; there’s something important they want to communicate. Granted, not all writing communicates well, but regardless of the writer’s skill, if a professor assigned a reading, it’s because there’s something there worth knowing about.
  • How does the author say what they’re trying to say? What evidence do they use? What style of argument are they making? How are they positioning themselves? You’d be surprised how many people read an essay about, say, infanticide (the killing of newborn children) and assume the author is advocating this practice instead of simply describing it. These readers totally misread the author’s position.
  • Why is the author’s point important? If you can figure out why the author felt he or she needed to write the article or book in your hands, you’re a good way towards figuring out what they’re trying to say. What contribution does the work make to the author’s discipline, to our understanding of society or the world? What problems are they trying to solve?
  • Do you agree or disagree with the author? Why? Just because something’s in print doesn’t make it right. As a student, it is essential that you read critically, with an eye towards inconsistencies in an author’s argument or evidence. Are there other explanations for the data they present? Is the author’s interpretation colored by his or her religion, professional background, political orientation, or social position? Note: far too many students seem to think that criticizing style is a good substitute for critiquing substance. It’s not. A lot of academic writing is stilted, difficult (sometimes deliberately so), or just plain bad; this does not mean that the ideas are not good.
  • How does this work connect with other works? What’s new about it (or, if it’s an older work, what was new when it was published)? What disciplinary debates is the author engaging? How does this work build on, or refute, earlier works by other authors? How does it fit with the author’s other work? What other work is the one you’re reading like?
  • What is the social context of the work? Always consider the historical moment in which a work was created. What kind of person wrote it, and for what kind of audience? What historical events shaped the author’s perceptions and ideas? How was their world different from yours, and how was it similar?

These questions should be on your mind even if you can’t read the whole book. It’s a sad fact of college life that not everything that is assigned can be given the same level of attention. In grad school, for instance, I was regularly charged with reading three (or more) hefty books a week, plus supporting essays and commentaries — while carrying out my own research at the same time. This is not humanly possible. You have to learn to prioritize reading, and to approach it systematically to make sure you get as much as possible out of whatever amount of reading you can manage.

Here’s how you do it:

  1. Skim the book. Examine the table of contents to get a feeling for the structure and main points of the book. Flip through the chapters, skimming the first few paragraphs of each, and then the section headings. Check the index for any topics you feel are especially important. Then, if you have time;
  2. Read the Introduction and conclusion. Most of the author’s theoretical position will be laid out in the introduction, along with at least a summary of the chapters and sections within. The conclusion revisits much of these points, and usually gives a good overview of the data or other evidence. Sometimes the conclusion is not marked as such; in this case, read the last chapter. Then, if you have time;
  3. Dip in. Read the chapters that seem most relevant or interesting. Get a sense for what the author is trying to accomplish. Flip through the rest of the book and look more closely at anything that catches your eye. Then, if you have time;
  4. Finish the book. Read the whole thing. If you know you’ll have time, skip 1 – 3 and just read, cover to cover.

Obviously it’s best to read the whole book; you’ll miss a lot reading anything less. But given the choice between not reading at all and skimming to at least get a taste of what you’re missing, I say, go for skimming. And try to keep yourself better organized in the future so that you don’t shortchange your entire education.

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