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Advice for Students: How to Read Like a Scholar

Advice for Students: How to Read Like a Scholar
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:

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    • 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:

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    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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    Last Updated on September 10, 2019

    How to Master the Art of Prioritization

    How to Master the Art of Prioritization

    Do you know that prioritization is an art? It is an art that will lead you to success in whatever area that matters to you.

    By prioritization, I’m not talking so much about assigning tasks, but deciding which will take chronological priority in your day—figuring out which tasks you’ll do first, and which you’ll leave to last.

    Effective Prioritization

    There are two approaches to “prioritizing” the tasks in your to-do list that I see fairly often:

    Approach #1 Tackling the Biggest Tasks First and Getting Them out of the Way

    The idea is that by tackling them first, you deal with the pressure and anxiety that builds up and prevents you from getting anything done—whether we’re talking about big or small tasks. Leo Babauta is a proponent of this Big Rocks method.[1]

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    Approach #2 Tackling the Tasks You Can Get Done Quickly and Easily, with Minimal Effort

    Proponents of this method believe that by tackling the small fries first, you’ll have less noise distracting you from the periphery of your consciousness.

    If you believe in getting your email read and responded to, making phone calls and getting Google Reader zeroed before you dive into the high-yield work, you’re a proponent of this method. I suppose you could say Getting Things Done (GTD) encourages this sort of method, since the methodology advises followers to tackle tasks that can be completed within two minutes, right there and then.

    Figure out Your Approach for Prioritization

    My own approach is perhaps a mixture of the two.

    I’ll write out my daily task list and draw little priority stars next to the three items I need to get done that day. They don’t need to be big tasks, but nine times out of ten, they are.

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    Smaller tasks are rarely important enough to warrant a star in the first place; I can always get away without even checking my inbox until the next day if I’m swamped, and the people who need to get in touch with me super quickly know how.

    But I’m not recommending my system of prioritization to you. I’m also not saying that mine is better than Leo’s Big Rocks method, and I’m not saying it’s better than the “if it can be done quickly, do it first” method either.

    The thing with prioritization is that knowing when to do what relies very much on you and the way you work. Some people need to get some small work done to find a sense of accomplishment and clarity that allows them to focus on and tackle bigger items. Others need to deal with the big tasks or they’ll get caught up in the busywork of the day and never move on, especially when that Google Reader count just refuses to get zeroed (personally, I recommend the Mark All As Read button—I use it most days!).

    I’m in between, because my own patterns can be all over the place. Some days I will be ready to rip into massive projects at 7AM. Other times I’ll feel the need to zero every inbox I have and clean up the papers on my desk before I can focus on anything serious. I also know that my peak, efficient working time doesn’t come at 11AM or 3PM or some specific time like it does for many people, but I have several peaks divided by a few troughs. I can feel what’s coming on when and try to keep my schedule liquid enough that I can adapt.

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    That’s why I use a starred task list system rather than a scheduled task list. It allows me to trust myself (something that I suppose takes a certain amount of discipline) and achieve peak efficiency by blowing with the winds. If I fight the peaks and troughs, I’ll get less done; but if I do certain kinds of work in each period of the day as they come, I’ll get more done than most others in a similar line of work.

    You may not be able to trust yourself to that extent without falling into the busywork trap. You may not be able to tackle big tasks first thing in the morning without feeling like you’re pushing against an invisible brick wall that won’t budge. You might not be able to deal with small tasks before the big tasks without feeling pangs of guilt and urgency.

    My point is:

    The prioritization systems themselves don’t matter. They’re all pretty good for a group of people, not least of all to the people who espouse them because they use them and find them effective.

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    What matters is that you don’t fall for one set of dogma (and I’m not saying Leo Babauta or David Allen preach these things as dogma, but sometimes their proponents do) until you’ve tried the systems extensively, and found which method of chronological prioritization works for you.

    And if the system you already use works great, then there’s no need to bother trying others—in the world of personal productivity, it’s too easy to mess with something that works and find yourself unable to get back into your former groove.

    “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

    In truth, this principle applies to all sorts of personal productivity issues, though it’s important to know which issues it applies to.

    If you thought multitasking worked well for you each day and I’d have to contend that you are wrong—multitasking is a universal myth in my books! But if you find yourself prioritizing tasks that never get done, you might need to reconsider which of the above approaches you’re using and change to a system that is more personally effective.

    More About Prioritization & Time Management

    Featured photo credit: Sabri Tuzcu via unsplash.com

    Reference

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