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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 July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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