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Back to School: Keep an Academic Reading Journal

Back to School: Keep an Academic Reading Journal

Keep an Academic Reading Journal

    Aside from partying, the thing you’re probably going to do most in college is read. Assuming you’re at all serious about your education, you’ll read so much that words will come out your ears. Unfortunately, much of what you read will also go pouring out your ears, or so it will seem looking back.

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    One of the best habits you can develop in college — or even in high school, if you have the discipline — is to keep an academic reading journal. This is more or less what it sounds like: a journal recording everything you read, with an added layer of academic analysis. The idea is, you record what you read, key ideas and quotes from the text, and your own reflections on the work, allowing you to fairly accurately recreate your initial reading at a later date, pershaps a much later date.

    Why do this? There are several reasons. First, because if you’re smart, you’ll use material from one class as source material for research papers in later classes, and it’s better to have that material at hand rather than having to re-read the book. Second, because you will often come across the same material, or material bythe same author, later in your education, and can go back and review your initial impressions. And third, because while much of what you’re being asked to read now mightnot seem fairly relevant, you’ll be surprised, 10, 20, or more years down the line what you find yourself wishing you could remember of some book or article you read as a sophomore.

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    Creating the Academic Reading Journal

    An academic reading journal doesn’t  have to be anything fancy — in theory, a composition book or notepad will suffice, provided it’s durable enough to last many years. Even better, a hardbound diary or Moleskine-style journal will give you plenty of space in a durable format. If you’re technologically inclined, a personal wiki, word processor file, or even database can be used on your PC. When I was doing my dissertation research (which requires you to read literally everything in your research area) I kept a reading journal in an Access database, synced to a database program on my Palm PDA. The point is, you’ll have to figure out the medium that’s most comfortable for you, comfortable enough that you’ll use it consistently.

    There is no standard for what an academic reading journal entry should look like, but I recommend capturing the following pieces of information:

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    • A full bibliographic citation. Use whatever style is prevalent in your field, or whatever you know best: MLA, APA, or anything else. It doesn’t matter, so long as you make sure to get all the pieces of  information you’ll need to produce a bibliography in any style necessary.
    • A short synopsis of the book or article. This can be copied from the back cover text or abstract, or just sketched out in your own words.
    • Quotes from your reading. Copy out any quotes you would otherwise highlightor underline — anything you think captures some essential point in the text. You don’t have to do this as you read, if you prefer to read with a highlighter or underliner — copy them out when you’re done, in that case. Make sure you get the page number(s).
    • A personal response to your reading. 200 or so words capturing your impression of what you’ve read. Why is it important (or not important)? Whatis the author trying to say? Who was influenced by it, or influenced it?Have a look at my post How to Read Like a Scholar for more advice on academic reading.
    • Questions raised by the text. Challenge your reading material! Think of a set of questionsthe material leaves unanswered, or that undermine the conclusions reached. These questions might eventually form the basis of a research project or larger critique.
    • Any other notes, thoughts, arguments, or feelings about what you’ve read.

    When I started keeping a reading journal using a Moleskine a couple years ago, Iprinted out a template that I kept in the back pocket to remind me of what I should include in my entries.

    One last thing

    While non-fiction is my bread-and-butter, and thus this post might have seemed to lean more towards academic material, don’t hesitate to include fiction and poetry among the books in your reading journal. The truths in fiction are often — maybe even usually — more true than the truths in non-fiction. Shakespeare’s truths trump Einstein’s over and over — after all, we’ve revised our understanding of relativity, but Hamlet will forevermore have been poisoned and killed in the Great Hall at Elsinore.

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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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