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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 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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