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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 January 21, 2020

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

    The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

    Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

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    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    How to Self-Taught Effectively

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

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    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

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    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

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    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

    More About Self-Learning

    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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