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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 August 12, 2019

    How To Start a Conversation with Anyone

    How To Start a Conversation with Anyone

    The hardest part of socializing, for many people, is how to start a conversation. However, it is a big mistake to go about life not making the first move and waiting for someone else to do it [in conversation or anything].

    This isn’t to say you must always be the first in everything or initiate a conversation with everyone you see. What should be said, though, is once you get good at starting conversations, a lot of other things will progress in the way you want; such as networking and your love life.

    Benefits of Initiating a Conversation

    First thing is you should acknowledge why it is a good thing to be able to initiate conversations with strangers or people who you don’t know well:

    • You’re not a loner with nothing to do.
    • You look more approachable if you are comfortable approaching others.
    • Meeting new people means developing a network of friends or peers which leads to more knowledge and experiences.

    You can only learn so much alone, and I’m sure you’re aware of the benefits of learning from others. Being able to distinguish the ‘good from bad’ amongst a group of people will help in building a suitable network, or making a fun night.

    All people are good in their own way. Being able to have a good time with anybody is a worthy trait and something to discuss another time. However, if you have a specific purpose while in social situations, you may want to stick with people who are suitable.

    This means distinguishing between people who might suit you and your ‘purpose’ from those who probably won’t. This can require some people-judging, which I am generally very opposed to. However, this does make approaching people all the more easier.

    It helps to motivate the conversation if you really want to know this person. Also, you’ll find your circle of friends and peers grows to something you really like and enjoy.

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    The Rules

    I don’t have many rules in this life, for conversation or anything; but when it comes to approaching strangers, there are a few I’d like used.

    1. Be polite. Within context, don’t be a creepy, arrogant loudmouth or anything. Acknowledge that you are in the company of strangers and don’t make anyone feel uncomfortable. First impressions mean something.
    2. Keep it light. Don’t launch into a heartfelt rant or a story of tragedy. We’re out to have fun.
    3. Don’t be a prude. This just means relax. This isn’t a science and conversation isn’t a fine art. Talk to people like you’re already friends.
    4. Be honest. Be yourself. People can tell.

    Who To Talk To?

    I’m of the ilk that likes to talk to everyone and anyone. Everyone has a story and good personalities. Some are harder to get to than others, but if you’re on a people-finding excursion, like I usually am, then everyone is pretty much fair game.

    That said, if you’re out at a function and you want to build a network of people in your niche, you will want to distinguish those people from the others. Find the ‘leaders’ in a group of people or ask around for what you’re looking for.

    In a more general environment, like at a bar, you will want to do the same sort of thing. Acknowledge what you actually want and try to distinguish suitable people. Once you find someone, or a group of people, that you want to meet and talk to, hop to it.

    Think of a few things you might have in common. What did you notice about their dress sense?

    Building Confidence

    The most important part of initiating conversation is, arguably, having confidence. It should be obvious that without any amount of self-esteem you will struggle. Having confidence in yourself and who you are makes this job very easy.

    If you find yourself doubting your worth, or how interesting you are, make a few mental notes of why you are interesting and worth talking to. There is no question you are. You just have to realize that.

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    What do I do? What is interesting about it? What are my strong points and what are my weak ones? Confident people succeed because they play on their strengths.

    Across the Room Rapport

    This is rapport building without talking. It’s as simple as reciprocated eye contact and smiles etc. Acknowledging someone else’s presence before approaching them goes a long way to making introductions easier. You are instantly no longer just a random person.

    In my other article How Not To Suck At Socializing, there are things you can do to make yourself appear approachable. This doesn’t necessarily mean people are going to flock to you. You’ll still probably need to initiate conversations.

    People notice other people who are having a blast. If you’re that person, someone will acknowledge it and will make the ‘across the room rapport’ building a breeze. If you’re that person that is getting along great with their present company, others will want to talk to you. This will make your approach more comfortable for both parties.

    The Approach

    When it comes to being social, the less analytical and formulaic you are the better. Try not to map out your every move and plan too much. Although we are talking about how to initiate conversation, these are really only tips. When it comes to the approach, though, there are some things you should keep in mind.

    Different situations call for different approaches. Formal situations call for something more formal and relaxed ones should be relaxed.

    At a work function, for instance, be a little formal and introduce yourself. People will want to know who you are and what you do right away. This isn’t to say you should only talk about work, but an introduction and handshake is appropriate.

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    If you’re at a bar, then things are very different and you should be much more open to unstructured introductions. Personally, I don’t like the idea of walking directly to someone to talk to them. It’s too direct. I like the sense of randomness that comes with meeting new people.

    However, if there is rapport already established, go for it. If not, take a wander, buy a drink and be aware of where people are. If there is someone you would like to talk to, make yourself available and not sit all night etc.

    When someone is alone and looks bored, do them a favor and approach them. No matter how bad the conversation might get, they should at least appreciate the company and friendliness.

    Briefly, Approaching Groups

    When integrating with an established group conversation, there is really one thing to know. That is to establish the ‘leader’ and introduce yourself to them. I mentioned that before, but here is how and why.

    The why is the leader of a group conversation is probably the more social and outgoing. They will more readily accept your introduction and then introduce you to the rest of the group. This hierarchy in a group conversation is much more prevalent in formal situations where one person is leading the conversation.

    A group of friends out for the night is much more difficult to crack. This may even be another topic for discussion, but one thing I know that works is initiating conversation with a ‘stray’. It sounds predatorial, but it works.

    More often than not, this occurs without intention. But if you do really want to get into a group of friends, your best bet is approaching one of them while they are away from the group and being invited into the group.

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    It is possible, like everything, to approach a group outright and join them. However, this is almost an art and requires another specific post.

    Topics Of Conversation

    Other than confidence, the next thing people who have trouble initiating conversations lack is conversation! So here are a few tips to get the ball rolling:

    • Small talk sucks. It’s boring and a lot of people already begin to zone out when questions like, “What do you do?” or “What’s with this weather?” come up. Just skip it.
    • Everything is fair game. If you are in the company of someone and a thought strikes you, share it. “This drink is garbage! What are you drinking?” “Where did you get that outfit?”
    • Opinions matter. This is any easy way to hit the ground running in conversation. Everyone has one, and when you share yours, another will reveal itself. The great thing about this line of thought is that you are instantly learning about the other person and what they like, dislike etc.
    • Environment. The place you’re in is full of things to comment on. The DJ, band, fashions; start talking about what you see.
    • Current events. Unless it’s something accessible or light-hearted, forget it. Don’t launch into your opinion on the war or politics. If your town has recently hosted a festival, ask what they think about it.

    Exiting Conversation

    Although I’d like to write a full post on exiting strategies for conversations you don’t want to be in, here are some tips:

    • The first thing is don’t stay in a conversation you’re not interested in. It’ll show and will be no fun for anyone.
    • Be polite and excuse yourself. You’re probably out with friends, go back to them.  Or buy a drink. Most people will probably want to finish the conversation as much as you.

    Likewise, you could start another conversation.

    If you’d like to learn more tips about starting a conversation, this guide maybe useful for you: How to Talk to Strangers Without Feeling Awkward

    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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