Read Like a Graduate Student, not a Mystery Fan

First year graduate students often struggle with the volume of reading required. It’s not uncommon to have assigned hundreds of pages a week on a range of topics. The typical course may cover the contents of a half-dozen books and 75-100 academic papers. All of this you’re meant to consume, understand, and synthesize with everything you know. The task is, to say the least, daunting.

It doesn’t have to be so difficult to read academic works; people make simple reading mistakes that are easily corrected.

The first reading mistake people make is reading like they learned to read. Most people learned to read stories and found a love of reading in some fiction genre such as science fiction, mystery, romance, or novels. The defining characteristic of fiction from the perspective of reading is that you don’t want to know the ending before reading the whole work. You want to be held in suspense for as long as possible so that you can invest your emotions in the characters and events presented. As readers we know that, and we avoid flipping to the last chapter for fear of spoiling the book.

This is exactly the wrong way to read nonfiction, particularly academic writing. The purpose of academic reading is understanding, not suspense. In contrast to reading a mystery story, in academic papers and books, it’s all about the ending: did the experiment succeed, did the author make her point, what was the point, and so on.

Imagine for a moment that I give you a mystery story I wrote. You dutifully read the book from front to back and (properly) tell me that it was engaging and had you up all night reading. I then ask you whether the evidence I presented in the story was consistent and properly supported the conclusion that the butler did it. You would have no idea. Your notion of the “evidence” would be foggy at best, simply because, as you were reading, you didn’t know what counted as evidence or what conclusion it was meant to support. To evaluate the evidence, you would have to re-read the book with the ending in mind.

Now, imagine a different way to read. I give you the same mystery story except this time I tell you at the outset that the butler did it because he loved his employer’s spouse, whom he’d known since college. Now I ask you the same question: is the evidence I present consistent and does it support the butler conclusion? Then you begin reading. With this approach, you know what to look for, you can tell which content is meant to distract, which is meant as subtle clue, and which is flawed. If I mention somewhere in the story that the butler never went to college, you know it to be a lie or an error. With the previous approach, you had no such insight and would have missed the importance of the claim.

What a difference this makes! Even had I asked you to read the last chapter, rather than giving away the ending so directly, the last chapter would have taken you perhaps 10 minutes to read. You would then know who did it and why, putting you in an excellent position to then read the book and evaluate the evidence. In other words, by reading the ending first, you make yourself a better critical reader.

The second mistake readers make is reading like an editor, rather than reading like a critic. When you read as an editor, you notice punctuation errors, typos, poor turns of phrase, incorrect word choice, and so on. In short, you’re looking at the characters on the page in fine detail and exerting a great deal of effort in the process.

Reading as a critic requires that you look past the structural issues and focus on the concepts presented. This is made easier by reading the ending first, since you then have a framework for understanding the importance of what’s presented. Finding yourself repeatedly annoyed by the author’s use of “which” when “that” would have been preferred does not help you to understand the significance or validity of the work. You have to look beyond style and focus on concepts.

My approach to reading like a graduate student involves some common sense solutions to these issues. The result is that I spend less time reading, I understand more, and I enjoy reading more.

1. The middle doesn’t matter — the meaning is at the ends. Read the first and last sections before reading the rest of the work. For a book chapter, read the introduction and the summary. For a paper, read the abstract, the introduction, and the conclusion. The work wasn’t written from beginning to end, so why should you read it that way? (This should take no longer than 5-10 minutes.)

2. Write a brief of the author’s intentions. Write a single paragraph summary in your own words of what the author is trying to accomplish in the paper: what is the central question the author is addressing? (This should take no more than 1-2 minutes.)

3. The evidence is in the middle. You should expect the middle of a work to contain several presentations of evidence, each of which supports or fails to support the author’s conclusion. Find the evidence.

4. Evaluate the evidence. Since you know the point the author is trying to make, you also know how to evaluate each piece of evidence:

    4a. Does it support or fail to support the conclusion? (put a little + or – in the margin)
    4b. Is it true/valid/sound? (put a T, an F, or a ? in the margin)
    4c. Is it convincing?
    4d. What counterexamples can you come up with?
    4e. Has the author addressed the counterexamples?

5. Evaluate the piece. Is the sum of the evidence enough support for the author’s conclusion?

6. Synthesize. Think about how the current piece relates to other works you’ve read and things you know and believe.

Understand that every academic discipline has a different standard for what counts as true/valid/sound evidence. In the hard sciences, you typically need numerical data including statistical analyses, while in journalism you need to multi-source your “facts” (in the social sciences, we refer to this as triangulation). You should know or ask someone who knows what counts as evidence in your discipline.

As a final side note, consider using a citation/quotation manager to help you keep track of what you’ve read. Endnote, BibTex, RefWorks, and many others are available. The purpose of these tools is to record titles, authors, and notes about works you’ve read. In most cases, the tools also help you produce properly formatted citations for insertion into papers you write. Check out other articles I’ve posted for suggestions on maximizing the benefits of these tools.

One thought on “Read Like a Graduate Student, not a Mystery Fan

  1. Wow, in my many years of reading or sitting in a lecture, I have never read or been given this tip and I know many can vouch the same thing.

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