Notes from a strategic reading workshop

The Graduate Writing Center at UCLA hosted a Strategic Reading Workshop that I found very helpful. Rebecca Hill, a PhD student in the Department of English, presented on topics that are summarized by the event’s advertised description:

Feeling overwhelmed by your reading lists? Concerned that you are missing the point of what you have just read? Are you taking pages of notes for every article you read? This workshop will cover effective reading and note-taking strategies so that you read more efficiently, assess your reading with a critical eye, and annotate each work so that important concepts are easily accessible.

Below are the notes that I took during this workshop. The speaker acknowledged that some of her talk was adapted from advice given by Purdue’s and Dartmouth’s graduate writing centers.

Two “unholy” truths

  1. You will not read everything that’s assigned or every paper in your field. Don’t ask: “What are all the details of this paper?” Instead, ask: “What part of this reading is most relevant to the big picture and to my research?”

  2. You will probably never be the best researcher in your field. Don’t ask: “Where do I rank in my field?” Instead, ask: “What is the quality of my contribution to my field?”

Just keep going

  • Our brains notice very quickly when we don’t understand something. This is especially true when we read dense texts.

  • Our natural reaction is to go back and repeat a paragraph or two.

  • Our grad school schedules won’t allow us to spend hours on a single paragraph.

  • If you’re stuck, just keep going. You can return to it later if you need to (you might not). Try writing or typing the passage. The process of duplicating the text sometimes helps.

  • Don’t stay stuck. Ask a professor for their interpretation. Or just allow yourself to skip it for now.

  • It’s helpful just to know that an article exists, or where to find certain information.

Who do I read with?

  • Some find it helpful to read with classmates; you don’t necessarily have to talk to each other.

  • If possible, consider splitting your reading assignments with classmates.

What do I read?

  • Read with a mission. Identify questions worth answering before you start. Did the professor tell you to look for something specific? Is there a central theme to the class? Have you identified what aspect of the topic interests you?

  • First read the table of contents and the index. The index lists the most important nouns. It can tell you what the author cares about.

  • If you’re rushed, read the first chapter and the conclusion of the most important chapters.

Why should I read this?

  • Ask: Why am I reading this? Just to be prepared for a class discussion? To advance my thesis work? For science and engineering students, ask: What is the new thing that the author is contributing to my field?

  • It’s still helpful to become aware of a text, even if you don’t have time to read it now. Don’t try to memorize the minutiae of every text.

Where should I read?

  • Allow yourself to go to a quiet place for dense reading.

  • When trying a new reading place, go for one hour and assess how much you’ve actually done.

  • Don’t read too much at home; mundane tasks become very important when you have reading to do.

  • Find a place on campus with people; it may help to sustain your attention on reading tasks.

When should I read?

  • You’re a human being with mental and physical limits.

  • Try to identify your peak time for reading. Determine which time of day you’re usually most excited to be a graduate student.

  • Don’t waste your peak time on errands.

  • Don’t worry if your peak time is only about four hours long. It’s better to get four hours of meaningful reading done every day than to thrash around inattentively for most of the day.

  • Never work a seven-day week on your own research. It’s okay to do school-related things on the seventh day, but take a break from your research.

How should I read?

  • Sit up straight! Adjust your posture so that your body has room to breathe properly.

  • Allow yourself to have coffee if it helps. Avoid it if it doesn’t help.

  • Don’t stay hungry while you read. Snack on fruits, vegetables, nuts, oats, trail mix.

  • Avoid heavy meals before you read.

  • Stay hydrated. It’s easy to ignore your water intake while in grad school.

  • Highlighters sometimes don’t work for grad school reading. Different parts of the text are important to different people and in different contexts. In grad school, you’re rarely just finding key terms to learn for a test.

  • Keep a jargon list. Know how to use the common vocabulary in your field.

  • Don’t sit for more than an hour without getting up and taking a break.

  • Reward yourself for a good day of work. Don’t reward yourself for a bad day of work.

  • Be empirical about your habits. Acknowledge when a strategy simply doesn’t lead to productivity.

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