Forgotten Skills: Reading

As a follow-up to our last post, I thought I would add some advice for reading articles and books. Reading scholarly work is a deceptively difficult academic task. You already know how to read; if you’re in grad school, you’ve probably been reading books for about 15 years! But academic work, even when it’s well-written, is a different sort of reading.

First, I should note that there are small differences between reading online and reading on paper. Most of them come down to a few things:

  1. On the computer, you may be unable to highlight. Most works that have been scanned (i.e., old and out-of-copyright books and journal articles from before the 1990s) were probably scanned as images and/or have not been OCRd. That’s certainly true of jstor articles, for example. What this image format means for you is that you won’t be able to highlight, copy, or otherwise select text, unless you want to run OCR software on the article yourself. You can do it on Adobe, but I’d recommend against it. Instead, I prefer to underline instead of highlight on works like these. Make sure you use a bright color and a line that’s thick enough for you to see it quickly. Or, if you have a notebook, you can always use that.
  2. Reading on paper requires more material (and therefore more preparation) than reading online. Some tools you may want to gather: a dictionary; a notepad; multiple pens (and in different colors); a highlighter; sticky notes. Try to keep them corralled in the same spot or in a box. You might not use them all at once, but having everything in the same place is useful as a grab-and-go solution.
  3. Reading online may be more distracting than reading in print. If you find your attention wandering, you should invest in a distraction-blocking app — or head to the library.

With those differences in mind, let’s take a look at technique.

Your first task is to identify the work. In whatever note-taking material you’re using, you should give yourself a header with a full bibliographic entry (in any format; a how-to is coming in a later post!). That way, you have all the information you need later. If you’re using one long document (Word doc, Google doc, or notepad), you may want to identify the header with a different font, color, or highlighting. If you don’t use reference-management software, save time by making sure you include all subtitles, co-authors/co-editors, and both the date and place of publication.

The most important thing to do with any piece of scholarship is to identify the argument. In some cases (e.g., an article with an abstract), this is fairly simple. In other cases (e.g., a book), it’s more difficult. Once you’ve found it, you should write it down under the header (leave yourself space if you haven’t found the argument after the first page or two). Your summary can be brief, but it should give you enough details to make sense of your other notes. In a book, you may want to track the argument chapter-by-chapter.

Once you’ve found your argument, it’s time to pay attention to methods and evidence. Methods are often stated near the argument, and may even be in the abstract. When I see a clearly-stated (or very obvious) methodology, I like to write it down with the argument. Doing so helps me see how the author got from evidence A to conclusion B. As for the evidence, you don’t need to keep track of all of it. But you should note the major pieces: that is, anything that forms the foundation of the author’s argument. Usually that is the evidence that your author will pay more attention to, but not always. Check the conclusions of each section to see whether the author hedges a piece of evidence (such as “even if one is not convinced…” or “despite the speculative character…”). This sort of qualification generally indicates a weaker point, and the author has (s/he hopes) constructed the argument so that it stands without that weakness. Pay special attention to those parts of the article, making sure that you’ve assessed the strengths and weaknesses of the argument to the best of your ability and knowledge. I usually note the major pieces of evidence and how convincing they are in my notes as I go. But if I were more organized, I’d put them at the top with the summary.

As you note down your evidence, you should also pay attention to the flow of the argument. How does the author get from point A to point B? Is that process convincing? Has s/he skipped any steps? Here’s where you should condense an argument into an arrow plus an explanation. For example, if I were annotating B. Russell’s “Wine, Women, and the Polis”, I might include a note like “dining habits = moral values –> anthropology.” This brief note summarizes the first two pages of the article, and also reminds me of the author’s methodological background.

When you’re taking notes, it’s really important to separate your summary of the author’s argument from the author’s actual words. This may sound obvious, but in my experience it’s a major source of accidental plagiarism, especially with students who read online and copy-and-paste quotes directly into their notes. Make sure you always put quotation marks around your quotes! Trust me, a week later you won’t remember what you said and what was written down. Similarly, when you modify the author’s argument (either by disagreeing or adding additional evidence that supports it), make sure you separate that addition from your summary. I draw stars on either side of ideas that are mine, so that I know when they start and when I’ve picked up the original argument again, but you can experiment to find a system that works for you (different colors, using margins, etc.). Just make sure to mark both sides of the addition, especially when you’re providing a lot of summary. Again, you’d be surprised by how few specifics you remember when you go back over your notes, especially since summaries are already in your own words.

Going back to our example, here’s what my notes on the next few pages could look like:

Roman men and women both discouraged from drinking (79) but women more so. Counterexample of Etruscan tombs, p. 80, contrasted with mos maiorum. **R doesn’t note Tarquin women in Lucretia story** Female drinking associated w/ ‘big man’ social group (80-2); contrast polis, p. 81.

A few of the techniques I’ve discussed above can be seen in this summary. The first and last sentences indicate the flow of the narrative, while the second introduces some major pieces of evidence. The third sentence, set off by asterisks, is my own addition to the argument. Finally, I quote Russell’s terminology within my summary in the last sentence.

Obviously, the format and content of your notes will vary based on your project, interests, and habits. But the basic concepts behind note-taking (paraphrasing, summarizing, and analyzing your material) apply regardless of how you go about it. And let’s be honest: we could all probably be a little better (more consistent, more accurate, etc.) when we do our readings.


~J

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