Steena asked me a while ago if I have any tips on how to read academic papers. She likes to ask professors and students this question, because everyone seems to have a different approach. My own style of reading academic writing is a combination of things I have picked up from professors and made my own.
What makes academic reading different from more casual reading is that it’s difficult and there’s a lot of it. As an undergrad I tried at first to read for school the same way I read for pleasure, and that worked well enough because I was a lit major, but it was less effective when I started reading theological and philosophical texts.
In grad school, the first thing you should learn is that you’re going to be given way more work than you can possibly do, and it will be up to you to develop priorities. Except, no one actually told me this until I was nearly done with my MA, so for a long time I was trying to read everything closely and feeling constantly guilty that I couldn’t get through it all. I would lay down on my bed with the plan to get through a hundred pages and wake up an hour later with a book on my face.
Out of necessity, I started reading while sitting up. It’s not pretty. I’m usually hunched over a desk with a pen in my hand. That’s another thing I do: write all over my books. Mostly I underline important passages. My margin notes are rarely insightful–they mostly just call attention to things, so I’ll be able to find them again when I’m going back through the material to write a paper. I make a lot of stars as well and I’m no stranger to exclamation marks. This is how I make sure I’m actually paying attention and not just looking at the words while thinking something completely different.
When I was working for a professor of mine several years ago, he gave me some helpful suggestions on how to scan quickly. I do this rather sloppily, but it does make it possible for me to get through a lot of text in a short amount of time. It’s never the same as having read every word, but I can quickly get a sense of an article and then read it more closely when I’m working on a paper. To keep myself on track, I run my finger back and forth horizontally, skipping several lines at a time. It gives my eyes something to follow. I make a point of reading the first and last paragraph of each chapter, as well as the first sentence of each paragraph. I also watch out for important words like, “my thesis is” and “in conclusion” and “first/second/third.”
It has been helpful for me to try on the habits of other people to see what works for me. I vary my reading style depending on what I’m going to use the information for. If it’s just a class discussion, then I’m trying to absorb as much as I can and maybe focus on a few things (so I’ll have something to say). If I’m writing a paper, then I try to leave helpful notes for myself, so I’ll be able to easily find the appropriate information again. If I have to present on the material, then I go over it first for the main points and then slowly for all the detail. I rarely take summary notes, because they are so time-consuming, but when I do, I make note of page numbers and also use T for top of the page, M for middle, and B for bottom.
I’d like to say I jump back and forth easily between reading academic writing and reading for fun, but it’s something I’ve been struggling with for more than a year now. While Steena surveys people for their tips on academic reading, I find myself asking people how they read for pleasure. How often do you read? When do you read? How quickly do you get through books? I also interview all former and current grad students to be sure I’m not the only one who nearly gave up reading for fun while in the midst of coursework.
I feel like I broke a 20 year habit of reading for fun, and now I can’t get it back. My eyes dart around instead of reading every word, I find myself thinking about other things instead of being involved in a story, I look at the page numbers trying to figure out how I can finish the book as quickly as possible, I feel guilty that I’m not writing instead, and I have fallen into this binge pattern of reading a book in a day and then reading nothing for a couple weeks. I keep thinking, “Relax, you crazy person. This is not a competition,” but even though I really miss reading and long for the friendlier relationship I used to have with books, I can’t seem to fit it back into my life in a natural way.
So, I’ve decided to stop reading. I kid! I’m going to keep trying until I develop a habit that works for me. Also, I would like to mention that the original notes for this post were: “Reading is awkward. Reading is like that friend you used to be really close to.”