Case Study: How I Plan to Study for my Art History Seminar

Eating My Own Dog FoodA Plan

At MIT, one of the requirements for getting a doctorate in computer science is that you have to take two graduate-level courses outside of your subject. They call this your “minor.” Most of my peers satisfy the requirement by taking a pair of math or engineering courses. In other words: they’re lame. In my quixotic quest to be less lame, I decided to study art history.

I just started the second of the two courses I needed to take. It’s a seminar that focuses on some issues in contemporary art. It meets once a week, for three hours. It requires around 150 – 200 pages of reading per class, all of which is serious academic writing, usually of a cultural studies flavor, and often nearly impenetrable to me. Some example titles:

  • “DADA ist politisch”
  • “Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture”
  • “The Affective Topology of New Media Art”
  • “A Collection of Perfectly Useful English Words Rearranged in a Way That Defies Human Comprehension But Will Probably Earn the Author Tenure.”

My Game Plan

Clearly, I need to get my act together if I’m going to thrive (read: survive) in this class. Fortunately, I do have a little experience when it comes to identifying good study skills. So, as is my habit, I created an efficient study system to help me tame this academic challenge.

I thought it might be interesting to share this system with you — providing insight into how Mr. Study Hacks himself swallows his own advice-flavored medicine. My system for this class works as follows…

(1) Timing

Judging from the last seminar I took, these readings will require a lot of time to dissect. My current plan:

  1. I will put aside 7-8 hours per week for reading. It’s a lot. But knowing, in advance, how much time is really needed to gain a decent understanding makes the needed scheduling easier.
  2. I assume these reading hours will have to be realized in three chunks if they’re going to achieve an optimal focus level. I’m assigning two chunks, semi-permanently, to Friday and Monday morning. The third chunk can float — I’ll place it in the most convenient scheduling hole for the current week.

(2) Note-Taking Logistics

I’m fanatical about reducing wasted time in my note-taking process. I’ve learned from experience that almost any type of extra work — re-formatting notes, creating a separate file for definitions, transferring files between computers — can cause friction that will, over time, grow in intensity until it ends up singeing my entire system. For this class, my friction-free note-taking plan:

  1. I will take notes for each reading in Google Docs to obtain location independence.
  2. I will have a Google Docs folder defined for each week, making it clear exactly where each doc should be placed and where each can be found. I will have a naming convention for each note document. This sounds superfluous. But it matters. The more decisions you can eliminate, the better.
  3. Before each class, I will print the notes for the assigned readings. I will attach a blank piece of paper to the front of each printout. I will have a plain manila folder for each week’s course. In this folder I will place my printouts. In class I will take notes on the blank sheet attached to the reading being discussed.
  4. After class, these folders get placed in a plastic inbox I have on my shelf in my office. Therefore, each week, a new folder is added that contains both reading and lecture notes for the readings for that week.

(3) Note-Taking Strategy

My approach for taming these beastly readings:

  1. I will consistently deploy the system described in my recent article on tackling hard readings. If you recall, this system involves looking for existing commentary on an article before reading it yourself.
  2. For the notes themselves, I’ll stick to the tried and true Question/Evidence/Conclusion format. Processing and extracting conclusions is exactly what class discussion demands.

(4) Research Paper Strategy

The course culminates in an original research paper. Having written a similar paper in a similar course last year, I have added the following rules to my paper research strategies:

  1. Start the background research early (i.e., building an understanding the basics of my topic). Push hard on it right away. This step usually takes longer than I expect. I will use my simple excel-based research database. Perhaps something more advanced like Zotero would give me more power. But I don’t want to learn something new when something simple works.
  2. I will explore several thesis ideas in depth. Again, this needs more attention and needs to be done sooner.
  3. Once a thesis is identified, I will spend the bulk of my time diving as deep as possible. Seeking out untapped primary sources where possible — interviews, datasets, etc. That’s what can help make research pop from “a student’s chore” to “interesting in its own right.”

Pulling it Together

Once the strategy is put into action, the course should proceed on auto-pilot. And that’s the way I like it. Three times I week I sit down to tackle readings. There is no mystery on how I do this or how long I stay at it. These questions are already answered. It’s a habit. A minimum of decisions made. A minimum of will-power required. Just follow the system. Week after week.

Rinse. Wash. Repeat.

The goal is to emerge on the other side, relaxed, low stress, and a lot more knowledgeable about contemporary art. We’ll have to wait and see how it turns out. In the meantime, however, I will keep you periodically posted on how my system reacts and evolves in action.

What study systems have you deployed for the new semester?

5 thoughts on “Case Study: How I Plan to Study for my Art History Seminar”

  1. Ah, these titles remind me of why I fled art school for the cold comfort of hard science.

    Remember: Given enough time and enough adjectives to hyphenate, you can make an argument for anything. Anything! That’s how these authors put food on their tables.

    Good luck!

  2. @KV:

    Thanks! I’ll need it. Though I find, interestingly, that these readings have a tendency to inspire creativity later when I’m working on math proofs. I guess these writers have a way of seeing things from all sorts of unexpected directions.

  3. I will have a Google Docs folder defined for each week, making it clear exactly where each doc should be placed and where each can be found. I will have a naming convention for each note document. This sounds superfluous. But it matters. The more decisions you can eliminate, the better.

    Any chance of more info here?

    Do you label each file with a date ? Is that what you mean?

    And the 7 hours reading – is that for just a one course load? Or is that on top of other readings – other courses??

    good luck!

    (I was a Cultural Studies major and went on to postgrad for a couple of years – am currently doing a Dip Ed – the terms and wording of this stuff is certainly dense but once you ‘get it’ it becomes alot easier – no different from the jargon in most disciplines)

  4. @Deb:

    I have a folder for each week, labelled, “week 1”, “week 2”, and so on. Inside each folder I have one document per reading, titled with the title of the reading. I used to have a more formal naming convention — author last name, first few words of title — but it was unecessary.

    The 7 hours reading is just what I estimated for this one course. It varies, but has so far proven roughly accurate. On good weeks I’m doing most reading on Friday and Mondays, with a swing day of either Wed morning or Thursday, depending on what’s going on with the other things in my schedule.

    (Thanks, by the way, for the note of confidence on the jargon…gives me hope!)


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