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Monday Master Class: How to Read Hard Readings

A Dose of Academic RealityWords

The first college course I attended at Dartmouth was a freshman English seminar titled: Popular Culture. I signed up for the course because I assumed “popular culture” meant “watching movies.” In reality, so I soon learned, it meant select readings from “cultural studies” — a field in which perfectly useful english words are re-arranged into absurdly evil, kick-in-the-groin articles that, to me, were roughly as comprehensible as Sumarian cuniform tablets. I got a C on my first paper.

Watching movies this was not…

I Am Not — Unfortunately — John Travolta

It took a few weeks for me to realize a simple truth: I am not John Travolta from the movie Phenomenon. (I’m also, it seems, not very good at relevant movie references).

If you’ll remember, in this movie John Travolta sees a bright light one night outside a tavern and subsequently develops incredible mental abilities. Among other things, he can instantly comprehend books just as fast as he can flip the pages.

I can’t do this. Probably you can’t either.

With a complicated reading, even if you go real slow, the real meaning may still elude you. The individual words all make sense, but when strung together by a professional philosopher or comparative literature scholar, they somehow evade easy association with the English language. This is what happened to me in my cultural studies class. And it’s probably happened to you too. Fortunately, there is way around this tight spot…

Pre-Processing Hard Readings

Here’s a simple system that will help you master your most difficult reading assignments. It’s a combination of the strategies I developed at Dartmouth — instigated by that freshman seminar — and those reported to me by the dozens of students I’ve talked with subsequently.

It works as follows:

  1. On the day the reading is assigned ask your professor for guidance. Ask what to expect. What to look out for. And perhaps even a brief summary of the main points. Take careful notes on what she says. Print these out.
  2. Google search the article title. Before diving in, type the name into Google. Look for reviews or reaction essays. You’d be surprised how often someone, somewhere has written something informative about the piece. Print these out.
  3. Do a JSTOR search for more scholarly reviews or references. If the piece is reasonably well-know, a multi-purpose scholarly database like JSTOR will likely turn up some references to the work in other scholarly articles. Accompanying these references might be a few sentences of description or reaction. Print out the relevant pages.
  4. Attach your printouts to the assignment. If your reading assignment is in a book, make a photocopy. If it’s in a reader, make a photocopy. If its online, print it out. Take your hard copy of the article and attach the explanatory material from the previous steps.
  5. Write a pre-read summary. Before reading the assignment, carefully review the supporting materials. At the top of the document in which you’ll be taking notes, synthesize this information into a concise summary of the main points made by the article.
  6. Read the article. Finally, you’re ready to dive into the article. As you read, your pre-processing should help you make better sense of what you encounter. Refer back to your supporting materials as needed. Attempt, to the best of your ability, to take standard Question/Evidence/Conclusion notes. Don’t worry if not everything you encounter makes sense.

Reviewing a Pre-Processed Article

Later, when it comes time to review the article for a paper, or a test, or a class presentation, you’ll have a crucial advantage over your peers. The pre-processing provides a framework for your own interpretation. Without this framework, it is easy to wander in the wrong direction or end up lost all together.

How Much Time Will This Cost Me!?

On average, this technique will add around 20 minutes of extra effort. (It might take more at first before you are comfortable with quickly searching and summarizing.) Clearly, we’d be steering dangerously close to grind territory if we applied this to every reading in every class. Accordingly, reserve this strategy for the truly troublesome assignments. For example, maybe you’re in a graduate course that has just one or two hard readings per week. Or, you face an assignment that you chose to write a paper on or lead the class in discussing. Under these circumstances, these extra 20 minutes will be the difference between hazy confusion and workable understanding.

18 thoughts on “Monday Master Class: How to Read Hard Readings”

  1. @Jo:

    I’m not so sure. The key to this technique is finding outside sources to help build a framework for understanding what you are about to encounter. The technique you reference is all internal, focusing on extra review steps of the assignment itself before reading. I critique this approach in the introduction to Straight-A (it is famously proposed as a 12-step process in “What Smart Students Know”) because I think it complicates and adds extra time.

  2. Another hint: after the lecture, look over the reading again, particularly if your lectures focus heavily on the readings. Just having someone explain the structure and content first will have it magically seem clear. And if you have taken good notes, you can follow those as you read.

  3. @Steven:

    Absolutely. The best source of understanding a reading is hearing the professors discuss it. These discussions, of course, come after you are already supposed to have read the assignment so, as you suggest, don’t be afraid to re-visit!

  4. This is probably a nice approach coping with hard reading assignments, but I think 20 minutes for your mentioned pretasks is just totally unrealistic. I mean you have to research, print it out AND read it AND summerize it. This would mean 5 minutes per task on average. But I think that if you’ve found some reasonable sort-of-secondary sources they just can’t be read in a few minutes, cause they prbly won’t be in just plain English either. Or maybe I’m just too slow 😀

  5. Why not just dive into the article itself looking for answers to the following 5 questions:
    1. What question is this author ASKING?
    2. WHERE is the author looking for an answer?
    3. WHAT is the answer the author found?
    4. Do any of those things seem bogus? How so?
    5. So what?

  6. @Arby:

    Some readings are so complicated, and obtuse, that no matter how slowly you read them or how many questions you ask, you’ll still be lost. This is where you need some help from the outside to help you build a scaffolding on which to place the information you’re encountering, and thus have a prayer of actually answering questions, like those you mention, in a meaningful manner.

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  8. The dark side of the Farce —

    Or, the prof’s just spouting garbage — and you’d be better off getting as far away as possible.

    What text can be so difficult when written in ordinary English that you can’t understand it? None. Lack of clarity and illogical sequences of thought simply mark pseudo-learning.

    Is interpretation based on nonsense like “deconstructionism” or “non-Western frameworks” or “death of the author” or “intertexuality”?

    Does the prof mention “great minds” like Martin Heidegger or Gilles Deleuze?

    It’s this kind of mental crap that passes for humanism or is it post-humanism today. It’s an intellectual and moral fraud — does the prof pass the sniff test?

    You pay to be educated, not to be defrauded.

    The classroom door works, whenever you want to walk out, you can.

    Show my views to said prof —


  9. Show my views to said prof —

    The avant-garde is always a little ragged and disorienting, but the wake it leaves behind has a way of settling down and then ultimately changing the way we see the world.

    The first modernists at the turn of the last century were probably a little hard to stomach, but the movement defines much of our current world. The same holds for the first post-modernists. Derrida is incredibly frustrating — to me — yet signs and signifiers are ingrained in how we today think about branding and advertisting and fashion and political propaganda. So yes, while Deleuze’s “folds” might come across now as self-indulgence, overly proud of the complexity of its internal consistency, who knows how it might be integrated into our daily existence 50 years from now.

    We expect the avant-garde to be a little off, as it takes a certain degree of insanity to try to keep destructing and rebuilding thought.

    In other words, “it’s all a scam” is a little naive. As always, the world is more complicated…

  10. Another useful trick I learned from a philosophy course my freshman year– reading the conclusion before reading the main body. That helped me wrap my mind around the complex subjects that were being discussed, where previously I would get lost in the detail of the main body.

  11. I’m not sure about this technique. Part of readings like this, or at least some of them (depending on the field) is, in fact, to interpret what the author is saying. When you get help from outside sources before you understand the bulk of the article, book, or chapter, you risk losing the neutrality towards the reading that will allow you to form a sophisticated and original opinion of your own. That’s not to say that secondary sources shouldn’t be used, but perhaps they shouldn’t be used -first-, especially if you’re a graduate student taking a class in your own field. You might need to do some background research on the subject matter itself, but starting with secondary sources on the reading is questionable to me. Also, if you never practice making your way through hard readings on your own, how will you build up the skill to do it in the future? (My comments don’t apply to undergrads taking classes in fields far removed from their own who just need to get through the semester.)

    On that note, it would be great to read a post on reading, interpreting, and taking notes on complex and abstract readings (e.g. philosophy) without adding the unreasonable amount of time typical “how to” articles would require if you followed their methods(and without giving up your opportunity to come at the reading from a fresh perspective). And/or another on visualising abstract ideas for visual/spatial learners (arguably one of the hardest subject matter & learning style combinations).

    Thans for your great posts and ideas. They’ve been very useful over the years.

  12. I am having trouble in an AP Bio class with taking notes on the textbook. The material is very dense and I have a hard time comprehending the information when I read it. I feel like I don’t understand it. I have tried the QEC format for notes but it takes me almost an hour to take notes on 5 pages of my textbook. Furthermore, I am unsure of how much of the information I am really comprehending with the notes and whether-or-not my questions are too simple and redundant. Do you have any tips on how I can improve my notes?


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