College and Grad School, Portfolio

by Allan Branstiter

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I had very little experience reading scholarly books when I was an undergraduate, and this put me at a disadvantage when I started graduate school. A typical graduate history course requires students to read one book and two articles a week. Considering the fact that a full-time grad student is enrolled in three or four classes a semester, they can face weeks where they have to read over a thousand pages a week. Students must also produce a book review about every other week, not to mention research papers, historiographic essays, MA theses, and Ph.D. dissertations—which all require more reading.  My first week of graduate history classes was so intense that I actually threw my back out reading. Let’s just say posture and orthopedics matter when you spend endless hours at a desk reading and writing.

In this post I’ll give you my thoughts on the “Art of the Grad-Read” and how I read a book quickly and efficiently. Let me start out by saying that this advice is useful to both graduate students and undergraduate students. I really wish I had known how to read a book efficiently as an undergraduate instead of wasting my time either reading a book too thoroughly or too superficially.

This brings another point to mind: this post is about reading a book quickly and efficiently, but it won’t teach you how to “speed read.” Also remember that these tips are for reading scholarly non-fiction, not novels. Reading The Great Gatsby requires a different method of reading than reading The  Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. Finally, this method will not make you the foremost expert on any given book; instead, it aims to familiarize you enough with a book so you can discuss it in class, write a brief book review about it, and store it away in your mind for future reference. Reading a book for detail or finding leads on sources for your own research will require a different method, but this is a good place to start.

So how do graduate students read so much? Is it even humanly possible to read this many books and articles in a week? Actually, it is. And it’s really not that hard if you can break it down into a process and know exactly why you’re reading. By the time I finished my MA degree I was reading a 250-page book in about four hours. Any less than that left me feeling doubtful about my ability to talk about the book in class, and any more than that was for my own enjoyment. You’re time is invaluable to you as a graduate student, so learning how to efficiently read was central to my mental sanity and academic success during those years.

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College and Grad School

[Note: This post was originally published on the London School of Economics and Political Science’s The Impact Blog. I found it tremendously useful, so I’m cross-posting it to share with you. -AB]

Choosing something that you are passionately interested in to research is a great first step on the road to successful academic writing but it can be difficult to keep the momentum going. Deborah Lupton explains how old-fashioned whiteboards and online networking go hand-in-hand, and offers advice for when it is time to just ‘make a start’ or go for a bike ride.

As part of preparing for a workshop on academic publishing for early career academics, I jotted down some ideas and tips to share with the group which I thought I would post here. In the process of writing 12 books and over 110 peer-reviewed journal articles and book chapters over a career which has mostly been part-time because of juggling the demands of motherhood with academic work, I have developed some approaches that seem to work well for me.

These tips are in no particular order, apart from number 1, which I consider to be the most important of all.

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College and Grad School, Portfolio

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Learning involves using effective strategies, putting aside time to do the work, and engaging in the process, all of which help you gradually increase your capacity for a topic.

One of the most common questions students ask me is “How should I study for this test?” or “How do I manage all this information and reading?” In most cases, they preface this with the fact that they were never taught how to read historical texts or analyze sources in high school. Several students told me that their previous history teachers told them to just copy down presentations and memorize their notes.

Joseph Stromberg over at Vox posted an article about studying more efficiently that’s worth covering here. In it he talked to Mark McDaniel (a Washington University psychologist who co-authored Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning with Henry Roediger and Mark McDaniel) and derived “8 tips for studying smarter.” Using Stromberg’s eight tips, here’s some advice I’ve given students and—more importantly—some of the strategies I’ve seen my students use to get through tough sections of college history courses.

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