Grad School Survival Guide: Reading for Comprehensive & Qualifying Examinations

Welcome back to the Grad School Survival Guide. Yes, it’s another reading post!

Congratulations again! You’ve finished your coursework, and now it’s time to start the process of reading for your comps or quals (whichever term your university uses).

Different universities have different models for the written portion of the exam, but they all start pretty much the same way: read every book written in your field in a given amount of time (usually it’s about a year). What could possibly go wrong?

Know your purpose

This is actually key to the entire process and, in my entirely scientifically invalid study of random colleagues who went through it, appears to be somewhat rare.

When I was getting started, my advisor sat me down in his office and asked me: what do you want to get out of comps?

What do I want to get out of comps? Is this a trick question?

It’s a benchmark.

It’s a necessary box to be checked on the way to the finish line.

… I don’t know?

And herein lies the problem. What are you doing? Why are you reading all of these books? How do you select the subfields for which you are reading (in some disciplines, these are set; in others you have some leeway)?

So, let me walk through a couple of answers here. There’s no right or wrong, but take some time to consider what’s going on here.

  1. You’re doing it as advance research for your dissertation. You want to get a good lay of the land and figure out where the lacunae (gaps) in research are so that you know where to start looking when you have to produce An Original Piece of Research That Hasn’t Been Done Before. (It seems weighty enough to merit capital letters). Bear in mind, you’re just doing broad background sweeps here – you’ll almost certainly wind up doing more after you’ve done your research, and this is perfectly normal.
  2. You’re doing it as preparation for your teaching career. This is what I was going for, myself. And here’s why: I’m a Middle East historian (don’t let all the hypotheticals about the French Revolution fool you). Unless an institution has a large enough history program to have both the Medieval Middle East Guy or Gal (who does Rise of Islam to the Ottomans) and the Modern Middle East Guy or Gal (who does Ottomans to Why They Hate Us), the same person usually winds up teaching both sets of classes.
    Well, as a Modern Middle East historian (which I came to kicking and screaming because I wanted to be a medievalist), my advisor suggested that I do certain subfields, but I insisted that one of them had to be the earlier period because I would probably need to demonstrate that it was a field I could teach. (And, in fact, I have taught it since. And actually enjoy teaching the medieval period more than teaching the modern stuff, mainly because I have grown tired of trying to explain that there’s more than one perspective on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict to students who are ardently opposed to the idea).

The reason why it’s important to know why you’re doing comps is that for most of us, coming straight out of coursework, comps reading is bewildering because we’re no longer accountable to anyone. We lose touch with our peers and we drift. And suddenly all that nagging doubt about whether we’re doing it right, and whether we deserve to be here, comes rushing in.

Having a sense of purpose keeps you focused when you’ve read the 50th book on the same topic and are trying to remember how and why you’re doing all of this.

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How to Read for Comps

Yes, I’m back to reading. This isn’t about the mechanics of reading (for which, see here), or about the logistics of it (for which, see here), so much as dealing with the sheer volume of books you’re expected to read and not losing sight of the prize.

There are many, many ways you can organize yourself and approach this, and I will say first and foremost that this is what worked for me. The most important aspect of this step in the process is that you find a system that works for you and feels natural, not that you mirror someone else’s process (especially if it doesn’t feel natural to you).

I divided my reading lists into subsections: History of the Ottoman Empire, History of the Ottoman Arab Provinces, Ottoman Society, etc. And then I read through each section in chronological order by date of publication, starting with the oldest.

I took notes on each book (this, for me, was the hardest part).

I set up a notebook in Microsoft OneNote.

(Note: My university has a massive user license for Microsoft Office, with which OneNote comes free. Other people I know have used Evernote, Google Docs, and I know a couple of people who swear by Excel or Google Sheets. I even know a couple of people who did it all in a moleskin notebook with a fancy pen because they liked the feel of writing on paper. There is no wrong answer. Come up with a system that works for you, based on your own knowledge and comfort level. You want to be able to do this easily and not fight with the tech trying to get it to do what you want every time you use it.)

Each of my three big lists had its own notebook, each subsection had its own tab, each title its own page.

My initial notetaking system was based on Sam Grace’s–as I’ve encouraged you to do, once I got more comfortable with what I wanted, I added and removed sections of her rubric and came up with mine.

My final list looked something like this:

  • Thesis and subarguments
  • Intellectual genealogy (I’ll explain this in a second)
  • Notes on the text
  • Relationship to my research
  • Questions
  1. Thesis and subarguments: What is the big picture argument that the author is putting forward? What arguments does the author put forward to advance them (these are usually, but not always, addressed in individual chapters).
  2. Intellectual genealogy: In short, what scholars work is this author expanding upon?Who did he or she study with? Who is he or she writing against? Part of your comps is understanding the way the field in which you’re working has developed, and what the major points of debate within it are.
    A quick illustration on how this works. As an undergrad I was assigned an essay called “An Agenda for Ottoman History” by Huri İslamoğlu-İnan and Çağlar Keyder. I read it. It was … okay? I guess? The professor didn’t really explain why the article was significant. I only got that she really liked this Huri İslamoğlu person, and really didn’t like Bernard Lewis or Stanford Shaw, but I didn’t really understand why.
    As a graduate student I was introduced to the work of the Annales school of Fernand Braudel, who saw the world as a series of interconnected regions. He was one of the first historians to work against the classical model of history, which saw European greatness as the pinnacle of historical development. Another scholar, Immanuel Wallerstein, developed the notion of a world-economy, which took this notion and developed an economic model explaining how economies work across national borders and are all interrelated (I am simplifying greatly here, don’t @ me).
    So, in our little Ottoman-history family tree: İslamoğlu was Wallerstein’s student at Cornell, and reframed our traditional understanding of Ottoman history–which was typified by scholars like Stanford Shaw and Bernard Lewis–along the lines proposed by Wallerstein, specifically writing against the traditional argument that the Ottoman Empire entered a decline after the year 1600 from which it never really recovered. Hence, we can draw kind of a family tree. Braudel begets Wallerstein, who begets İslamoğlu. On the other side, we have Shaw, Lewis, and their intellectual heirs. Each side rejects the other. (If anyone is actually interested in this, I wrote a seminar paper about it, which you can find here).
    Now, remember that when one scholar rejects another work, this is just as important as when one scholar builds on another’s work–because that’s what they’re, in fact, doing. Rejection isn’t the same as outright dismissal: rejection is a form of reaction. You’ll need to understand the rationale for it, and what form it takes in each instance.
    Understanding the intellectual genealogy will help you understand where a scholar’s ideas are coming from, and also help you more readily identify a scholar who does something unexpected or revisionist in line of the intellectual tradition he or she is coming from.
  3. Notes on the text: Pretty straightforward, I think. These are mostly for you – what did you learn that you didn’t know before?
  4. Relationship to your own research: Is this book important? Is it something you’ll want to come back to? Does the author identify the area you want to work on as one in need of further research? Do they ask unanswered questions that you want to answer?
  5. Questions: These are for questions you have after reading the book. Does the author pose questions they don’t answer? Does the book not satisfactorily answer questions you have? Are you confused about something?

As you work through each subsection, you’ll discover that the time you need to read subsequent books becomes shorter and shorter–this is why I recommend reading them in the order in which they were written. When you get to very new research, you may find that you don’t even really need more than a few minutes with the book because you’ve become so familiar with the subfield that you know most of the facts, and know exactly where to place the author’s argument.

You’ll also want to remember what it’s like to start a new subsection, because you may get startled when you start a new one, instead of being able to zip through one book in an hour, you’ll suddenly need a day and a half. This is going to happen, but it’s a bit jarring each time!

adult book boring face
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Avoiding Drift

Your comps year is likely to be your first academic experience being almost entirely independent, and it can be extremely overwhelming. You go from meeting in seminar regularly with other groups of people who are all reading the same thing to having your advisor and committee members saying “come see me when you have something to talk about.”

If you’re not meeting regularly with your advisor (and I find this tends to be one of two extremes: either you see your advisor when you’re done reading and think you’re ready for the exam, or they insist on meeting quite regularly), consider forming a reading group.

I did this with a couple of colleagues, and just being accountable to someone made a huge different in lighting a fire under my butt to keep working. We met weekly just to talk about what we’d read that week and be supportive. We weren’t even reading the same material. It just helped to be able to articulate things out loud to someone other than my chemical engineer husband and the cats.

Be sure to keep checked in with someone. Formulate ways to keep yourself accountable to yourself and others. And keep yourself grounded. You don’t need to read 8 hours a day, 6 days a week. As I said in my previous post, know your limits. Know how much you can read before you can’t take it any more.


This post has, again, gone on longer than I expected. What other questions do you have about comps/quals? Let me know in the comments!

In my next post, I’ll share some thoughts about the oral defense of your qualifying/comprehensive exams (for me, this was way more nervewracking than my dissertation defense!)

Grad School Survival Supplement: Reading Time & Footnotes

A couple of reader-submitted questions and observations about previous posts in the Grad School Survival Guide.

Can you really read a book in 2 hours?

I can! And so can you!

However, what I may have missed in my last two posts is that you won’t always want to.

The book may be interesting to you, or useful for your research.You may need to write a review of it, or lead the seminar discussion this week.

My point is that, up til now, how long it takes to read something is a function of font size, length, and your interest level. I want to encourage you to see it as something you have some control over.

If you’re pressed for time or need to prioritize your life/work balance this week, you can still extract a good amount of material and arrive in seminar prepared to participate in a relatively short time.

But, certainly, by all means: if you want to spend more time with a book, go for it!

I regret nothing.

What about Footnotes?

Ahhh, the tricky business of footnotes.

I love footnotes. If the author is going to be shady (and I love me some shade), it’s probably going to be in the footnotes.

Footnotes can offer a wealth of information that’s esoteric and tangential. When I consulted colleagues about this question most of them told me that, if it’s worth mentioning, it should be in the text and not in the notes. Absolutely true.

If you’re reading a monograph for a seminar that isn’t in one of your core areas, you can probably skip over them safely, especially if you’re pressed for time. The one caveat I would offer is to just give a quick skim if this is where the author describes his/her sources (esp. if they’re relying entirely on material that was translated for them and not the original. In some fields this isn’t a big deal, in others it’s quite controversial)

If it’s in your field, and/or you’re doing comps reading or dissertation research, you’ll want to read them. There’s a wealth of information about sources, intellectual genealogies, etc.

And occasional shade.

Grad School Survival Guide: How to Study

If you missed it, the first installment of my Grad School Survival Guide described how to read (or, why everyone seems to have something to say about this week’s readings but you.)

So, now you know how to read in the way your professor expects you to. But you’re taking three seminars, and maybe also a foreign language class, and somehow you’re supposed to read four books a week and do two hours of homework a night. Is your social life over? Will you ever see daylight again?

Let me say that I am no stranger to this question. Halfway through my first year in the doctoral program, my first long-term relationship (11 years) ended. Trying not to commit academic suicide by negotiating a move while working full time and enrolled in two classes, I remained co-habitating with my ex through the end of the spring semester (this was probably a bad idea). A few years later, I got married (also in the middle of a semester), but I was reading for comps that year. We’ll cover comps soon.

For the first six years of my graduate program, I worked a full time, 40-hour a week job. I was fortunate in that said 40-hour a week job was at the same university in which I was enrolled as a student, so it was both a source of financial aid (staff education benefit), and lenient enough that I could swap out a 3-hour block of time during business hours for shortened lunch breaks other days to make up for it. (I also took a reduced course load, averaging 6 hours per semester instead of the usual 9).

So, what I’m saying is that you can have it all! Or you can have enough. And part of this is accomplished by developing study habits that give you what you need to be successful, but don’t take over the rest of your life.

One of the things I see lots of graduate students doing is acting as though their career as graduate students is temporary and “normal life” will resume when it’s done. Considering it takes an average of 7 years to get through a doctoral program, that’s a lot of “putting life on hold,” and, more to the point, John Lennon was right: life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.

You need to be able to maintain a work/life balance. Everyone knows that one apocryphal student who only studies and never goes out because there’s a lecture on something on a Friday night or there’s an exam in three weeks — whatever happened to that guy, anyway? (It does seem to always be a guy, for some reason).

Don’t be that guy. Here are some things I’ve learned about organizing your studying and reading life.


1. Your professor doesn’t expect you to have the book memorized.

First off, buy nothing before you get the syllabus on the first day (unless it’s otherwise requested). Look at the syllabus. If there’s a different book every week, that means that you’ll literally be reading each book to discuss in class once.

If you buy them all, that’s a lot of money you’re pretty much wasting on books that will be read once, put back on the shelf, and resold at the end of the semester for a fraction of what you paid for them. Just don’t.

In all likelihood, the copy that your professor put on reserve in the library is going to suit you just fine. Don’t run out and buy every book listed — if you think something is going to be useful for your research later on, then you can buy it from the used listings on Amazon or at the local used bookstore.

Okay! So, you went to the library and got your course reserved book, and it has to be back in two hours. Now what?

Remember the four questions I posed in my previous post?

  1. What is the argument that the author is making?
  2. How is the author’s argument new and different?
  3. Does the author’s argument make sense?
  4. Does the author successfully prove his/her argument?

Prioritize the two hours you have with the book to answer those four questions.

I’m going to repeat the importance of these four questions over and over again. Get used to answering those four questions. You’ll need them every week in seminar, and they’ll be doubly important when reading for your qualifying/comprehensive examinations.

As you progress, you’ll notice that seminar discussion really doesn’t stray far outside of these questions. Anecdotes that either the professor or other students share from the book’s content will mostly be presented in the context of addressing these.

I pretty much guarantee that your professor will never give you a pop quiz and ask what happened on November 10, 1789 (Ronan, that was for you!) unless what happened on that date was important to the author’s argument, in which case that’s probably what the question is really about. And there will almost certainly never be a pop quiz.

Take detailed notes and bring them to seminar with you. Personally, I liked handwriting my notes because I felt like I retained the information better. Some people do this just fine with typing. Try both, see what works for you.

You probably won’t need the book in front of you (notice that students who bring the book to class don’t open their copy that much, if at all). I would wager that half of the students who bring the book to class are trying to look prepared primarily in order to impress other people. Ignore this.

If you don’t trust yourself to be able to carry the conversation without paper backup, scan or photocopy parts of the book that you think are important to back you up–the intro and/or conclusion are the obvious suspects, or a section where you feel that questions 3 and 4 are being illustrated well (or poorly, depending on how you answer the questions).

In short order, you’ll learn to extract what you need from a book — and what you won’t need. This will give you a good sense of how long you need to spend with a book to get what you need — and that’s key for maintaining a good work/life balance.

2. There will be weeks you don’t have all the reading done.

It happens. Hopefully it won’t be the same week that everyone else in your seminar had a massive research assignment due for someone else. At the very least, plot out two hours to spend some quality time with the book so that you have something to say, and focus on the four questions above (it’s always about the four questions).

I focus on getting it done in two hours because that happens to be how long you can borrow course reserves at my university’s library, but also because I learned how to get through a book in two hours and answer these questions. It may take you a while to learn the mechanics of it, but you can spend just a couple of hours with the book and arrive at seminar with things to contribute to the discussion!

If you have one of those weeks where it just all went to hell and you didn’t even look at the book … well, speaking personally: If class participation is part of the seminar grade, your professor would probably rather you didn’t come at all than have you sit there for three hours not contributing. You’ll notice early on that you can always tell who’s trying to BS their way through the conversation without having read the material. Just because no one said anything doesn’t mean they didn’t notice.

“Dad, isn’t this usually the time of day you pull out a book, and I help you read by rubbing my face all over it?”

3. Schedule study time, and make it sacrosanct.

This is really important for the work/life balance. If you have people in your life (partners, children, parents, friends) who aren’t also in graduate school, it’s very easy to treat your workload as an inconvenience or secondary in importance. Don’t.

I set out certain blocks of time that were Study Time. In my case, they were more procedural blocks of time (i.e., Saturday after the grocery store run, Sunday after breakfast) than, say, a firm “I will study from 3-4 on Wednesdays”–but that also works. The important thing is that you have a mental time slot when you “should” be studying and to get both body and mind to expect it, and to signal that something is off if you’re not doing it.

The firmer you are about this, the easier it is on everyone else. I liked to read in the mornings because my brain was fresher, and because it was less intrusive: usually if we were going to leave the house for something it would be an afternoon movie or to go out to dinner. It also made it much less stressful for me to schedule plans with friends with confidence; otherwise they become sources of tension and angst on your part.

That said, I did have to put my foot down a few times and ask my fiancé (later husband) not to schedule things on the weekend without consulting me first, especially toward the end of the semester when I also needed to be doing research and writing.

However, on the flip side, once I had developed a set schedule and knew what I could accomplish within it, I also had more confidence about scheduling leisure activities in my free time.

4. Environment is important.

Where you study is just as important as when you study. Find a place where you can study successfully. I highly recommend that it not be the same place you do other kinds of reading (leisure reading) or watch TV. It should “feel” like the place where you go to get things done.

For me, it was the dining table. We don’t use it much, so I could leave books there. Books went flat on the table, my feet were flat on the floor, I was sitting upright. It’s also quiet, although occasionally I did have some unexpected help.

“Your thesis was not valid, so we deleted it. You’re welcome.”

A lot of people like to go to coffee shops or the library to study – if that’s your thing, great. It doesn’t work for me. The popular campus coffee shop where everyone at my university likes to hang out is loud and boisterous and the chairs were clearly designed by a devotee of the late Marquis de Sade, and I just don’t understand why people think it’s all that (and the coffee tastes burnt).

In addition to my well-documented hatred of That Place, I also always felt like that I was putting too much pressure on myself to be productive once I arrived, got situated, and opened a book. I felt like I would spend more time evaluating whether I had “done enough” to justify the trip than I did paying attention to the material. I also discovered that if I drank coffee after noon I would have problems sleeping.

The idea is that you should feel like you’re in a place that merits serious attention. When you’re here, your brain is primed, and your body reacts accordingly. This is why I don’t recommend mixing the physical locations where you enjoy leisure time with the location where you’re being studious. (This is an actual thing, psychologically speaking, and it can lead to both anxiety–which there’s enough of in grad school as it is–and insomnia.)

5. Know your limits.

I worked full time for 11 years before starting my doctoral program. During that time, I got used to the concept that when I got home from work at 5:30, the rest of the day was mine. It was a very hard habit to break myself of–in fact, I never successfully did so.

When I first started my graduate program, I tried my best to come home and be productive, but I was usually tired (because I was in the office at 7:30 am), and my brain was uncooperative. The most productive time I was able to eke out on a weeknight was about an hour. I could get through an article (singular), but it wasn’t enough time to get through a book, and I realized that my ability to retain any information about a book was diminished if I split it up over multiple days. I also noticed that I was looking at the clock a lot more than I did on weekend mornings.

Eventually, once I realized this, I shifted most of my productive time to the weekends (this was why I had to be more militant about ensuring that I had some control over weekend scheduling).

I also noticed that I was better at working through books with longer stretches of time (like two hours), and that I was at my best if I didn’t try to get through them right before the seminar where they would be discussed.

Your mileage may vary, and you’ll realize your own quirks and how you work best. Pay attention to the mental and physical cues your body and mind give you, and don’t struggle against them.

6. The first five are a lot. Speak up if you’re struggling.

Your professor is probably teaching at least two other classes, and in all likelihood the other two classes are undergraduate lecture courses that require a lot of work. Most of us operate under the assumption that if a student needs help, they’ll say something. And, whether by hook or by crook, graduate students tend to get less attention because it’s assumed that they’re more mature and capable of speaking up if they need something.

Unfair, but true.

Graduate students often experience depression and anxiety, and it can be bewildering if you’ve never experienced it before. And as difficult as it can be, often times it is incumbent upon the student to make the first move.

But please do.

If you’re struggling with the workload, talk to your professor. Speaking personally, I will bend over backwards to help a student who is struggling (and reward the effort come grading time.) I can’t help if I don’t know.

If you’re struggling with your mental health talk to … someone. Your professor. Your advisor. Friends.

Look up the student disability services office (because mental conditions count) and see what services they offer.

Find a yoga class.

Work out.

Take a mental health break.

Take care of your mind. After all, graduate school is about training your brain, so keep it in tip-top shape!


This post has gone on long enough at this point, so I’ll wrap up and promise that, in the next installment, we’ll discuss what happens when the reading becomes your entire life: how to prep for your qualifying/comprehensive exams!

What else do you want to know about grad school? Post questions in the comments section!

Grad School Survival Guide: How to Read

So you got into graduate school. Congratulations!

(Note: I went through a humanities program, and most of my advice in this and future posts in the Grad School Survival Guide is aimed toward humanities/social science programs. Hard sciences and advanced degrees in fields like law and medicine have their own skill sets, although you’ll still probably find what I say here somewhat useful.)

You’re probably looking at the title of this post and thinking, “I learned to read in the first grade, dummy.” Of course you did. (Or didn’t. I assume if you’re reading this you’ve mastered the skill at some point.)

When you arrive in the humanities or social science graduate program of your choice, however, you may find yourself in the following situation. Maybe it’ll be the second seminar. Maybe it’ll be the fifth. But you may find yourself realizing that other people in your seminar seem to have an awful lot to say about the readings for this week…and you don’t.

Why don’t I have anything to say? You will ask yourself. Is there something wrong with me?

The answer to the second question is probably best left to the medical or mental health professional most familiar with your specific case. The answer to the first, however, is much easier to address: it’s because when you arrive in a graduate seminar, the professor expects you to know how to read academic books and articles, but most graduate programs offer little to no guidance on how to do this.

This will especially be the case if you’ve entered a graduate program in a different discipline than your undergraduate degree. In my case, I did my undergrad in International Relations, my master’s in Middle Eastern Studies (an interdisciplinary program), and my doctorate in History. I was always playing catch up.


How You Learned to Read and Why It’s Wrong

Most of us learned to read for class in grade school, using dry, corporately produced, written-by-committee textbooks that make people think they hate history because it’s presented as a list of one fact after the other, to be duly memorized, spit out at exam time, and then forgotten.

A lot of us employ the same skill as undergraduates. When assigned chapters from a book, we search for names, dates, events–tangibles we can get hold of and cling on to–and ignore the dry stuff. If we asked ourselves the question of what was important about the reading, we usually meant some variant of “what is important to know for the exam?”

Much of the time, our undergraduate classes consisted of lectures in which the professor echoed the material presented in the books, and often by the end of the semester we had stopped reading because the material was redundant and the professor was more interesting and had the added advantage of knowing what was going to be on the final.

In graduate programs in humanities and the social sciences, however, most classes consist of smallish groups that engage in discussion for the whole of each session (If you’re in the UK, substitute “module” for what I call a “class”). Professors lead discussion, but they don’t lecture. They expect you to show up with something to say about the readings. It’s bewildering at first, because you’ll feel like you’re constantly unprepared. And you may find yourself staring at a page of text trying to will yourself to have an opinion about it.

For me, the moment of realization came in a graduate seminar taught by a Name Professor housed in the department of anthropology. Every week, this seminar met and his doctoral students–a doting, adoring (nay, sycophantic) bunch–would dominate discussion. Their commentary was completely unintelligible to us lowly Master’s students, and they seemed to be engaging in some sort of unspoken competition to invoke the most obscure French poststructuralist.

[For the record, seventeen years, two graduate degrees, and five semesters of teaching later, I am more than ever convinced that this is exactly what they were doing.]

I would stare at the material and think, Why am I not seeing this? Why don’t I have anything to say?

If this is causing deja-vu, Fear not, I have suggestions.

How to Learn to Read–Again

Unless you’re in a graduate program–or were lucky enough to be in an undergraduate program–in which someone takes the time to explain to you how to read an academic monograph or an article out of an academic journal (and these are, sadly, few and far between) you’re probably approaching the material in the exact same way you approached a textbook.

Herein lies the issue.

Stop seeing the material as a series of facts to be memorized, written by an infallible author, and start seeing it like an academic (which you are): an argument-driven thesis written by a scholar whose work may not be perfect.

Academic monographs are an argument presented by their author. This is why they’re not that lovely, flowing, easy to follow narrative employed in a textbook.

The entire text has an argument. It’s set out to prove something (and bear in mind that what the author wants to prove may be a how or why rather than a what or when). Each chapter has an argument that is meant to support the overall argument of the book in some fashion.

The argument will have nuance. You’re not going to read an article or monograph that argues that the French Revolution happened in France in 1789. You may read an article or monograph stating that the French Revolution happened, in part, because of a meeting that happened in Switzerland six years earlier (I am, for the record, not a French historian and am completely making these examples up). Or that the French Revolution happened in 1789 because there was a period of warm weather that caused crops to fail in Bordeaux the previous summer, and we just figured this out based on atmospheric data.

So, if you find yourself feeling left behind in class discussion, or like each class meeting is like dropping into the middle of a conversation that started without you (and believe you me, I felt this a lot), it most likely boils down to this: your classmates are treating the book as an argument that can be critiqued, while you’re viewing it as a set of facts to be taken at face value.

My classmates in the anthropology seminar were using theorists to suggest that, if one looked at the argument from a different perspective, one could deconstruct and reconstruct the author’s argument in radically different ways. (This does not change my conclusion they were trying to one-up each other in naming obscure theorists, though).


Where do I find the argument?

Well, funny enough, it’s probably been staring you in the face all along.

Monographs and articles are structured in much the same way–at some point, you’ll be instructed on how to construct your writing this way, too.

Start with the introduction. These are wildly inconsistent–sometimes the introduction is called “Introduction,” sometimes it’s called “Chapter 1.” (It’s never the acknowledgements and usually not called Preface.)

They usually begin with a hook to get you into the story. An anecdote, something to illustrate why what is being discussed is important. (They don’t always–some of us [embarrassed cough] employ this technique heavily, others just jump right in.)

Then you’ll get into an arc that will present the basic issue, usually explaining how it’s traditionally been seen in the field.

Then there will be a literature review. You’ll know this section because of all the footnotes or inline citations. (Pro-tip: if you found this book or article because you’re writing a research paper, this is the section to mine if you’re looking for tips on who else has written about this topic). This is the second most important section of the introduction.

Then you’ll see a line that says something like “[Title of monograph] argues that” or “I posit that” or “The thesis of this book is that …” Here’s your argument. Star it. Underline it. This is, for the author, and for you, the person who has to discuss what the author has done, the most important sentence in the entire book. (Note: in an article this declaration may come before the literature review.)

After presenting the argument, the author will lay out their strategy–and the way they will do this is by outlining the book for you. In Chapter 1, I will describe A and demonstrate B. Chapter 2 continues this by describing how B then led to C. And so on.

In other words, it’s the section you’re often tempted to skip right over because you’re going to read the book, and are tempted to skip over because you’re asking yourself why you would read an outline of the book that you’re about to read. Don’t! It’s key to understanding what the book is trying to accomplish.

Now that you know what the author’s argument is, you can explore why it matters.

Back up and look at the literature review. (In history books the literature review tends to come before the author’s presentation of their argument, but this isn’t set in stone. It may come afterward).

The literature review is meant to answer one basic question: how has the issue that the author is presenting been described by other scholars who’ve approached the same or similar issues?

Your task as a reader is to answer two basic questions:

  1. How is what the author is doing revisionist? (read: new and different. In the field of history, revisionist can be a bit of a loaded term.)
  2. How have other authors written about this topic before?

If you can answer these two questions, 75% of your work is done.

The rest of what you need to address in your reading of the material consists of:

3. Does the author’s argument make sense?

4. Is the author’s argument convincing? (This is similar to, but not the same as, the previous question. It is perfectly possible for someone to put forward a sensical argument and then do a poor job of backing it up. This is, in fact, a good place to start your evaluation of the text.)

You’ll notice I haven’t asked you if you can remember what happened on November 10, 1789. And your professor probably won’t, either. Remember, it’s not that kind of class.

Okay, I did that, but I still don’t have much to say …

If you’re still a little lost, or have done all of this but aren’t sure how to move from “Okay, I understand the author’s argument, but I still don’t have much to say about it,” don’t be afraid to look at book reviews of the title you’re reading (this is harder with journal articles, but not impossible. Check out Google Scholar and search by both title and author).

This is especially important to do if you notice that the author takes particular issue with another scholar’s work–see if that scholar responded or had something to say about your author’s critique. Obviously if one of the two was dead when the other was published, this won’t work as well.

Reviews also give you some insight as to where to start looking if you’re not sure how to go about critiquing. Your first semester in, you probably aren’t married to a particular theory, school of thought, or have a favorite theorist–and that’s perfectly fine (I still don’t).

Even if you found the argument and have answered questions 1 and 2, you may still be a little unclear as to how to go about answering questions 3 and 4.

First off: It’s okay! You’re still learning. A good graduate seminar will pull in a lot of books from different perspectives, and it’s totally understandable that you won’t be well-versed in all those fields.

You should, however, be able to follow what’s going on when classmates offer critiques or comments better than you were before. The more you practice this kind of reading, the better prepared you’ll be. And after a few weeks, you’ll be able to jump into the discussion yourself.

Next up:

How to read a book (or more) a week … for each seminar … and still have a life. It is possible!