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.

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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).

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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. Why in the world would I waste what little time I have reading about what’s in the book when I can just read it?

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!

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