Unveiling Strategies for Conquering Overwhelming Academic Readings

Unveiling Strategies for Conquering Overwhelming Academic Readings

by Jessica Calarco · Inspiration

Tue, 04 Sep 2018 · 3 minute read

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In my first year of grad school, I was overwhelmed by the amount and
density of the required (and recommended) readings. I spent hours
slogging through all of it. I had piles of notes. But I felt lost. 

So now, in the interest of revealing the #HiddenCurriculum of higher education, I share these tips with students:  

First, read as much of each article/book as it takes to identify: 

  • The central research question  
  • The data/methods used to answer the research question  
  • The central argument/answer  
  • The fundamental patterns that support the central argument/answer  
  • The evidence that points to those larger patterns (e.g., statistical
    correlations, examples from field notes or interview transcripts,
  • The limitations (i.e., what questions it doesn't answer; what perspectives or possibilities it doesn't consider)  
  • How do you cite the article/book/chapter in your own work (i.e.,
    some research shows that X; some studies use method Y; authors have
    debated the best way to conceptualize Z, etc.)  

Second, figure out how each reading relates to other things you've
read, especially other things by the same author or in the same
subfield/genre. Does this particular study: 

  • Support, explain, clarify, extend, or challenge what's been said before? 
  • Develop a new theoretical model?  
  • Use a new method?  
  • Add a new case/population?  

Third, identify which books, articles, or chapters you'll need to
read in full. Those include readings that speak directly to your
research interests and the projects you're planning to complete. With
those readings, you should be able to clearly articulate how your work
builds on, is informed by, and is different from what's been done

Fourth, choose a citation manager (essentially a digital tool that
allows you to keep track of the articles you read and also cite those
articles more easily in your writing). There are lots of different tools
out there. Zotero, Mendeley, EndNote, etc. I haven't found one that's
perfect, but there are a bunch of free options, so I'd suggest starting
there and trying to find one you like. Once you choose a citation
manager, put *everything* you read into it. Use it to take notes.  

Use the tag features to group readings by subfield and method and argument. 

It'll make your life (and your research) *way* easier down the line. 

Fifth, and finally, remember that the #HiddenCurriculum of academia
makes it easy to feel like a slacker for even considering not reading it
all. But that "feeling like a slacker" thing is exactly how the
#HiddenCurriculum produces impostor syndrome. No scholar can read (or
has read) everything. Certainly not in full. 

But the solution isn't just to skim haphazardly or skip half the
readings on the syllabus or quit reading entirely. The solution is to
approach reading like research--with a set of questions to answer and
clear set of strategies to use in doing so.  

By: Jessica Calarco, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Indiana University 

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