Reading Historical Literature Critically: Tips For Success

I’ve had a few lecturers ask me if they can use the reading advice that I posted on twitter a few weeks ago in workshops with students, so I have decided to put it on my blog to make it easier to share. Not only I am happy for people to use this material with their students, I’d like to encourage it, because I think it is very difficult for students when they are told to ‘think critically’. It’s quite a vague and abstract instruction. What practical steps can you take to make it easier to do this? The below was my attempt to lay this out for my students. It’s not exhaustive, of course, and should be adapted to your own working methods, but it least gives some practical ideas. Please do add your own tips in the comments.

Reading: Approaching Historical Literature Critically

Students occasionally can be overwhelmed by their reading and try to cram every fact that they have come across into their essay. Sometimes students think that they should keep on reading and reading and reading until everything becomes absolutely clear in their head … In my experience, this rarely helps and can sometimes become a form of procrastination in itself (even if well-meaning procrastination!). You need to be more focused in your reading to get the most out of it. Here are some tips gleaned both from my own experience of writing history and those of my students.

Feely’s Five Point Plan to Reading Success

1. Start with broad texts on your chosen subject, paying particular attention to the introduction, conclusion, tables of contents, etc. You can read more carefully for detail later; at this point you should be thinking about what the key arguments of the book/article are and how they relate to other reading and your own developing thoughts about the topic. Reading a few reviews of a book can also help you to see the ‘big picture’.

2. At this relatively early stage, sit down and write a couple of bullet points (or a mind map, if you’re that way inclined) about the overall picture of the topic you are starting to form and the key questions you have identified. This can be – should be – very rough and little of it will make it into your finished essay, but the key thing to remember is that writing actually helps you to develop your ideas. Research and writing are not separate activities; you should see them as part of one and the same process.

3. When you have a clearer idea of your own thoughts, you can now start reading in more detail, making notes that particularly relate to the questions you want to answer. To ensure that you engage with your reading critically, don’t just write down ‘the facts’ you come across: always think about why certain examples are used over others, how they relate to the author’s overall argument, cross reference with other texts, etc. It’s a good idea to perhaps jot down these thoughts in a different coloured pen, to differentiate your own words from direct quotation. A student of mine has recently started following every note she makes with a note explaining why she’s written it down. It’s a wonderfully simple idea but one that really helps to prevent you making irrelevant notes and getting overwhelmed by ‘stuff’.

4. When you’ve finished a book/article, it’s a really good idea to write a sentence or two, in your own words, that sum up the main argument you think the author is trying to make. Do this NOW, while the material is fresh in your mind. You will thank yourself later when you have at least a few sentences to use as the basis for parts of your essay.

5. Now go back to your original bullet points/mind map and see if your ideas have changed, or if you can refine them. Start to make a more detailed plan, drawing from the notes you have made. This plan is now the basic first draft of your essay. Writers sometimes call this their ‘zero draft’. It might be messy, and you will probably still need to do more reading, but the key point is that it exists. You’re no longer staring at a blank screen and the anxiety that entails.

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9 Responses to Reading Historical Literature Critically: Tips For Success

  1. bendermanuk says:

    Great advice, as a mature student hoping to restart my studies this year as a Postgraduate, this will be invaluable! Thanks!

  2. Sounds like good advice for those of us writing historical fiction. TX

  3. HI Catherine While I agree with the gist of your approach, in my experience of teaching mature students I have always found it important to think about the relationship between the reader and the book and control . Too often students ‘lose control’ to the text and do not assert their own authority by thinking through what THEY want from the book – they get seduced by the book , lose control and become intimidate by another’s approach . I have often used the analogy of lonely hearts ads. Essentially they should be looking for a one night stand with a book – getting what they want at the time from the text – and then dumping it and moving on to the next. They are not looking for the love of their life – at least not for the purposes of essay writing. If nothing else students seem, to remember this as an approach!!

    • cathfeely says:

      Great analogy, Hilda. Yes, I agree completely. That’s why I think it’s important to brainstorm early on in the reading process because it gets you thinking about what you are looking for and what you need to focus on. I find that a lot of my students get overwhelmed when they read one book, are ‘seduced’ by it, and then get confused when another one contradicts it. The difficulty is getting them to see that this contradiction is not a bad thing, but an opportunity to intervene in the debate. This is something that I’m still very much learning to convey as a teacher and all tips (and wonderful analogies!) are very welcome.

  4. Carmen says:

    I’m adding a link to your blog on my Study Skills booklet!

  5. Hannah says:

    Can I just say this is a life saver! I have just started history at university and to be honest the information is overwhelming. This though has given me a clear idea of how to go about thinking the way a historian should and I’ll be sure to use these points. Thank you again.

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