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.