Reading Purposefully

This is perhaps the single most important thing for a graduate student when it comes to reading. Too often, one is tempted to simply pick up a book and start at the beginning and read to the end, but this is seldom wise unless you want a comprehensive knowledge of a topic, and even then one should instead consider consulting multiple sources by multiple authors rather than relying heavily on a single author to elaborate on a concept important to an entire field. Incidentally, this is the chief problem with using a textbook as a source when writing, since a textbook is in many cases an author writing beyond their immediate expertise to explain the field to a novice–it is not as reliable as a description of an important concept by an author who is well-published for writing about that concept in the larger and very competitive world of research. For example, if an historian who specializes in studying ancient pottery fragments writes a textbook about the history of an ancient world, unless that book is exclusively focused on pottery, the book is at least somewhat outside of their speciality, and so a more focused publication is usually better.

Ensure Access to the Material You Seek

In this era, not only do students have the luxuries of traditional library catalogs and book indices, but they enjoy the vast improvements of online databases, text-searchable electronic documents, etc. Though the body of literature on virtually any given subject is larger than any one person can read anymore, most any student has powerful tools available to them to locate the texts which may be truly valuable to them. There is virtually no reason not to invest considerable time into ensuring that you have the most relevant sources before you even start taking notes–sometimes this process can be as long as the reading process itself, but it can greatly improve the quality of the results if you take the time to search carefully before reading. In that sense, the reading process begins much before one actually begins reading, at which point a student should already be forming focused questions.

Reflection Questions:

  1. What search engines do you use to find sources?
  2. Have you ever reached out to a librarian to find sources? Was it helpful?
  3. How do you usually screen and evaluate the articles you have found?
  4. Would you have any specific advice about finding and evaluating new sources for someone else in your field?

There are myriad resources available in virtually any university library. It is strongly encouraged that you take some time to ask the librarians and consult the library website for advice about how to make the best use of their system. Remember, their full job is helping students like you have access to the resources you need, and they generally welcome as many questions as they are able to answer.

Continue to Focus Your Reading with Questions

Merely because you already have a stack of resources, physical or digital, does not mean you should no longer maintain a sharp focus on the relevance of what you are reading through. For some students, only about half of the resources they locate prove to be relevant enough to cite in a paper, and so continue to scrutinize intensely. Much like if you were to interview a notable person or meet with a professor or your advisor, have a list of questions written and in front of you to focus your reading at all times, and one you can add to as you learn more about the topic you are researching. Again, do not start at the beginning, but rather choose at least a chapter or section most likely to answer your questions–if you find that section refers to another section, consider reading that other section too; if you find nothing, discard the source and move on. You honor the authors with a citation when they are relevant to you, and so you do not necessarily need to feel like you have to read any of their writing in entirety. It is rare for a student to be able to accurately anticipate exactly which sources will prove the most valuable, so have an open mind about your sources and how you might use them.

It is important as well to read reflectively, that is, consider how what you have read changes your perception of the topic. Perhaps you will develop new questions as you go, and as you realize the fuller context of a field. For example, consider when each of your sources was written, and by whom. Are there larger disagreements in the field between groups of scholars? Was there a change in the way the research was done, often called a turn? In language teaching, for example, there was recently what is referred to as the “sociocultural turn”, in which language courses became less about making students memorize grammar books and more about being sensitive to their uniquely developed language and unique language needs as a result of their context. Reading articles from before the 1990s will likely not reflect that turn, but afterward, many authors began to refer to the same ideas–if you only read one article from afterward, you might think that one author was especially insightful rather than there being a larger movement in the scholarship. Naturally, you would then have to consider, “Has a larger turn in the research occurred, or is this a unique position of this author?” and read more.

Reflective reading and asking questions not just about comprehension but about how a text relates to you or to other texts is generally valuable, however, and you will notice that throughout this book there are liberally scattered questions for reflection, some with group discussion in mind, and others just for you as you read. Take a moment to reflect on these–no author can tell you how exactly their work relates to you or other texts you have read, and so that task is yours alone.

In this, and in all things for graduate-level research, the maxim “work smarter, not harder”, will surely serve you well.


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