U.S. Intellectual History Blog

History "Reading" In Graduate School

Larry Cebula, of Eastern Washington University, breaks down the infamous—and useful—grad school skim at his Northwest History weblog.

I confess that I have used Larry’s method on many occasions, and agree with most of his points. Allow me to add a few more tips.

If you own the book and believe you are likely to keep it, follow some advice I obtained years ago from Mortimer Adler: Do not fear writing in the book. It is as easy to enter short notes and page numbers in a book’s endpages as it is to use notecards, or enter information into Zotero or some other (useful) program. But write your notes with a pencil. Don’t highlight. When you highlight you’re simply delaying both your note-taking and thinking. There’s something about the writing utensil that touches your deepest habits as a student.

Reinforcing point #6 of Larry’s method, one of my professors told me years ago that there’s usually one chapter that makes a book. If you cannot ~not~ spend some time reading in the book, work on this chapter. This will cause your reading to exceed one hour, but at least it will both assuage your guilt and give you more confidence heading into your seminar.

Sadly, I think point #8 of Larry’s list usually occurs ~after~ class. If your grad school experience was like mine, most of your friends are not in school with you. And if you happen to have a few who are, usually you are in different courses. Sometimes, however, grad students will gather for a drink or food after a class. That’s where you might be lucky enough to actually talk about your reading—provided Lost, Glee, Treme, Madmen, or some other TV program does not dominate the conversation.

I would be remiss if I failed to draw your attention to the last three lines of Larry’s post. When you see warnings like this, you know you’ve encountered one of the dirty, essential secrets of the profession.

Thanks to John Fea for the tip. – TL