Students always have a guilty, hangdog look about them when they admit to me that they didn’t read the entire reading. If the reading was a few pages or a newspaper article, then they are right to feel a tinge of regret. But whenever you are assigned a humanities reading of significant length and complexity—such as a book chapter or an academic article—you should never read the whole thing. Let’s explain.
Most humanities books and articles aren’t cumulative the way some of STEM documents can be. In cumulative, stepwise documents, if you don’t understand Step Four, then Steps Five, Six, Seven, etc will become increasingly hopeless as your mistakes cascade forward. In cumulative documents, it’s crucial that you understand each step. If you’re stuck on one, you keep slogging away.
Not so with a lot of humanities texts: the history, philosophy, political thought, cultural commentary, etc. They usually present a coherent argument, but they are structured in such a way that you can miss steps and still get some idea of what’s going on. Certainly enough to make positive contributions, and to improve your brain. In contrast, if you spend all your available time getting frustrated over one early paragraph, you’ll come to discussion with nothing! And you may be unhappy about the whole experience.
So, here is how I recommend trying to read, in step-form. I say ‘trying’ because you might need to modify this system for yourself. But if could make your life easier.
## A How-To Guide
Find and read the author’s bio. Knowing who the author is—what field are they from? what is their background? why would they spend the time writing this?—helps you build the map of what you’re reading. Nobody writes this stuff for no reason. Is the author an economist who has spent their life fighting against taxation? Is the author an activist for some cause? Knowing these things will help you figure out what’s going on. (Be careful using this information in your paper, as we don’t want ad hominem (Links to an external site.) attacks.)
Read the title. READ THE TITLE. It might tell you what’s going on. Start to expand the questions you’re asking yourself: what is the person studying, how are they studying it (quant? narrative? legal argument?), and why.
If there’s an abstract, READ THAT TOO. Not because you should or ought to, but because it will save you time. It’s a selfish act. Embrace it.
Read the first and last paragraph. If the author is a nice person, these will tell you a lot more about the questions above: what, how, why? If you don’t have an exceptionally good memory, or if you’re taking any other courses in addition to this one, I suggest taking less than a page of notes per article. Future You, the one taking the exams and writing the paper and doing the quizzes, will really like Current You.
Are there subheadings? It would be great if there are subheadings. You should use them in your writing. They tell the reader what’s about to happen, and they help organize the text. Read them. Use them as note headers. They’re probably a way to organize the major points of the article.
Read the first and last paragraph or two of each subheading, such that you know what’s in each of them. Add a sentence or two to each in your notes. Writing it down forces you to clarify your own understanding, and helps you see what you don’t yet understand.
Now you have a map of the material. You can now decide how much time you have left to devote to filling in gaps by moving to specific parts of the text. Add a bit to your notes.
Do you buy it? Are you in the buying mood? Write a few quick notes about what you like, didn’t like, or find interesting or confusing. These points will be really useful in tests, your paper, and recitation.
Keep the notes in a single place. For example I suggest using Zotero (Links to an external site.) to automatically download materials, annotate them, add your notes, and automatically cite them in whatever style you want in your papers. Then in later humanities courses, you’ll be able to draw on work you’ve already done that much easier.
I encourage you to consider a system like this one, tailored for your own needs.