Reading / Research

How To Read Your Set Texts, Even When You Don’t Want To

Read Set Texts, Even When You Don't Want To

This has probably happened to you. It’s certainly happened to me.

You love your course. But there’s a book you’re meant to read.

Most books are fine. But this one…Oh, this one is a stinker.

You try, you fail, you try again, you fail again, you fear the book, you eventually stop trying.

Because not all books are fun to read.

And the more you put off reading the text, the less time you have to consume it.

Then you’ve only got a day left to read it.

Lifehacker has an article to help you read a book in a single day. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to wait until the day before a seminar to read the book you’re meant to be working on. Especially if you’re not engaging with the way it’s written.

So you’re worried about it, or bored by it. And as soon as you feel like that, you break out in a rash of procrastination. It happens to all of us!

What you need are new tactics. Methods that you don’t normally use when reading. But now it’s time to bring out the big guns. If you don’t, you’ll just panic and end up not reading the book at all.

That’s no good for your class and it’s definitely no good for you.

No matter how long you’ve got left, it’s time to tackle the reading.

Here’s what to do:

  • Work out how much time you’ve got left and in your schedule;
  • Break the text down into sections, so you don’t have to read in one go. This could be divided into something like equal numbers of pages per day, or chapters per session;
  • Put those chunks into your schedule, spaced out between now and when you need to have finished.

You can vary your methods, depending on how long you’ve got to do the reading. Hopefully you’ve still got several days, if not weeks, to do the reading. Even if you don’t have that luxury, there’s some advice below.

When you have several days/weeks to do the reading…

The earlier you start, the more time you have to space out the reading. You can casually read a small amount each day without much hassle.

Imagine you have two 50-page documents to read for a seminar in a week. That’s 7 days and 100 pages.

Maybe you don’t want to read on each of those seven days. We can make it five days instead. 100 pages spread equally over five days is…drum roll…20 pages a day. Much better than 100 pages in a single session.

A focus on fewer pages will also keep you in the mood to make notes and comments as you go through the writing. You may also get so involved that you’ll want to carry on reading.

Better than anything, though, is that you’ll find the challenge of 100 pages less scary when you space it out in smaller chunks.

You may be tempted to do the reading in a single session, but that’s where most people fall. Five pages in, you realise how huge the task in front of you really is. Without a backup plan, you add further stress to the mix. One hundred pages only works in a single session if you’re truly engaged in the reading.

I understand why it’s so tempting to get the reading done in one go. Your brain convinces you that one session of work is better than five sessions.

But as soon as you set yourself smaller doses, the task feels easier. You’ll be more open to spacing the work out as opposed to slogging through an exhausting marathon. Little and often trumps the overwhelm every time.

When you only have a day or two to do the reading…

You’ll never do yourself justice, but there are ways of cushioning the blow. Once in a while, you can probably get away with it. All the time, however…That’s a different story.

When time has got the better of you, here’s the drill:

  • First off, read the Lifehacker article. It covers most of what you need.
    In short, it’s about location, the right kind of noise (or silence), intervals with short breaks in between, making notes, the right food and drink, and using physical books where possible.
  • Know what you’re reading for. Is this for general seminar discussion, a major set text for a module, due to be part of a future exam or piece of coursework, for an overview or to discuss a specific point in the text? The reasons make a difference.
  • If the text is for discussion now, but is most important for an exam or an essay further down the line, you’ve already bought yourself more time. You won’t be able to work so well in a seminar session, but at least you can properly schedule reading time before it’s time to complete the marked coursework.
    Get a good overview (consult a cheat-sheet summary or synopsis first if you must…just don’t rely on it ongoing!), find answers/discussions for any set questions you’ve already been given, and concentrate on the major points expected.
  • If the text forms part of a module that’s about to start, you may have a little more time than you think.
    Sure, the first lecture is up tomorrow, but that doesn’t mean you’ve only got one day to get through the entire text. Instead, get that overview, at least start reading the text, and schedule more realistic reading sessions as discussed in the section above when you have several days to get the reading done.

The more time you have, the more you can space out the reading. It’s less daunting. You just need to develop the habit of committing to a bit every day. Yes, it feels strange at first, but you get used to it. Spacing out the work is preferable to doing all the reading in one go.

Finally, don’t make things too complicated. It’s just reading. Some stuff is a slog to get through. I know, I’ve been there. Despite all the Shakespeare I did for GCSEs and A-levels, I still found the process of reading it tough at university.

What type of reading bothers you the most?

Books, emotions, and paying attention

Stories about the future have long portrayed the things we know today in emotional terms. Books get used a lot of the time. Imagine a world with hardly any physical books. When a movie presents you with a world in which books are off-limits or scarce, you’re prompted to stop and think about what you take for granted.

Could you do without books?

So how important are books? Over 5 years’ ago, I wrote a piece that challenged the idea that ebooks will become a dominant force. We have seen an explosion in reading via tablets and eReaders, but books are still hanging around.

And not in a ‘bad smell’ way. Books are not unpopular, despite sales of ebooks catching up. In fact, ebook sales are slowing down. Is that because books are still a draw, or are all lengthy texts suffering?

After all, the sheer amount of information being pumped out on a daily basis is phenomenal. Reading a book from cover to cover can be a challenge for some. That challenge gets even harder as we’re primed for more snippets of information more of the time. More more more.

The emotional pull of lost books is no longer quite as disorientating. In part, because it’s a cliché. But not only that. We’re also used to the idea of reading in other ways. Desktops, tablets, eReaders, phones, you name it. Screens are everywhere. Words are everywhere.

The book may look impressive on a shelf, but we own other things. Collections of stuff vary so much that we’re hardly limited to books.

The luxury tag has waned. So has the desire to keep every book you have ever read. Yes, there will always be some people who are drawn to owning a massive library of books. But is that feeling becoming more rare as the years go by?

Could you live without books?

Everyone Needs To Stop Doing This

Plashing Vole tweeted:

“As the Dissertation God for one of my subjects, the words ‘everyone’ and ‘everything’ are now banned due to unthinking abuse.” [Source]

Apparently, some dissertations that had been submitted for marking contained this type of saying:

  • “Everyone is on Twitter.”
  • “Everyone knows X.”

It’s best to leave these sayings behind. Here’s why:

Crowd (photo by Redfishingboat (Mick O))

“It was amazing. Everyone was there.” – No. Not everyone. (photo by redfishingboat (Mick O))

Everyone is on Twitter

No. Not everyone. You know that really. It’s just a way of saying how popular Twitter seems to be. Surely everyone is using Twitter? But academia needs to be pedantic. Your coursework is not the time for casual remarks.

This isn’t the same as stating information that is generally regarded to be the case without need to explain further. More on that below.

To make a point, you need a reference. Twitter statistics are hard to come by in any up to date and accurate measure, especially in academic papers and textbooks. However, go to the source and you can make a good start.

Twitter’s own Twitter account posted on 18 December 2012 that there are more than 200 million active users per month. They give no further evidence, so it isn’t definitive (even if they say so themselves), but it is a good start if you want to talk about how many people use the service.

Similarly, if Twitter announced that everyone was using Twitter, you could reference that and find examples of people who do not use the service. That’s what research is all about…Although I’m pretty sure Twitter aren’t about to say that the entire human population on earth is now using Twitter.

Everyone knows X

Some information can be referred to and used without referencing. Usually when there is wide agreement, nothing controversial, and generally understood far beyond academic circles.

In these rare cases, I’m pretty sure the information won’t involve ‘everyone’ or ‘everything’. That’s another clue not to use those words.

If the detail is genuinely accepted and requires no further referencing, you can get rid of “everyone knows” anyway. First, because it’s not literally true (it’s unlikely to be stored in a knowledge bank in the brain at birth), and second, because they are pointless words. If everyone accepts it, why do you need to tell us? After all, you’re telling us what we already know.

But why am I telling you about this? I thought everyone knew not to do it…😉

There are variations on this. When you start writing things like, “People say…” and “Many researchers note…“, remember that you need to be specific. Give examples. Refer to the researchers. Don’t call them ‘people’ or ‘researchers’ at all. Name them outright and give them pride of place.

Every time you find yourself writing along these lines, you have a way forward. Take the offending remarks and look for a way to reference the information instead. You’ll get a useful footnote in and you’ll show that you’ve looked for the detail. What first looked like a throwaway comment has suddenly become potential for a better mark. Not a bad incentive for dropping ‘everyone’ from the writing.

Why Lectures Aren’t Dead & How to Deal With Difficult Lectures

Not all lecturers are the same:

“To excel as a lecturer, it is necessary to find delight as a lecturer. In part, this means ferreting out what is most intriguing about the topic under discussion. It also means attending carefully to learners and seeking and sharing their enthusiasm. A great lecture is not a rote mechanical reading of notes, but a kind of dance, in which lecturer and listeners watch, respond to, and draw energy and inspiration from each other. One of the greatest pleasures of lecturing occurs when learners pose insightful questions that the lecturer did not — perhaps even could not — foresee.” – Richard Gunderman, Is the Lecture Dead?

What makes a lecture work for you? Is it like a dance? What special quality makes your favourite lecturer top of your list?

I saw one person lecture a few times and it was clear how excited they were about the subject. Unfortunately, the excitement was inward and the speaking was almost monotone. The content didn’t matter, the lecturer simply wasn’t giving the audience a way in. The most interested of lecturers aren’t always the most interesting.

Photo by dalbera

Photo by dalbera

A lecturer must find what enthuses the audience and provide an angle they can follow. With a compelling story told well, you have a good start.

Lectures aren’t dead. They’re not dying. But we are growing used to them. They are everywhere, in so many guises. Lectures are offline, online, long, short, bite-sized, basic, advanced, MOOC-based, general, specific… Lectures are talks to an audience. That covers a lot of ground.

New methods of learning and discovering won’t kill off what’s gone before. I’m tired of such a binary, either/or debate. Communication matters, no matter what the angle. Get it right and the communication moves on. The learning continues.

Get stuck and people switch off. There’s no magic answer here.

The lecture is not at fault itself, especially since the term ‘lecture’ is vague. It might be the wrong setting in some cases and there may be better ways to express some concepts. But none of this suggests the end of lectures altogether. That wouldn’t make sense. The point is to have a range of learning resources.

Think of a textbook. When you find the core reading tough to grasp, you can look elsewhere. A similar textbook that’s not on your reading list may have similar information, but be several times easier for you to understand.

I’ve faced that loads of times. A poor book (for me) was replaced by a better book. Imagine if, instead, I got annoyed at books and vowed never to read one again. That would be meaningless.

Once I got a grip of major concepts through a book that spoke to me, I’d return to the core text with more confidence. Sometimes, on the luckiest occasions, I was able to ignore the main text completely.

What has all this got to do with lectures? Well, a good lecture is a good lecture. It’s the bad ones you need to deal with.

When a lecture hasn’t worked out for you, try these things:

  • Go over the slides and see if you can recover from those alone;
  • Look for similar lectures online. Open Culture is a good starting place with Free Online Courses and Free Online Certificate MOOCs listed;
  • Use your core textbooks to read up on terms you didn’t grasp at first;
  • When you’re REALLY stuck by one or two concepts, look them up on Simple Wikipedia;
  • Speak with your classmates, the lecturer, and online forums. Basically, get a conversation going. It’ll help you see things from other people’s perspectives and it should help your confidence when talking about difficult content.

How do you deal with difficult lectures?

Of course, it’s much better when the lecture and lecturer gel with you. My favourite lecturer at uni did the dance described in the quotation at the top of this post. The energy was there, the content was clear, and much of the audience felt involved. I learned a lot about good presentation at the same time.

Not bad for a simple lecture.