How to read around a subject

When tutors suggest you ‘read around’, what do they really mean?  When you get a reading list with hundreds of books on it, where do you start?


photo by Valentina_A

photo by Valentina_A

Reading around covers a lot of ground and is important for undergraduate work:

“Reading will be a crucial element of your study in higher education…There is a much greater expectation and requirement, if you are to be successful, to read more independently and more widely than you may have previously.”
Studying and Learning at University – Alan Pritchard (p28)

So, reading needs to be ‘independent’ and ‘wide’.  Let’s go further:

“University work needs more than simple reproduction of facts.  You need to be able to construct an argument and to support this with evidence.  This means that you need to draw on the literature that you have read in order to support your position…What is important is to present a tight, well-argued case for the view you finally present as the one you favour.”
The Smarter Student – Kathleen McMillan & Jonathan Weyers (p226)

What you say must be backed up.  That’s where reading around comes in.  Your aim isn’t to get a unique view on the world.  That’s almost impossible.  You need to refer to what’s already out there, which is why you can’t rely on a small number of sources unless you’re content with a bare pass (or worse).

Here’s what reading around does for you:

  • Reading around helps you fill in the missing gaps you didn’t realise were there;
  • Reading around lets you know the subject, rather than just the facts;
  • Reading around is like filling up a jar in stages.  You start with big rocks of information.  When the big rocks fill the jar, you can still put in small stones of detail that fall between the big rocks.  When the small stones fill the jar, you can still put in fine sand of specifics to fill in the smallest, unclaimed areas in the jar.

How do you start reading around?  Here are a few ways:

  1. Read more than the key texts on reading lists – When tutors list ‘further reading’, ‘extra’ texts, or ‘suggested’ materials, they aren’t giving you anything that’s surplus to requirements.  The purpose of further reading is so you can learn more, not to read more stuff you don’t need to know;
  2. Highlight research that considers similar issues and explore their findings – You are discovering what has gone before.  How have we reached where we are today?  Is research still going on, or have we reached a dead end?  What is influential and why?;
  3. Don’t rely on textbooks alone – Read up online, in journals, in textbooks, in the news, and so on.  Check for the most recent research going on, even if that means no more than a quick Google Scholar search for papers in the last year or two;
  4. Find links between your subject and another field – If you stick to your subject alone, you can’t appreciate the bigger picture.  How does your subject impact upon others and vice versa?;
  5. Don’t think ‘answers’, think ‘questions’ – You’re finding what fits with your argument and how matters can move forward or be explored further.  Research wouldn’t be necessary if we had all the answers;
  6. Check bibliographies of the most useful books – When you find a corker of a book, or you rely heavily on a general textbook, the bibliography and references within can help in the same way a tutor’s reading list does.

Reading lists are detailed for a reason.  For first years especially, they need to show variation, given that students will be coming from many backgrounds and with varying levels of understanding around the subject.  You’re not expected to read everything from cover to cover. You’re not even expected to check every single title out.  But you are expected to use the list to explore and make your own discoveries.

Some books will sing to you like beautiful music, while others relentlessly scream nonsense at you. If a book’s content confuses you, don’t despair.  It doesn’t mean you don’t understand the subject; it means the book isn’t a good fit for you.

To get an idea of how a book or article speaks to you and if it’s important to your research, check out:

  • Chapter titles;
  • Abstracts;
  • Introductions;
  • Conclusions;
  • Headings/Sub-titles
  • Lists, activities, images & tables;
  • First & last paragraphs of chapters.

If certain texts aren’t available in your library, make reservations and remember to do some quick and easy online research about the book.  You can often find a lot of content long before you get your hands on the text.

Whatever you’re studying, a lot of reading is involved.  With so much out there, you may be stuck for a starting point.  John Kay explains that there’s no point in making a specific plan at times like these.  Just jump in:

“When faced with a task that daunts you, a project that you find difficult, begin by doing something.  Choose a small component that seems potentially relevant to the task.  While it seems to make sense to plan everything before you start, mostly you can’t: objectives are not clearly enough defined, the nature of the problem keeps shifting, it is too complex, and you lack sufficient information.  The direct approach is simply impossible.”
Obliquity: Why our goals are best achieved indirectly – John Kay (p175)

Kay’s point can be taken further.  You may worry that you couldn’t possibly read everything.  If you’re meant to read around, how can you do that when there are millions of potential reads?

The answer is to read enough and know when to stop.

How are you expected to know that?  Well, there’s no magical answer to finding a time to stop.  However, as you read around and research, there comes a time when your viewpoint is more confident and you have plenty quotations, references, similar views, and so on.  At this point, it’s pretty safe to start.

If you need to go back later, then do it.  Reading around doesn’t happen in one sitting.  It’s an ongoing process throughout your degree.

Part of the reason why you’re given reading lists in the first place is so you can see what is already viewed as important in your field.  You’ll see the big names, be introduced to the crucial concepts, be handed the most influential texts, and get an idea of what authors/books other academics have heavily referenced.

Reading around gives you a chance to be independent in your research, whilst being pointed in the right direction so you don’t veer too wildly off topic.  There’s no trickery or punishment involved, even if you do feel overwhelmed at first.

As with most things, the more you practice, the more you’ll get into the swing of things.

What experiences have you had with ‘reading around’?

How to study a book before you have it

The wait for a crucial book to become available in the library is frustrating.  Even worse when the library doesn’t have the book at all.

Aside from inter-library loans, buying the book yourself, and other costly or time-heavy options, what other options do you have in the meantime?

photo by Newton Free Library

photo by Newton Free Library

To Do: Dissertation has some great tips on what to do while you wait for that book to become available.

But it got me thinking about others ways to the book that may work in your favour.  Here are a few ideas that might land you more access to a book than you think you have:

  • Check publisher’s website for excerpts and sample chapters – Some publishers are great at making PDF samples available to download.  You may get instant access to the Introduction, first chapter, possibly more.  Even a simple table of contents or index is a helpful head start on your research.
  • Check library online databases for books in electronic format – Don’t just check the library shelves.  An increasing number of books are now available online.  Services such as Cambridge Books Online provide a huge range of books at your fingertips.  Find out if your library has access.  If not, ask if they can get a trial.
  • Use Google Books – It’s not just Google Scholar that can help your research.  With Google Books, you can look through the pages of many books as a preview.  And the previews can be extensive.  Combine that with the ability to search for specific terms within each book and you may not even need to track down the physical copy of the book at all!
  • Use Amazon “Look Inside” – An alternative to Google Books, Amazon have their own preview function for a large number of books.  Again, you can search within the book and get busy with the research straight away.  However, it looks like Amazon may start charging for this feature soon.
  • Play Google and Amazon off with each other – Online previews are limited and don’t display all pages.  Rightly so.  You’re not meant to read entire books with the services.  However, when researching, you may find a specific page is excluded.  If both Google and Amazon have a preview available, that missing page on one resource may be there to view on the other.
  • YouTube talks – Why wait to read what the author wants to say when they may have said a lot of it in a talk or lecture?  By searching for the author (and maybe even book title) in YouTube, you may stumble upon directly relevant content for your research.  It’s another worthwhile reference to add to your bibliography too!
  • Read reviews – All sorts of texts get reviewed, not just bestsellers.  Reviews can give a breakdown of a book’s main ideas, flaws and coverage.  A Google search for book title and author and the word ‘review‘ should bring up newspaper reviews.  You can also check Times Higher Education.  It’s worth checking Google Scholar or journal databases for the title and author too, which should point you toward scholarly reviews and even related papers by the same authors.
  • Search for author details – Personal websites, university web pages, Google Scholar, JSTOR, etc…  All these can give further detail on the individual and their background, as well as other literature they have produced.  You may not have the book, but you may uncover key opinions and similar texts to chew on.

Don’t let the wait for a book stop you from getting on with your reading and research.  In the unlikely event that you find absolutely nothing after these searches, you can still go back to those helpful tips from To Do: Dissertation.

Don’t Plagiarise it. Remix it!

Academics have been remixing since forever.

You cannot move forward without taking from what is already behind you.

Yet remixing is different from plagiarising.  Academics reference the work they’re using and explain how they reached the detail they’re presenting.

photo by Thomas Hawk

photo by Thomas Hawk

There is a common misconception amongst students that you shouldn’t reference too much, because it looks like you haven’t done any thinking yourself.  But the more you refer to, the broader your research has been. Your scope widens as you read more, leading to more citations.

A high number of references is a healthy sign.  Those references have to be relevant, mind!

As you bring all these works together, you are creating a brand new work.  Remix. Mashup. Collaborate. From all this comes your own unique work.  You rely on others to make your own mark.

Coursework is a continuation of other people’s work, full of quotations, and full of ideas.  Even a groundbreaking, brand new finding/viewpoint must interact with previous research.  And each interaction requires an explanation of where it came from.

Additionally, if you have an opinion and want to back it up, it’s acceptable to find similar arguments elsewhere.  I spoke to one student who said they kept having to change their conclusions because they were the same as someone else’s view.  But there’s no harm in holding a similar view.  It’s just as natural to agree with others as it is to disagree with them.  Agreements in academia are helpful, because it’s material to back up your arguments.  It would be more difficult to back something up if everyone else disagreed with you!

Look at enough journal articles and you’ll start to see exactly how much academics manage to reference throughout their writing.  They don’t leave references out through fear of looking unoriginal.  When they discuss what has gone before and refer to previous findings, they are still creating a brand new work.

Your essays aren’t always unique research projects or a demonstration of new findings.  You may simply be discussing the merits of a statement or exploring a particular concept.  In doing so, your job is to cover as much ground as possible through primary resources and secondary material.  Should you find opinions that go against what you want to argue, bring that up too.  Explain why you don’t agree and back up with even more references on top of your own findings.

Next time you see an academic paper where the bibliography takes up the same number of pages as the article itself, hopefully you’ll understand why this happens!

It’s bad to plagiarise.  It’s great to remix!

20/20 – Day 20: 20 tips for effective research

It’s the final day of 20/20.  Sniff! I hope you’ve enjoyed this series of posts.

Today we return to study and, in particular, conducting awesome research.  It’s all too easy to rely on a limited set of information to complete your study, but that won’t help push you to better insight and better grades.

Here are some ways you can excel.

  1. Start right away.  The longer you leave it, the less effective you can be.
  2. Don’t stop.  Keep going through the whole writing process.  Even better, keep going between essays and exams.  Engage in your subject without needing a reason.  Without a reason you read differently, which often yields the most surprising and useful results.
  3. Go beyond Google, Wikipedia, your reading list, etc.  Research involves pushing further than what’s obvious to you.  Effective research opens up many avenues.
  4. Check bibliographies.  They’re great for finding new texts you may not easily find another way.
  5. Ask a tutor.  Briefly tell them where you’ve looked and what you’ve found.  See what other ideas they can suggest.
  6. Ask a subject librarian.  You may check certain shelves and subject headings, but a subject librarian can help you look beyond the ordinary.
  7. Consult recent journals.  The latest insights, studies and surveys are a great way to discover what’s happening right now in your field.
  8. Look for relevant quotations and references before writing, during writing, and after writing.  This will help you gain different perspectives and approach texts from different angles.
  9. Explore books within other disciplines, but with similar features.  For instance, you may know which shelves contain the books in your field, but have you checked the library in related subjects?
  10. Start with the basics and work inward. Finding the in-depth analysis tough to handle? The specifics don’t need to come first.  Discover those as you dig deeper.
  11. Treat it seriously, with respect and time. This is one of the most important aspects of study. Never attempt to start and finish an essay in one go, especially if it’s the day before the work is due to be handed in!
  12. Check Intranet portals (library and your School), as well as dedicated subject sites. Nobody can show you a definitive list of resources. Make use of all the lists you can.
  13. Refer to lecture notes and handouts. I’m guessing you already do, but the point is that the tutors will provide you with a good jumping off point.  Don’t ignore the relevance; they haven’t included anything just for the sake of it.
  14. Exploit Google to the max with their Book Search and Scholar tools.  Be on the lookout for new features with Google Labs. However, bear Point 3 in mind as you enjoy the Google beast…
  15. Use contents and index pages.
  16. Scan for important headings and features in texts.  Faced with a huge book with a couple thousand pages, it can be daunting.  After checking the contents and index, flick through and see how the book is laid out. There could be a handy summary for each chapter, or bold points throughout to give you the key arguments.
  17. Keep tabs for new and incoming online research.  Many websites have RSS feeds, email subscription services, and update pages that tell you what’s new.  Use them!
  18. Check basics on subjects/topic, looking for names of authors you could explore further.  Perhaps you’re just looking for the most important names in a particular subject or need an overview before you explore in depth (especially if using Point 10).  This is where Wikipedia does function well.  Need it more basic than that?  Try Again But Slower.  When you need brief answers quickly, don’t feel bad about taking a basic route.
  19. If you like the research part, accept the need to stop too. The rest of the work still needs to be done!  Undertaking good research is about doing enough and finding relevant information.  It’s not about finding every possible reference under the sun.
  20. Start right away. I mentioned this first and I’ll mention it last. Start now. Right now!

That’s all for this series of posts.  I hope you enjoyed 20/20.  Now get on with your research! How many more times…? 😉