I’m often baffled by the quantity of reading assigned for many of my classes. I’m used to it after attending a rigorous high school and then a big research university for undergrad, but the standard seems to be to assign more reading than reasonably achievable for class each week. And by “achievable” I mean reading for full understanding – as in you could sit down and critique/wield the writer’s argument in a research paper.
I fluctuate between the belief that the other English graduate students are super-human readers who can devour written content at unthinkable rates and the more realistic notion that no one actually does the assigned reading in its entirety. For example, last week I was expected to read about 700-800 pages. This was an especially heavy load page-wise, but at least it didn’t involve the Middle English dialect of the Pearl poet, or the philosophy of Hegel, Kant, and Kierkegaard (previous weeks’ readings). So, here’s my confession: I didn’t read it all – not even close.
What I do is read with a “research lens.” Yes, for all you literary purists out there, this is significantly different than if I were to read for enjoyment or even full understanding. First, I hedge my bets on which pieces the professor is going to want to focus on class. More often than not, many of the secondary articles were assigned to give some historical background or some other tidbit of criticism that will not be central to the class discussion. Therefore, it’s important to know the take-away of each article, but not necessarily the subtleties of the all the references, dates, historical facts, etc. the article might mention.
You might ask – as I often have myself – why would the professor assign articles that she does not deem important enough to thoroughly parse out in class? The answers I have theorized are 1. the professor actually is a superhuman reading robot who underestimates her students’ abilities to read and discuss efficiently in the time allotted or 2. many of the secondary articles assigned are there to give the students a sense of the criticism out there on the topic, and to have a reference point to look back at if they decide to write a research paper on that text.
Theory is a little trickier. Some of it is so esoteric that you will probably not understand all its nuances the first time you read it. However, often the theory will be a focus of the class discussion, and the professor will expect you to be able to apply it to the text during discussion. So, when dealing with theory I usually take this approach:
1. Read any headings/subtitles. These help to situate your reading and keep you on track if there are any weird digressions.
2. If there are any identifiable introductions/conclusions, read those.
3. Then, I skim for passages in which the theorist takes a step back from examples and structuring his or her argument and attempts to summarize his/her position.
This I hope will at least give me a sense of what is going on in the theory and will help me know what to ask when the professor (usually) begins class by asking whether there were any questions about the theory or parts you struggled with.
Near the end of the semester, I am often working on papers concurrently with my readings for class. This means two things: 1. I already know what I am writing about for my semester projects and 2. my time is even more limited. When this happens, I usually have to resort to skimming primary texts and even quicker skimming on the secondary articles. Is this the trademark of a lazy student? Possibly. But I like to think it’s also the trademark of a student that puts an emphasis on research – which may pay off in the long run.
In the end, I am always prioritizing research. If I think any article or a primary text fits into my research interests, I read it all the more carefully. The rest of the game is keeping a mental (and perhaps a written) inventory on which readings have been suggested by the professor and what was discussed about them in class. That way, if I end up writing on a particular text, I can go back and read those articles and notes in more depth. Not doing all the readings in a given week also allows me more time to work on my semester projects – especially since it is easy to get bogged down in day-to-day work and forget about final papers until late in the game.
So, I think it is safe to say that regardless of what program you are in you will likely be assigned an insane amount of reading and will likely feel like you are reading at a slower pace than your fellow students. I try to keep out of the slog of feeling stressed and overworked by always reading with the lens of my research interests and, most importantly, prioritizing my readings based on relevance.