If you’re starting to feel like the woman in this picture, it might because (if you haven’t noticed) your reading load has tripled compared to the fall. Winter quarter is the notorious “reading” quarter of the MAPH year. You’re no longer easing into graduate work with Core and cross-listed grad/undergrad courses. By now, you’re probably in at least one Ph.D. seminar and one or two other reading-intensive classes, and you’re loading on tons of extra research because of early thesis work.
Here’s a handy little tip from your mentors: you don’t have to read everything. Whoa! We know…we’re being quite unconventional here, but the entire goal of this blog is to get you to believe that you, truly, do not need to read every word assigned to you. Frankly, you don’t have the time. The amount of reading assigned at the University of Chicago is insane, especially if you’re in a Ph.D. or M.A. only seminar. We don’t have hard data on this stuff, of course, but we’re betting this is the case: you could probably read for an entire week (that’s 168 hours, folks), without stopping to eat or sleep, and you might just get caught up on the stuff you already haven’t done and your reading assignments for next week (including two or three books for thesis research). So, how do you not read every word and still feel caught up and thoroughly involved in your classes this quarter?
(Some ideas…after the jump!)
First off, please do not feel that you need to keep up with the Ph.D. students in your classes. They are taking less courses, do not have strict paper deadlines, and have at least another 4 or 5 years here to mosey through all of the reading they want. That means they will probably come to class with several secondary sources read (not assigned) every day, which eventually might make you feel unimpressive and uninteresting. Not so. A focused, intuitive reading of the primary text assigned for the day is often much more important and useful for discussion. Plus, if you know the primary text well enough, you’ll be able to follow along with whatever arguments the Ph.D. student’s secondary source presents and you’ll probably be able to contribute to the discussion of it anyway.
Second, it might be helpful to follow the “odd man strategy” (coined by former MAPH mentor Phil Stillman) if you’re enrolled in three reading-intensive classes. In this strategy, you focus heavily on the reading/assignments for two of the classes and relax on the third one a bit. This is most useful if you have a class (i.e. the “third class” where you relax a bit) where not all of the texts are particularly relevant to your interests, so you can focus only on those that are and kick butt in class discussion only during those weeks.
Also helpful is to start noticing what your professors and fellow students tend to focus on in class discussion. Maybe you have a professor who’s wild about theory and secondary sources, but usually glosses over the primary reading. In that case (if you already haven’t figured it out), focus on the theory and skim through the primary source. Read through a plot summary online and look through the first few and last few chapters more carefully. You’ll still be able to contribute to surface-level discussion of the primary text, and you can rock the conversations about the theory.
Finally, you can speed read. This can be really useful if you know how to do it. It allows you to read almost everything that’s assigned, without feeling like you’re leaving stuff out, but involves a lot of brain power and focus to do well. The idea is to skim very quickly through a text, stopping only when something doesn’t make sense or if something seems particularly interesting. The important thing about this strategy, though, is making sure that you still come away from the text with something to say about it. If you’re speed reading and merely crossing assignments off your list, without having anything to contribute to class discussion or a Chalk post, this might not be the strategy for you.
There are, of course, lots of other case-by-case strategies for how to get through the immense amounts of reading in winter quarter. If you have a strategy you’ve been finding particularly helpful, help your fellow MAPHers out and post a comment about it. Or, if you’re someone who hasn’t yet found a productive strategy and want some advice, you know where we are.