How To: Critical Reading (and Note-Taking)

I was recently asked for advice by a graduate student on twitter on how to read monographs effectively and critically when you are starting out on a PhD. Thanks to Image result for keep calm and read carefullyeveryone who responded to my twitter thread with suggestions. This is a great question because I think that we often don’t spend enough time thinking about ‘how to read’ and, moreover, how to read ‘different’ kinds of work for different purposes. I spend a lot of time teaching ‘close reading’ of primary texts to my students and I teach a study skills class on how to read articles, but reading a monograph is a rather different skill.

So here are some of my thoughts on critical reading and note-taking. Please feel free to comment here or to tweet me @lauravarnam if you have additional suggestions or know of any other online resources which offer useful advice. I’m sure there’s plenty more that could be said on this topic!

First off, think about why you are reading this particular monograph. Some of the advice below is aimed at helping you to digest an entire monograph so that you can write about it critically (perhaps in a ‘literature review’ part of a thesis) and to think about how your work might respond to it. But of course we don’t need to read every single monograph in the same way! If we read in such detail all of the time, we’d never get through everything! So you need to get a sense of which books are fundamental for your topic and field, and which you are dipping into or reading a section of at this stage.

Related imageThe contents page and index are useful ways of navigating a monograph of course, but my key advice to start with- and this may then help to evaluate what kind of reading practice you will need to employ- is to read the introduction (and the blurb, if there is one). The blurb (which if it isn’t on the back of the physical copy will probably be on the website of the publisher) is where the author summarises the key arguments, topic, and scope of the book in a very short form, so that should give you a good idea of what to expect.

A good introduction should give you the following information about the book: the scope and contents (topic, primary sources, etc and also what is not in the scope of the project); methodology and approach (does the book use theory, what kinds of data analysis might be employed, is it based on close reading, etc); where it fits in the field (what hot topics is the book responding to, is it part of a particular ‘turn’ in a field, who are the key critics that it is in conversation with etc) and what’s at stake (why does it matter? Why has the author written this book and why should I read it?); and usually a helpful chapter breakdown for the rest of the book.

I like to think of a monograph introduction as a road map for the book. Once you’ve read the introduction, you should have a good sense of how important and relevant it will be for your work. You might want to read the introduction straight through without taking notes so that you are getting a good overview first, before getting into the nitty gritty… perhaps just noting a keyword here and there and a page number or two, if there are things which immediately jump out to you as crucial, so that you can easily go back to them.

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On note-taking in general, there are lots of possibilities available to you and it can be easy to get overwhelmed by the amount of notes you are taking and indeed in the methods of note-taking that you could choose from. Just choose what works best for you but here are some ideas:

  • Sometimes we can end up taking too many notes and getting bogged down! This is time consuming and it can feel like all you’ve done is copy out the entire book!! So have a think about the kinds of notes you want to make and again, this partly depends on why you are reading the book and what you are looking for.
  • Doing a general read through of an introduction or chapter first (or even just flicking through the pages) before taking copious notes, can be helpful because then you will get a sense of how important it will be to copy out lots of quotations etc. It could be that a chapter starts off seeming particular crucial but then diverges at a later stage.
  • I would suggest taking notes that include a variety of information and serve different purposes:
    • key quotes taken down verbatim (remember to use quotation marks and include the page number(s)!)
    • notes on argument and methodology (what is being argued, how, with what sort of evidence to back it up)
    • notes on primary texts/materials and references to secondary sources in footnotes that you might want to follow up (I keep a separate notebook where I write down bibliographic details of things I need to follow up on)
    • keywords that are crucial to the book and its arguments (and definitions of terms that might be new to you)
    • your evaluation of the arguments and points being made
    • stylistic points

I just want to pause to say a couple of things here. One is that we don’t just read monographs for the content but also for the form and style. The best way to learn about how to put a monograph together, is to see how someone else does it!

When I find an author that I like, I will often take notes on how they set up an argument, how they structure the book as a whole or individual chapters, and how they write! The best way to learn to write well, in my view, is to read! So (without plagiarising, of course!), I might note down a keyword that seems especially useful or how the turn of an argument is managed or how transitions between chapters or sections are handled. (I always find those parts the most difficult in a longer piece of work- how to get from one part of the road map to another!- and if you see someone doing it successfully, ask the question, how did they do it and why does it work so well?) Thanks to Elizabeth Elliott who also made this point on twitter, noting that copying out a passage can help you to understand its mechanics (and can also help to get the creative juices flowing if you’re having writer’s block, as a writer tweep noted recently!)

So a relevant thing to think about here is, how do I organise my note-taking and what form might it take?

Image result for laptop and notebook

I take notes by hand for the most part (I’m a pen and paper girl at heart!) but if I have a lot of passages that need copying out in full, then I will often use the computer. There are various pro’s and con’s of both methods and they are personal to you! No one way is better or worse (and thanks to Jo Edge for reminding me on twitter of the importance of these discussions not being ableist!). It is entirely up to you and your needs.

Katherine Lewis tweeted that electronic notes work for her because they are searchable and can be re-organised easily (they can be arranged thematically, interwoven with notes from other articles or essays, and so on). For me, I like handwritten notes because I have a visual and spatial way of learning (unsurprisingly, since I work on space and place!). I do like a mind map or spider diagram! One technique I’ve used with my undergrad students is to divide up a page into sections that correspond to different kinds of notes: keywords in the top margin, quotes in the left hand column, questions or notes to self in the right hand column… This can be a useful visual cue for the kinds of reading methods that you might want to employ.

Related imageOne thing I would recommend quite early on in graduate work is developing your own shorthand way of indicating your own ideas and responses to a text. If I make a note and then want to include my own comments in response, I tend to use the next line and I do a particular wiggly arrow which is my way of saying this next bit is me! I find that very useful when going back to notes I’ve made months ago, because it can be easy to forget what you thought in response to an article or you can accidentally confuse your ideas and the ideas of the author (and that could land you in hot water!)

And as always, back up your notes if you are using a laptop! (If you write in notebooks, keep them safe but you can also photograph or photocopy key pages for safe-keeping… I say this because of a salutary tale on twitter of a poor student who had his bag stolen which had all his notes in it! Doesn’t bear thinking about!)

Other ways of engaging critically with monographs can involve printing out or photocopying the intro and highlighting / adding marginal comments. You can then keep that alongside you as you read through the rest of the book and refer back to the chapter summaries as you progress through the book.

Another possibility- although personally I’m rather torn and a little cautious about this- is reading book reviews of a monograph. Ideally, a good book review (in my opinion) will set out the contents and scope of the book and assess its contribution to the field fairly. Sadly not all book reviews are entirely objective and reading a bad review could unfairly influence your reading of the book. That said, if there are multiple reviews that you can consult and they concur on key issues, that can be a helpful guide when forming your own opinion (although of course you don’t have to agree with the reviewers! So I would recommend using reviews as a guide only).

I think that’s all folks! If you have additional suggestions, please comment below or tweet me. And do check out my Resources for Grad Students and ECRs  page which includes advice on a range of things, including how to write conference abstracts, how to give a good conference paper, how to deal with peer review feedback, and the process of writing my monograph.

Happy reading everyone!

Image result for hermione reading



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