How to Read in College

Tim Burke, Associate Professor of History

     The first thing you should know about reading in college is that it bears little or no resemblance to the sort of reading you do for pleasure, or for your own edification.

Professors assign more than you can possibly read in any normal fashion.

We know it, at least most of us do. You have to make strategic decisions about what to read and how to read it. You're reading for particular reasons: to get background on important issues, to illuminate some of the central issues in a single session of one course, to raise questions for discussion. That calls for a certain kind of smash-and-grab approach to reading. You cannot afford to dilly- dally and stop to smell the lilies. You might not think that's the ideal way to learn, and I would sort of agree. But on the professorial side of things, we feel a real obligation to cover a particular field of knowledge in the course of a semester, and we cannot do it all through lectures. Nor would I personally want to talk at my students day in and day out.

So okay, if you're not going to read everything with intense precision and in gory detail, then how are yougoing to read it? What I hope to provide in the following page is a few of the Stupid Academic Tricks [tm] about reading that I've learned over the years. These aren't foolproof-they won't work for everyone. They all take a while to master, through trial and error. This ain't Cliff's Notes here.

Skimming For Arguments: Introductions, Conclusions, Signposts

The first rule, in some ways the only rule, is skim, skim, skim. But skimming is not just reading in a hurry, or reading sloppily, or reading the last line and the first line. It's actually a disciplined activity in its own right. A good skimmer has a systematic technique for finding the most information in the least amount of time.

I'm going to use Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities (Verso Press) in making my argument. It's a fairly clear piece of academic writing on an important subject.

Let me take you through a skim of this book, bit by bit.

In the first four pages, as an undergraduate reader in a course where the book is assigned, you should only really care about this sentence: "The aim of this book is to offer some tentative suggestions for a more satisfactory explanation of the 'anomaly' of nationalism."


Find the answers to these questions and more at Professor Burke's blog, Easily Distracted.