Note from Adam: This is a work-in-progress, so please pardon the messiness.
These are a collection of insights and tips that I have collected from friends, peers, and professors concerning academic endeavors. Individuals have been credited, when they have approved.
Learn how to read a book, before you start.
This is directed primarily at academic works. There are techniques that you can use to quickly make your way through readings, particularly when you are assigned an entire book or set of books from week to week.
First, learn how to skim: Read the table of contents, introduction, and the first and last paragraph of each chapter. Assuming that a work has been laid out in a logical and coherent fashion (which at times is asking a lot of the author), this technique should allow you to get a general sense of the author’s arguments and flow of the text.
Second, having effectively skimmed the work, re-read the work with intent i.e., determine what you want to get out of the work and read those sections of the book carefully, while breezing the remaining content.
Finally, “do your homework” with the readings. This is a phrase commonly used in my department (VT STS). ‘Homework’ for readings means reading about the author e.g., his Wikipedia and/or CV/Resume, in order to help frame their position and status within their intellectual and/or professional community. Also, you should seek out (academic) reviews of the assigned work, when they are available — JSTOR (www.jstor.org) is a great resource for this.
Just because they assigned it, doesn’t mean they agree with it.
A professor of mine raised the following question during a graduate seminar: ‘Do you assume that because I assigned this reading, I agree with the author or work?‘ There was a general murmur of consent. The professor stated quite clearly that this was a dangerous assumption: ‘I might assign this work because I think the work is terrible, as an example of what not to do.’
When running an undergraduate course, I made my students aware of this point after the second week of classes. Immediately, I saw more critical responses to assigned readings and willingness to question the author’s position and authority.
Thesis & Dissertation
Your dissertation will not be your best work or your last.
This insight was shared with a colleague when she was concerned about her research site and data collection. ‘Is my site good enough…did I collect enough…did I collect the right data…’ Her advisor emphasized that her dissertation would not be the ‘end all be all‘ of her career. Moreover, there was a need to be practical about her work and research.
One way to frame the practical aspect of research is the idea of ‘good enough‘. Knowing that your dissertation is not the last thing you will ever produce means you should manage your expectations and be practical in your approach. It’s no good to have the perfect site, if you never finish your work…
Write your way through it.
The harsh truth for most of us: You must write in order to get through any project, whether it’s an abstract, article, or dissertation. More importantly, if you need feedback, it’s easier to give feedback on a completed piece, even if it’s sloppy, than one that’s unfinished, but finely honed.
Discussion & Feedback
Anchor your discussion in the texts.
In a seminar-style/discussion driven humanities course, the assigned readings are the one common point of reference that everyone in the room has. This seems obvious, but in graduate school in particular, you have a wide variety of students with vastly different backgrounds and levels of experience. As a result, people tend to draw on their education and experiences to build on the topic of the day.
Providing context from personal or professional experiences can be helpful and enriching, but should be tempered with the knowledge that it may not be accessible or relatable to everyone in the room. […]
Be comfortable with silence.
Silence will fall… Whether you’re leading discussion, participating in a seminar, or instructing students, accept periods of silence. I frequently see people (professors, colleagues, undergrads) become fearful in the absence of noise, especially in classes. Many people seem to be concerned that a delay in responses and engagement means a lack of interest or understanding. Think of what you, personally, are doing when you’re silent in these various scenarios: Thinking.
More often than not, when I’m quiet it’s because I’m thinking. I’m putting together a responses in my head, instead of blurting out a stream of consciousness in the hopes that I can force an intelligent thought through quantity instead of quality.[…]
Talk. Share your thoughts and do not be intimidated by (what appear to be) more seasoned and well versed peers.
I started graduate school in the spring semester, which meant that most of my peers already had at least a semester’s worth of work under their belt. Given that the vast majority of of my courses are based on discussion of the assigned readings for the week, this ‘wealth’ of knowledge from even a single semester’s worth of material, the atmosphere can become quite intimidating as the arguments become increasingly unapproachable. The scene would play out like this:
Proff: We read [Author-A] this week, what are your thoughts on his argument from…
Peer 1: Well, I think his central argument was…
[At this point, I feel relatively comfortable responding]
Peer 2: Yes, but [Author-Q] responds to [Author-A] in his work, and tells us that
[Now, I become slightly put off – I don’t know this new author, I don’t know what’s being referenced, and what weight this claim may or may not carry]
As new arguments and outside sources are introduced, myself and others have said that the pressure against responding increases greatly. ‘Well now I might have to account for what this other author said, but I don’t even know who they are…’
Thankfully, I was able to share my apprehension with a professor after my first couple of weeks in the program and was told that this fear or apprehension was understandable, but unnecessary. First, after a semester or two studying the same works, I would be able to spot the bullshit (i.e., to tell when another author was thrown in erroneously or was used as a shortcut for a particular point). Second, being naive about the material has its own strength, in that my perspective and interpretation are not influenced by other works in the field, professors, and so on. Third, perhaps most importantly, the majority of your peers will not judge your for a single comment or unusual interpretation.
This is a personal side comment: If you’re unwilling to share during discussion, perhaps you’re in the wrong program.
I had an exchange with a previous member of the program, who did not stay past the first year. This person would post brilliant written works in forums, but would rarely share during class. Frequently, I would ask the person to share their thoughts based on what they posted online.
After a month or so of this exchange, I asked the person why they still resisted sharing during seminars, unless directly asked to do so. In a brief moment of frustration they exclaimed something to the effect of: ‘If I want to share, I’ll share. I don’t like it when you [ask me to respond directly].’
I respected their wishes going forward, but also felt that their annoyance was misplaced. We’re in a small class driven almost entirely by active discussion. In a room of five graduate students and one professor, for nearly three-hours, someone remaining silent stands out. Being nervous or unsure of your thoughts is one thing, but actively choosing not to share is another entirely.