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Reading, Processing, and Participating in Graduate School

As a new school year takes root, I have been asked advice on how one should tackle the amount and range of readings one tackles in graduate school. For many of us, our formal introduction and refinement of reading and writing came in secondary school settings. 

We learned how to write five-paragraph essays and how to read books from cover to cover, often in secondary school.  If we had Advanced Placement or dual enrollment courses, we were thrown into postsecondary-level coursework and were potentially given other forms of instruction of how to read, engage, and write in college.  Absent a seminar course with an explicit focus on the nuts and bolts of graduate education, many of us do not get any form of training or socialization on how to read, prepare for class, or write in graduate school.  Hopefully, this post helps others who are looking for ideas and ways to think about reading, meaning-making, and classroom engagement in graduate education.

I explicitly write for those who are undertaking graduate education in higher education/student affairs education programs.  However, these may be applicable beyond my discipline.  I will just use examples based in that discipline. 

Before I begin, I offer a few disclaimers.  First, finding what works foryou is key!  People can tell you all about the great strategies that work for them and others, but if those strategies do not help your schooling/education process, they are not great for you.  Second, related to the first point, what I offer below is not the definitive nor best strategies out there. These are strategies that I and others have tried out and worked for others as well.  Third, when developing new academic and educational practices, practice makes perfect.  These habits take time to seep in and become helpful so it may take time and a variety of strategies to find what works. 

And finally, different class topics may require different strategies.  I often find my preparation and processing strategies differ both by course content/focus and the faculty member teaching the class.  So, in this way, both content and style matter in prepping for classes.   

That all being said, here are some strategies I recommend for (1) thinking within or about particular readings, (2) making meaning of topics across readings and courses, and (3) being a good member of a classroom community.

READING STRATEGIES

Reading in graduate school is often different than how many of us were socialized to learn in our undergraduate coursework.  The amount of reading is one of the starkest differences between the two experiences which requires a particular strategy toward reading.  Readings also consist of words many of us are not familiar with – always keep a dictionary or dictionary app close!  

First, you should read strategically, which may include reading something linearly.  Your goal in approaching the content of a reading can be guided by three questions.  First, what is the author’s main argument, point, or thesis? Second, how does the author back up their argument/thesis?  What evidence do they provide?  And finally, why does that argument or thesis matter in the grander scheme of the week, the course, and your discipline

For me, this strategy looks differently depending on the type of reading.  In higher education/student affairs preparation programs, you will engage in empirical journal articles, conceptual books and book chapters, and theoretical stances and arguments.  For instance, for a book like Graves’s (2009) And They Were Wonderful Teachers: Florida’s Purge of Gay and Lesbian Teachers (link), I am looking for what Graves's argument is and how she supports that argument.

Compare that with a more overview book like Renn and Reason’s (2013) College Students in the United States: Characteristics, Experiences, and Outcomes (link).  The book is more meant to relay particular concepts about college students; in other words, it is not making an argument in the ways many are accustomed to searching for a specific thesis.  I would argue there is still one there, especially in the choices the authors make (of any text) in how they present the information.  For a book like this, I am looking more about what is and what is not included.  For instance, in the chapter about college environments, am I convinced that all of the components the authors list make up campus environments?  Do I think they are leaving something out or ignoring something altogether?

Then there are more conceptual + empirical research articles like Sigal Alon’s (2009) article in American Sociological Review entitled “The evolution of class inequality in higher education: Competition, exclusion, and adaptation” (link).  In an article like this, my goal is to figure out the author’s conceptual contribution to the class inequality literature focused on higher education and how inequality is maintained over time.  I am looking both for the evidence Alon used, the methods she used to get to her results, the limitations of her approach, and what the findings mean for higher education writ large.

Second, I keep the following questions in mind when reading anything in a given course or for my own research.

  • What is the author's main point? What are they trying to convey to me as a reader? Often, in article abstracts and book introductions, the author(s) will tell you their central thesis and how they plan to back up their argument. When you finish reading an article or book, go back to that introduction or abstract and ask yourself: did the author do what they said they were going to do?

  • In writing in a particular branch of scholarship, the author(s) will often try to align their work with others’ work. To that end, what conversations or bodies of knowledge is the author trying to align with? How do they see their contribution fitting into a larger body of knowledge about a particular group of people or subject?

Finally, a brief note about skimming. We all live different lives with different commitments on our time and energy. I am not going to make judgments about skimming vs. not skimming. What I offer you is a thought about when and how to skim. Rather than going into a reading or article with the idea that I am going to skim the whole thing, I try and skim within an article, where possible. Particularly for the books I read for classes, I become more familiar with an author’s writing style and where I know they will be repeating information versus presenting new information. So, rather than skimming as a reading strategy for all readings, I would encourage skimming within readings as your time constraints require.

MAKING MEANING ACROSS READINGS

Now that you have read all the material for a given week's class session, the time comes to make meaning across the readings.  Faculty often assign a multitude of texts to help you as a learner glean a broader understanding or set of understandings that an individual interpretation cannot accomplish on its own.  Most often, people take notes on the readings separately.  Think of each text as a vertical line.  Your goal should be to make meaning of the readings horizontally, or meaning that connects across the readings.  Often, you will not be asked to recall minute details from readings; they will be accessible to you in and out of class.

To that end, I offer four ways you can make meaning across readings:

  • Take notes on general concepts. What are some of the big understandings from the readings you need to make sense of? If you take notes on particular ideas or quotes, include page numbers where appropriate. This will help you point to the source material during a class session. This also helps you note where the concepts are in your reading when you go back to write about them later.

  • Imagine the authors in conversation with one another. If the authors of the week's readings came together for a discussion, what would they talk about? What would they agree on? Where would they have disagreements? What is the source of those disagreements? Going through this exercise helps you wrestle with the tensions of the readings before getting to class.

  • Create a visual representation, if appropriate. How do the broad concepts of the week's readings connect to one another? You can create a concept map to make connections between and across readings.

  • Write the major concepts on flash cards and pull them at random. During my master’s program, our comprehensive exams allowed us only a double-sided reference page. In other words, we had to remember a fair amount of our learning. To that end, I and others wrote all the major concepts we had learned over the past year-and-a-half on flash cards. We threw them all into a pile and pulled three at a time. We had to explain to one another how the three concepts were connected. On a smaller scale, this works later in the semester and adding to the pile as you go.

GOOD PRACTICES FOR CLASSROOM ENGAGEMENT

I am a believer that the classroom environment is a community where we all work together to make meaning.  Rather than each of us coming and being perfectly on top of the week's readings, we are working together to further digest and make sense of the materials.  Rather than many undergraduate learning environments that rely on the banking model of education (link), graduate education often is about being simultaneous teachers and learners.  At the same time, we all process material differently, in different ways, and at different paces. 

It is the mark of a good facilitator to help members of the classroom community to process in the way that works for them.  To that end, we should all engage in some way or another in ways that contribute to the learning rather than withholding learning from one another.  I offer a few ways to think about engagement:

  • Connect contributions to the day’s readings/prep materials. Having informed knowledge and opinions is critical in graduate programs. For instance, in a week on intellectual development models of college students, it is essential to connect my contributions not only to my personal experiences but link it back to the readings or materials. This holds true even if you disagree with the content; point to examples of where you disagree with parts of the material or the author’s argument(s).

  • Strive for intellectual humility. The goal of engaging with the material first and foremost is to understand what the reading is trying to convey. Often, people will want to be critical of a text first and foremost. However, anyone can be critical of any piece of material. It is crucial first to understand a concept and how it is justified before reading it for filth.

  • Come with questions and observations. The first time you digest the material for the week should not be in class. To enhance your participation, especially if you are someone who needs time to gather their thoughts, is to come to class with a few questions or observations on the readings. Remember, class time is often a joint meaning-making process.

  • Making connections to others’ contributions. You are building a conversation throughout the class session. It is imperative to connect your comments to others' comments to continue to build more complexity and nuance into the conversation. If you wanted to make a particular point and someone brings it up before you, enhance the understanding, do not restate it. In other words, how can you add to the discussion rather than summarizing or repeating it over and over?

OTHER SOURCES FOR THINKING ABOUT READING IN GRADUATE SCHOOL

As I said in the beginning, the strategies I offer above are not the definitive strategies. Others have offered strategies that have been helpful to me. I include some of those helpful links below.

It is my hope that between the strategies and additional resources I mentioned above that you feel more confident and prepared to tackle graduate education. You can do it!

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Alex Lange