Getting Into Reading Lists

As I mentioned in a recent post, I’ve entered the part of the Ph.D. program known as the comprehensive exam prep. Instead of taking classes, I now stay at home and read a lot of books on subjects pertaining to my research. But what does that actually entail? Today, I’ll describe the reading process more deeply.

So many books, so little time

The process of putting together reading lists actually started last summer. When I wasn’t traveling for conferences, moving into a new place, or participating in the Keio program, I read books that I thought would either appear on future reading lists, or be used later for dissertation research. Most of these books were primary sources like John Cotton Dana’s writings on museums, the kind of thing I wanted to read in their entirety but knew would feel too rushed to do so during the actual comps process. Some of these books made it onto the list, others didn’t, but I’m still glad I read them.

I put the actual lists together during the fall semester. Working with a different professor for each subject matter, I came up with four different lists with about 50 titles apiece: Infrastructure/Classification, Archival Theory/Digital Humanities, US History, and Art History. Around mid-semester, I had a colloquium with all four professors where we discussed the lists, and continued modifying them for the rest of the term, all while finishing my coursework.

Once classes were finished, I worked out a preliminary schedule. My long-term objective is to get through all the titles by the end of July, so that I have time to review in August before the exam. Using Excel, I put each list into a spreadsheet. Since each list was divided into subheadings, I assigned dates for each subsection to keep myself on schedule, with the goal being to cover about 10 books a week, with extra time allotted to accommodate any conference travel, as well as breaks.

So how do you need 200 books in under eight months? The simple answer is you don’t. Instead of trying to read every book cover to cover, I use what’s known as the gutting method. I begin by looking over the table of contents to get a sense of the book’s organization. Then I read the introduction and conclusion to see what argument the author was trying to make. From there, I skim through the contents to get a sense of how that argument was put together. I might even read a chapter or two in their entirety to get a sense of the writing style and how the evidence has been used. Finally, I look over the notes and bibliography to see what kinds of sources were used. Once I do this, I take notes on all of the above, including a few notes that contextualize this book within the others I’ve read so far.

And how about note-taking? As with everything in graduate school, everybody does things differently, but I tend to work on the computer because it’s easier for me to stay organized. I personally like using a program called Zotero because it allows me to store both my notes and the metadata for a book in one place (I’ve also been using it since my days at Williams so I’m familiar with it). I’ve also been filling out index cards covering the basics of each book that I can use as flashcards when I’m reviewing. I’ve also started using mind maps to help visualize the networks among the books I’m reading.

The result? A book that would have taken me a few days to read I can now get through in a few hours. Yes, it means I’m missing a lot of the fine details, but the point is to discuss the basic argument and see how it fits into the scholarship of your fields. Trust me, I read every word of every assigned reading during my Master’s program at Williams, and I don’t remember anything beyond the basic arguments. This method may emphasize efficiency over savoring a book’s literary qualities, but it brings focus to my notes. I already know I won’t have time on the exam to go into minutiae, so I try to focus on the bigger picture. If I really want to delve into a book’s details word-for-word, I figure I can do that after comps, assuming that even remember I wanted to do that.

So that’s my basic approach. I’m still settling into my actual reading schedule, but once I do, I’ll start sharing some of my readings with you, and together, we’ll go on an intellectual journey together.

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