I swear I can read!

I’m sure that everyone who has ever gone through the hell that is preparing for orals has written a post like this–trying to talk themselves through the best method to remember books upon books and articles upon articles worth of information on their subjects. I know that a number of my fellow students at the University of Chicago are currently writing them. I know because I have read them, all of them, trying to divine the secret to getting through the mount of books sitting in front of me (fun fact: if you stacked all my books and printed articles on top of one another, they would be taller than my house!). The truth is that like so much of graduate school, how you prepare and retain a working knowledge of your reading list is a personal endeavor, one which you have to go through yourself and one which ultimately comes down to knowing yourself enough to know how you learn best. In the hope of learning something new and potentially bringing comfort to future generations of PhD students, I therefore offer my own

I am one of those graduate students who revels in having a system that is clearly defined from the get-go. I like having a form of useful lines to fill out, a methodology for going through my books (‘reading’ is a really strong word for what actually gets accomplished during this phase of grad school), and a system for sorting through and reviewing information easily. In order to accomplish this for myself, I have invested in a subscription to scrivener, which I have on good authority from several other academics who have successfully navigated this quagmire is helpful in cataloguing reviews and notes in an easily searchable database. Full disclosure: I have not gotten far enough into the reading process to know if this is true, but so far I have been able to keep track of things pretty well using the most basic template. After writing down the full bibliographic citation for the work, I then move on to notes, following a five-step system.

Step 1: Go through structure of book, list chapters and any key terms

This is just a fancy way of making sure I know what is in each book. I usually just end up copying down a rough outline of the table of contents, then go through the index to see which terms come up often throughout the book. Not an exact science, but I have food it helpful to be able to talk about a book using the terminology that the author uses. This is also helpful when tackling works outside of my wheelhouse, as key actors and places also appear often in the index. This is my vocabulary for the work, and guides me through the next few parts.

Step 2: Read any available seminar notes for the book; copy down useful information

A number of the works on all three of my lists have been covered in part or in whole as part of classwork or my own research, so for these books I start by looking through my notes and copying down any useful information from class discussions into the file. Even if I don’t agree with my own initial impressions (sometimes, I really question past-Erin’s mental state…), it is helpful to have it all on there.

Step 3: Read introduction and conclusion chapters; skim body of the book. Read articles in their entirety.

Clearly this is a contentious point in orals preparation, but I think when it comes down to it most people agree that trying to read 150ish books in their entirety in the space of a few months is either A) insane, B) impossible, C) cruel and unusual, D) unrealistic, E) all of the above and more. Some people suggest reading the most important 1-2 chapters in every book and skim the rest. Others suggest that you read one book per section of your orals list in its entirety and then approach everything else with the Introduction/Conclusion/skim method. Honestly, this is probably the part of my methodology that is least consistent, as it depends a lot on my own understanding of the field and memory for the topic. In fields where I am less familiar with the scholarship, I have found it helpful to read one book (usually THE BOOK for the section, something that has defined the field) and then skim the rest. If it is something I am more familiar with, the skimming method is usually more than enough for me to make it through. If it is something I am familiar with AND relevant to my dissertation/larger project, then I see no reason not to read a few chapters and make sure i have good notes on things that might make an appearance in my proposal.

In any case, after reading I attempt to summarize the book in 2-3 sentences in my own words. I then go through a list of standard questions that I have unabashedly stolen from a friend and try to come up with something to write in each of the following fields.

  • Significance & assessment of contribution[what are they trying to do and did they do it]
  • Helpful reviews[links] (this is where scrivener becomes really helpful, because it can store those links offline so I can find them easily in the future)
  • Project/driving question/motivation[why did they write the book/article]
  • Argument(s): [in your own words, can also quote explicit statement of argument w/ page numbers; sub arguments for chapters can also go here]
  • Structure: [chronological/thematic etc.]
  • Sources & Methodology: [what sort of archives/published sources / theory?]
  • Key words/themes/actors: [generally where quotes can go and relevant page numbers]
  • Related scholarship: [how does it fit in your orals list/with other books you have read / what books is it in conversation with]

Sometimes I am not able to find something meaningful to stick in each field. That’s fine; I can always come back to it later if I think of something, but it’s also ok if it stays blank for a while. Sometimes I have ideas or notes that don’t fit into any of the above categories. That’s cool too; I usually add a “other notes” section at the bottom and move on with life.

Step 4: Read 3 Reviews for each book

Three reviews is a lot for some books, but also a really helpful way of making sure there isn’t anything I’ve missed. It can also help contextualize arguments for the more…oblique..pieces of written scholarship out there, as well as help you place the works in a conversation either with one another or with the field. Three is also something of an arbitrary number; sometimes I can only find one or two good reviews, and that’s perfectly fine. Three is more of an upper limit I guess. Any more than that can be really repetitive.

Step 5: Synthesize information from steps

This is probably the trickiest bit, and for me the format that it actually takes depends on the professor with whom I am working. Some of my committee wants to see written historiographies that synthesize the major arguments of the scholarship. Some want two-three page write-ups that relate the work to other works. Some don’t care if I write anything (I always write something.). This is where that bullet point on related scholarship sometimes comes in handy. I can write down terms and general ideas for points of comparison without having to type out an actual paper, which is really useful if a paper is the eventual goal of the process. I can also add other points of reference as I continue to add to the field.

Do you have any other suggestions for getting through your books that you have found particularly helpful? Have you come up with a surefire way to do as little work as humanly possible for your oral exams? Is there any particular sacrifice on the altar of the flying spaghetti monster that has proven particularly effective for helping to improve brain function in the face of a house-sized stack of books? If you have answered yes to any of these questions, please share!

See Me Live!

I’ll be presenting at the University of Wisconsin/University of Chicago Japan History Graduate Student Workshop at the Anderson Japanese Garden in Rockford, IL on May 7th. Morning talks begin at 10am, and there will also be an afternoon session beginning at 1pm.