Cutting Corners

WR3 | Workshops

Cutting Corners in Research

I can’t tell you the number of times a first-year student has waited until the other students left the classroom in order to sheepishly approach me ask this question: “Professor, if I get a book from the library or download an article for my research project, do I have to read the whole thing?”

Don’t be silly; of course not.

And I’ll tell you a secret: professors don’t read everything in their field(s) of study either. There is just too much information and it appears too rapidly to carefully consume it all. It’s akin to drinking out of a fire hose. What this means is that you have to make choices. What are your priorities? Given the time and interests you have, which texts look worth a slow, patient, deeply critical reading? Professors home in on those texts and spend most of their time with them. And yet, professors somehow keep abreast of all the work happening in their field of study and still have time for family and football. How do they do that?

Professors (and very strong students) have developed extremely efficient forms of reading and related practices that can take the place of thoroughly reading a text from beginning to end. These skills are very applicable to first-year students who need to write a long research essay on an unfamiliar topic in a short 10-week term.

On Reading Ruthlessly

First, let’s stipulate that nothing can replace carefully reading a book or article from beginning to end. “Speed reading” is a gimmick—the scholastic version of the Shake Weight. But often there is no need to read every word of a text, especially when you are just trying to assess whether a text is even relevant to your research project. Of course, the texts that you end up relying on for your research projects must be read carefully and critically, but it is best to adopt a method of testing sources before you commit to such a deep reading. So, before you try to read something in its entirety (an activity that could take many hours or even days), try the following list of approaches to the text:

  1. Skim the prefatory material. Scholarly books (and most nonfiction) almost always contain a page that lists the chapters and other content. It may be that, upon examining this list, you can zero in on a single chapter that is relevant to your interests and skip the rest. Similarly, academic articles sometimes contain an “executive summary” written by the author that gives you an overview of the entire work in a single paragraph. Looking over these materials may lead you to read the work more carefully or jettison it for something better.

  2. Read the introduction. The introduction of many academic texts will contain a concise statement about the main argument(s) of the entire text. In scholarly books this introduction frequently includes tight summaries of each chapter. The benefit of reading these is obvious: reading (or perhaps just heavily skimming) the introduction will provide you with an excellent summary and overview of the text. Again, this may convince you to read the text more seriously or return it to circulation. Introductions also frequently contain what are known as a “literature reviews,” where the scholarly conversation that surrounds the particular topic in question is summarized and the contribution the book offers to this critical context is described. The other texts and authors mentioned in the literature review may be quite useful to you as well, so take note to check out or download these texts as needed.

  3. Read the conclusion. The conclusions of books, chapters, or articles are places where the author tries to state the worth and relevance of their work. These passages are often very revealing as they tell you quite a lot about whether the text’s earlier content will be useful or in sync with your project, arguments, and ideas.

  4. Scan the topic sentences. One final test may be to skim the topic sentences of each paragraph in a chapter or article. Since the topic sentences generally state the paragraph’s purpose, you can often gain important intelligence on the whole text by reading them alone.

  5. Surgical strikes with the index. Scholarly books often contain an index at the end of the text where key terms, events, or people are listed along with a page number. With this information you can quickly scan a book for keywords that are relevant for your line of inquiry and then visit those pages of the book to see if deeper reading is merited.

  6. Read book reviews. Academic works are often reviewed by other academics in the pages of related academic journals. If you place the book’s title in the search field of a relevant database and use the search delimiter for “review articles,” you should receive a list of reviews. These reviews are usually only 2-3 pages in length, offer a precise summary of the book’s contents, and make some evaluative remarks at the end about the book’s value to the field of study.


Related reading:


Workshop

  1. Choose an upcoming reading from this or any other class that you choose.
  2. Start a stopwatch timer on your phone. Proceed through strategies 1-4 with the text.
  3. After finishing, write a short summary of the text or any notes that seem important to you. Then stop the timer and note the time.
  4. Start the timer again and read the entire work very carefully, as you would normally. Annotate and take notes—whatever your normal practice is for course readings. Once complete, stop the stopwatch.

Now, compare the results. What do you think?