Hack College

Read with an agenda

aka, How to survive and look good in college

There’s too much reading to do, too much fun to be had, and not enough time; welcome to college. Here are some concrete steps to reading that can help you get through everything and actually get something out of everything on the syllabus that was assigned. For another take on this issue, go to this site:, (with examples taken from a reading of Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities).

1. Understand the structure of prose. Books and articles in English tend to be structured in particular ways, which are largely extensions of the “5 paragraph essay.” In an article, the introduction section is key, as is the conclusion. There usually is a “literature review” section – this can be skimmed, especially as you get deeper into a syllabus since the course is probably structured around the topic that is being reviewed. In social science and science articles, this is the section with a lot of in-text citations – i.e., (Lozada 2006; Pan 2011; c.f. Gillette 2010). If you are new to the topic, then this part needs to be read more slowly. The bulk of any article is then methodology, data, and analysis. The first paragraph (other than the cute hook into the reading) is the most important part of the article, and the first sentence is usually the most important part of the paragraph. So pay attention to these firsts. Caveat: sometimes the last part is the most important, depending upon the style of the author; read that as well.

2. Read the title and headings. If you can explain the title of the article and how the author reached the conclusion, then that’s pretty good. Each section may have a heading as well, so also be ready to explain that.

3. Skip words or concepts that you don’t understand for later. Obfuscation is an academic strategy to demonstrate smartness. So if a particular word or concept is used that you don’t understand, and it is only used once or a few times, then it’s probably not important. If it is repeated throughout the article, try to see if you can figure it out through context. If that still doesn’t work, then write down the word/concept, and ask about it in class. Here is a ready-made way to participate in class and show that you at least knew what was assigned for the day.

4. Don’t highlight – take notes. Instead of covering a page in yellow, write (or preferably, type) out particular concepts and quotes, including page numbers. Lists of arguments are good – look for them in the flow of arguments. Look for changes in voice – the whole paragraph may be in third-person, and then there’s a switch to first person. This is usually something important (which is why the shift in voice). Words like “I assert,” “I define,” etc. should be red flags that this is a sentence that should actually be read (instead of skimmed).

5. Set a time limit to finish you readings. If there are 6 articles that need to be read by the end of the week, set aside at least one hour (but not more than two hours) to read 2 articles. So if it’s a Monday seminar, start you reading on Tuesday, and have three days (i.e., Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday) to finish the readings. Don’t do it straight through, though – your productivity will decline, and you’ll never get through it. Take breaks to help you re-focus – read for half an hour, do language for one hour, and read for another half hour.

6. Look for patterns in the readings. There’s got to be a reason why readings are lumped together for one class period, and there’s also a reason why readings are sequenced the way they are throughout the term. See if you can figure out, like Elmo does, why these things are grouped together. Are the supplementary or complimentary? Is there a title in the syllabus for that day?

7. Read with an agenda. Mine your readings to fit your interests and goals. In a class on “Contemporary Chinese Society and Culture,” for example, your interest broadly speaking may be on gender, with a specific interest in domestic/family issues. So approach each reading with the question – how does this help me understand gender? If the reading is specifically on Chinese railroads, for example, see if you can see power dynamics or other issues that say something about your own interests; if not, then why not? But one constant agenda that you should have is to figure out why the professor assigned the reading. Is it a seminal piece that everyone cites? Is it a counter-point to another article? Is it a review of a particular topic? Is it perhaps another approach to understanding Chinese modernity?

8. Reflect while reading. Do you find yourself nodding your head as you skim through the reading? Or are you getting increasingly irritated as you plod through the article? Assuming that there is nothing in your immediate social context that is troubling you or making you happy, there must be something in the reading that is either confirming something you have a sense of or making you angry. Write down a particular quote that is irritating you or making you happy. Bring that to class, and here you have another “class participation” starting point. Your reaction may also be the reason why the professor assigned that article.

9. What works for articles, works for books. The same approach works for longer works such as books. Substitute chapter for section, substitute first paragraph for first sentence, and essentially you have the same process.

Try these out and see if this works for you. Email me other tips that you’ve discovered helps you plow through the readings so that I can add them to this list, and assign yet another reading to future classes!