Studying for exams: week 1

Welp.  I meant to start studying last week, beginning on January 14th, but a number of personal concerns took up a great deal of mental space without warning me that they were about to do so.  Personal concerns seem to do that.

That said, I’m confident that being one week behind isn’t going to sink me in my study process, and I’m going to detail my plan here in the hopes of accountability.

So, I have three fields to study.  I counted up the total number of books and articles for each field.

  • Modern Britain: Total Books – 83; Total Articles – 17
  • World History: Total Books – 53; Total Articles – 33
  • Science and Technology Studies (STS) – Total Books – 49

Then I figured out by number and percentage how much of each field is new to me and how much of each field will be review.  Here’s how that breaks down.

  • Modern Britain: Books – 44 to review (53%) and 39 to read (47%); Articles – 15 to review (88%) and 2 to read (12%)
  • World History: Books – 21 to review (36%) and 37 to read (64%); Articles – 32 to review (97%) and 1 to read (3%)
  • STS: Books – 13 to review (27%) and 36 to read (73%)

All told, I have 112 books to read (56% of my list) and 78 to review (44%).  I luckily only have 3 articles to read (6%) but 47 to review (94%).


So, how do I go about this?  Methodically.

First, I’ll do my reading.  And let me explain what it means to “read” a book in graduate school (for those who are unfamiliar with this technique/super secret).

The first book I was assigned to read in graduate school was E. P. Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class.  There’s a reason this was my first book–it basically made the field of British class history.  However, this book is also about 850 dense pages long.

Screw you, E. P. Thompson, you brilliant bastard.
Screw you, E. P. Thompson, you brilliant bastard.

About half way through this monster, and nine pages of notes in, my advisor handed me four more books on top of it.  I about had a nervous breakdown.  How on god’s green earth was I suppose to read 3000 pages of unfamiliar work in a week?  So, I went into his office and told him the problem and watched him laugh hysterically.  “Good GOD,” he said to me.  “You don’t actually READ them.  You’ll end up climbing the clock tower and taking pot shots with crossbows if you try that.”  And then he explained to me what I should do.

When you get an unfamiliar book there are a couple of techniques that help you tear through it in a day, to start.  Then you get better at it, and you can do it in an afternoon, and six years in, you can handle maybe three.  Here’s how:

Write the bibliographical information on the top of a sheet of paper (or type it in to a word doc if you want).  Then, read the introduction to the book and figure out how to encapsulate the thesis statement in a sentence or two.  Write that on the sheet.  Almost always, an academic book will lay out its plan of attack in the introduction as well, in which case you should write that on the paper, too.

Next, look at the chapter headings, and the topic sentences in each chapter.  With some training, you’ll start to recognize the flow of the argument based on just these things, and then you can skim and pick up a few details here and there where you think they’re massively important.  You should take notes on this part of the reading process as well, but make sure that you don’t take more than about a page and a half of notes.  You’re aiming to only fill one notebook sheet per book.  Anything more than that, and you’re trying to remember too much for a quick read.  Also make sure that you write down the page number that corresponds to the note you took, and put that out in the margin.  You’ll need those if you intend to write a footnoted review of the book.  And absolutely make sure to put quotes around any piece of information you want to remember word for word.

After you finish taking notes on the argument, read the conclusion in its entirety and write down the author’s final conclusion–about a sentence or two, again.  The in the last quarter page of room you have left, consider how well you think the argument worked, if the conclusion was interesting and convincing, if the thesis was original, if you thought the book was well-written, etc.  I also like to flip through the bibliography, not only to take note of other books I should read, but to judge by the other titles listed where this book fits in the field.

As a final step, you can also look up book reviews online through your academic library to make sure that you aren’t totally off track in your analysis of the book.  (You can also look up book reviews first if you’re running really short on time, but I try to avoid this method because it feels a bit like cheating.)

BAM–there you have it.  One incredibly concise record of the book you just skimmed, complete with bibliographic information.  Then when it comes time to write a book review or tie a number of books together into a review essay, you have all the information you need right at your fingertips, even if you no longer have the book.

And I fully intend on writing tight, historiographic essays in order to study for my exams.

What is historiography?  How will it help me study?  Here’s step two:

The first thing I did was break down all the lists into manageable sections.  So, for instance, in my Modern Britain field, I have sections on nationalism, class and industry, war, politics, and citizenship, British masculinity, etc.  This means that each field has well encapsulated sections that usually have no more than 10 or 15 books to read/review per section.  And this, in turn, means that after I’m done with all my note-taking, I can spend a day stringing those notes together into little essays that help me to compare arguments.

Because that’s basically what historiography is–a comparison of historical arguments.

Every historian who writes a book has an interpretive agenda of some sort.  They all want to prove a point or create a new argument or tell another historian that his or her previous argument sucks.  So, historical studies end up having veiled or not so veiled “political” meanings that run alongside some seriously fascinating historical fact-collecting.  So when you sit down to write a historiography, you’re not really writing a paper on how an event happened.  Instead, you’re judging which historians are the most convincing, which do the best job with the materials at hand, which deserve further study, and which have hit dead ends.

You might say something like, “Historian A makes the following argument” and then explain it a bit and evaluate how well you think it works.  Then you say “on the other hand Historian B interpreted the same events in a totally different way” and explain that argument and say which you find more useful.  Usually the first two historians you pick will be the earliest in the field who set the pace of research or had really contrary arguments, and you can compare all the other historians to them, or point out the real break out moments in the field, if a third strand of argument comes into play.

Since my exams will be mostly historiography and opinion pieces, I feel like this is a totally useful approach to studying–to write these argument comparisons, one per section.

Some of the sections I’ve created are composed entirely of books and articles I’ve already read and written papers on.  Which is fantastic.  Others only need a book or two incorporated into them.  All told, I need to write 7 essays for Modern Britain, 13 essays for World History, and 3 longer essays for STS

The math says that I need to write 2.5 essays a week in order to be on track for exams.  And I am confident that this is a totally doable thing.  And if I run out of time, at least I’ll have notebook sheets for each book, so I can compose the essays in my head or track down a professor or two to talk through the arguments.

Step three: Take good care of myself

My final step in the study plan is simply to be good to myself throughout this study process.  I’ll have to do a lot of reading and writing to be sure, and I still have teaching responsibilities.  So my schedule is partially just to ease my mind and stave off procrastination.  And I figured out percentages so I can change them weekly and see what kind of progress I’m making.

I’m also committing to some sort of activity every day.  I was suppose to start this last week, but I felt like I was coming down with the flu for about three days, so I moved my start date out to today.

And finally, I can’t really commit to exercise without eating healthy and avoiding hangovers, either from lack of sleep or from alcohol.  So I’m committing as well to a consistent bed time, a bit of light free reading or writing before I go to sleep, to ease my mind, and avoiding alcohol in favor of tea, and the occasional soda, when I get stressed out.

Basically, I don’t want to look back on my exams and think to myself that there was something else I could have done, behaviors I regret,  methods of mental ease I could have allowed myself, etc.

And I’m aiming to keep these good habits around after exams are over.  I always feel guilty after I drink, lethargic when I don’t go to the gym, and heavy when I eat terrible food.  So, it’s time to be an adult, admit my weaknesses, and make the rest of my life into a healthier one, particularly since every step I take after this point will be one step closer to a career.

*   *   *

Week 1/9 plan: Read and compose essays on my first three Modern Britain sections:

  • Britishness, Englishness, and Nationalism – 3 new books, 2 books to review, 2 articles to review
  • Class and Industry – 2 new books, 3 books to review
  • War, Politics, and Citizenship – 9 new books, 1 book to review

If anyone is interested to know what books I’ve included in these sections, or would like to read through a copy of my review essay/notes, let me know!

Historian, novelist, musician, and imagination professional.

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