Have you ever found yourself completely overwhelmed by how many secondary readings you have to get through on top of your textbooks and notes and lecture slides?
Secondary readings are the bane of the busy college student’s existence. You don’t need to know them as much as you do your textbook, but is it worth hours and hours in the library?
Today I got my mom to help out with this question, since she knows her stuff when it comes to secondary readings. She’s got an undergrad degree, two masters’ degrees in public admin and sociology, and spent two years in grad school as a TA for first, second, and third year courses. She knows her stuff. So sit back, relax, and let her tell you all the great tips she’s told me!
I spent two years in grad school acting as a TA for some first, second and third year courses. And I marked a ton of essays and exams, at the most prestigious school in Canada. And let me tell you what I used to tell my students in the first seminar we had together.
Nobody reads all the secondary readings.
Let me repeat that:
Nobody reads all the secondary readings.
You do, however, need to have mastery over the secondary readings. So how can you have mastery over the secondary readings if you don’t read them? I’m so glad you asked!
Let me talk about the bigger picture first.
In first and second year, and to a certain extent third year, the main goal in any field of study is to understand the different schools of thought within that field of study, who the main thinkers are/were, and how they relate to each other. You need to be able to understand how the different schools of thought would approach different topics, which school of thought is most useful for which particular analysis, and which is not. Being able to make connections and to actually analyze things using certain schools of thought is what professors are looking for.
What they are NOT looking for is original thought. Not really. They will all say they are, but trust me: I wrote two papers that had completely original thought when I was in third year. I got 62% on one and 67% on the other, mostly because they were politically incorrect. From then on I regurgitated textbook and professor and I ended up with high-As in the courses. It was tremendously frustrating. But all they’re looking for is that you can work with the schools of thought and understand them, not that you can actually think that much for yourself.
So what does that mean for your secondary readings?
The secondary readings are always assigned to help illuminate or expand on something in the textbook. Often they’re examples of particular philosophical bents or original sources of those schools of thought.
Your Four Goals:
and bonus points:
5. 1-2 quotations from this work that you could use in future essays/assignments/class discussion.
If you can identify the argument, the field of thought, the author, and have a quotation, that’s all you need. You’ll be totally set. So how do you get that without reading it? Well, you read it. But you read it selectively.
Your 6 Action Steps:
Now, all you do is proceed from 1-6, stopping when you have enough information to provide 1-2 sentence answers for Goals 1-5 of each reading. In most cases that will mean stopping at step #3. Sometimes you have to go further than that, but not usually. Keep a file of each secondary reading with the answers to Goals 1-5 clearly written. And now, when it comes time to write an essay, you just scan each document for the thesis, for quotations, or whatever, and you’re good.
The main thing, especially in first year, is to know the textbook super well.
And if you’re always scanning with the big picture in mind–what is the argument, how does this fit into the bigger picture of the discipline?–then you’ll be able to weed out the stuff that isn’t as important and you’ll be better set to write good essays.
So there’s my advice. Scanning is your friend.
Thank you for the post, mom! I am seriously lucky that I’ve had her to teach me pretty much everything school-related, whether it’s how to buy the cheapest textbooks or how to write a killer research paper. So I hope you find her as helpful as I do!
If you liked this post and want to check out her blog, Sheila Wray Gregoire is a Christian marriage blogger at To Love, Honor, and Vacuum.
What are some tips you have to get your readings done?
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