by Dillon Powers
No one likes commitment. Efficient research leaves more time to write your paper. Rather than entangle yourself in an abusive relationship with potential source material, try following this set of diagnostics. At the end of your ten minutes, you will be able to decide whether or not to invest more time into poring over the textual nuances. You can follow these steps to tackle printed volumes as well as journal articles and e-books. No matter what you’re reading, try to answer these three questions:
1) What is the thesis of the text?
2) Does the text relate to my research?
3) Is it worth an hour to determine how the text relates to my topic?
Here we go:
• Grab a pen and piece of paper. As you run through the following steps, you’ll want to jot down any clues you uncover. Stay organized – when you’re back at your desk and need a quote from a book whose title you’ve forgotten, you’ll thank yourself.
• Get yourself pumped. Skimming books requires loads of focus. This will be more like boot camp, less like some gimmick pill that makes you lose-ten-pounds-without-diet-or-exercise. The harder you work for the next nine minutes forty-five seconds, the better your understanding of the text.
• Analyze the cover. Take a few seconds to let the book or article title orient your reading. If the title includes phrases that appear vague or metaphoric, make sure you understand those phrases by the time you finish. Spend a few seconds on the cover art, if applicable.
• Evaluate the author. Who is s/he? Is s/he a professor? In what field? Who funded the author’s research? Is this a piece of bona-fide academia? Who published the book? Assess any potential sources of bias that might help you uncover what the text argues. Also be sure to check the date of publication, so you have a sense of where your book fits into the relevant body of academic literature.
• Find the table of contents. This is your map to the book. Note how the author organizes different parts of the text. Do some rough math to compare the lengths of each chapter or section. Which points or issues does the author spend the most time on? How does each point relate to the next? You should be well on your way to answering the first question.
• Read the introduction and conclusion. Now is your best chance to discern the main argument of the book. Be sure to check for any headings or divisions (this applies especially for skimming journal articles). Don’t try to digest every word: read the first and last sentences of paragraphs, and skim down the middle of the page in-between.
• Examine textual points of interest. This means investigating specific parts of chapters you find particularly pertinent to your topic. If you’re looking for a specific term, date, or event, look it up in the index. Don’t get too bogged down in details. In your notes, jot down pages or passages worth a more deliberate go-through.
• Flip through the back material. Glance through reviews if applicable. If you’re reading online, see if you can manipulate the URL to find a site homepage, which might have other similar works posted. Also check out any appendices, maps, and reproduced documents that may be useful. Take a look at the bibliography (or footnotes in a journal article). Here you can find other potential sources, as well as see what texts both the author and you have read.
• Stop. If the book isn’t worth reading, put it on a counter for re-shelving. If it is worth reading, put it aside to check out and take home later. Even if the book is for in-library use only, don’t read it immediately. Before you do that, look at the titles of books in the same call-number area. You may find something that did not appear in your initial HOLLIS searches. Go ahead and repeat the drill for those texts. Good luck!
Dillon Powers ‘11 tutors at the Writing Center and concentrates in History.
Greetings people of cyberspace! The Barker Underground is back with a brand new look courtesy of Daniel Gross ’13. This semester, we’ll be featuring “Wacky Word Wednesdays” from new tutor Xanthia Tucker ’13, weekly grammar advice from veterans Alex McLeese ’11 and Lisa Jing ’10/11, and a healthy dose of tips and tricks for college writers in any discipline. So happy reading, happy writing, and come visit us (that is, if you’re a Harvard undergraduate and you’ve scheduled an appointment)!