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Some Notes about Required Reading





  • Time for Reading
  • Reading as an Undergraduate
  • Problems with this Approach

Reading as a graduate student...

  • Why versus How
  • Conversancy with Intellectual History
  • Reading Purposefully

Reading texts and journal articles...

  • Conversancy and Knowing
  • Adler and Van Doren's Eight Rules
  • Don't Read the Last Chapter First

Interacting with one's reading...

  • Making Sidebar Notes
  • Underlining Critical Concepts and Notion
  • Using a Notebook
  • Formulating Annotations

Reading can be rewarding...



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One of the things professors are paid to do is to read books and journals, especially those relating to their area of scholarly inquiry. While many, if not most, professors spend a lot of time engaged in reading, most graduate students are not paid to read books and journals. Many are paid, however, by full-time employers and work 40 (or more) hours each week. These individuals do not possess the luxury of time to engage in reading books and journals that their professors possess.

During their undergraduate years, many students approached required course reading filled with a sense of reluctance. For these undergraduates, reading wasn't fun. No, it was something one had to endure in order to achieve a desired grade for the course. And so, these undergraduates were willing to read one or perhaps two textbooks; but, in the instance that a professor required students to read several (if not many) textbooks, undergraduates who were reluctant to read would most likely drop the course rather than devote the amount of time it would take to hone their ability to read well.

Unfortunately, these undergraduates based their judgment on the assumption that they had to memorize everything they were required to read for their courses. This assumption may well have been true: knowing that undergraduates typically won't read what professors require, some professors quiz students about the content of what they have (and especially, have not) read, especially the content not explicated in Cliff's Notes. Thus, reading meant memorizing and more reading meant more memorization. As they read, these students wondered: How am I to remember all of this stuff for a quiz or test? More likely than not, these students will forget what they memorized and will blackout when tested or quized on the material they read and memorized.

To the professor in the classroom, the tell-tale sign of an undergraduate student who reads required texts with reluctance is rather obvious. The first clue is any student who is poring through the text during class time. The second clue is any student whose text looks like it was dipped into a bucket of yellow highlighter ink.

Reading as a graduate student...

At the graduate level---and especially for those graduate students seeking degrees in professional studies---it is important to progress beyond this immature approach to reading textbooks and journal articles. These students need to consider two issues as they engage in reading. One of the most crucial issues focuses upon how to read a textbook. The second issue focuses upon why one is reading a textbook or journal article in the first place.

Yes, graduate students read books and journal articles to know what the author is communicating, that is, to become more competent not only in reading more advanced textual materials but also in one's knowledge of a scholarly field of inquiry. As important as this competency is (after all, the facts are the facts and knowing them is crucial), that is not the primary purpose for engaging in reading. At the graduate level, required reading is explicitly intended to introduce students systematically to a field of scholarly inquiry and through the exercise of reading, to inculcate in students the ability to converse intelligently about the content of that field, that is, to be conversant with it. Specifically, this means inculcating in the graduate student---through the process of reading---knowledge, understanding, and conversancy with intellectual history.

And yet, many graduate students---especially those who are used to memorizing what they read for their professors---find it almost impossible to believe that their professors don't want them to memorize what they are reading. Instead, imposing their undergraduate experience upon their graduate program like a template and complicating it with the fact of being employed at the same time means, for these students, that there will be no time "to have a life," that is, outside of class and for the next two least. Looking at the pile of textbooks and journal articles depresses these students.

Unfortunately, these students have everything backwards. What they fail to recognize is that if only they would engage in reading purposefully, they would then not only develop greater competence in reading more advanced textual material but also in expressing what they know and understand as a consequence of reading. In addition, this process makes students quite conversant in scholarly dialogue and not only with the authors they are reading but also with others, especially their professors and classmates.

Reading texts and journal articles...

To approach required reading, then, the thought that graduate students should have in mind is: If I set about memorizing facts, I probably will not develop conversancy. But, if I set about developing conversancy through my reading, I will also increase my knowledge base.

To move beyond strict memorization and to develop the habit of reading well as well as becoming more conversant with an area of scholarly inquiry and to increase one's knowledge base, graduate students might read the required textbooks and journal articles for their courses following the eight rules proposed by Adler and Van Doren (1972):

  1. Read the text or article as if it is a prescription for actual professional practice. That is, what is the literature telling you to do in actual practice?
  2. Decide whether the text or article is theoretical or practical in its intent. That is, what is the author's intent? To theorize? To prescribe?
  3. Classify the text or article according to the major strands of intellectual history.  That is, does the literature give primary emphasis to general ideas that authors argue about?
  4. Decide whether the text or article is about general issues or about more specific problems. That is, does the literature have as its objective to orient the reader and the reader's subsequent practice to deal with global issues or to provide tools to solve specific problems?
  5. Identify the author's perspective. That is, what is the implicit philosophy embedded in the text or article?
  6. Specify what the text or article advocates you to do.  That is, ask yourself, "What does the author want me to do?"
  7. Identify the purpose for which this is to be done.  That is, ask yourself, "Why does the author want me to do this?"
  8. Make an informed judgment about the validity of these matters for actual practice.  That is, ask yourself, "Do I believe that what the text or article suggests is a good thing? Is this better than what I am doing at present?"

Perhaps these eight rules strike a familiar chord, transporting graduate students back to their elementary school years when their teachers told them to survey a book before reading it. Although that's not bad advice, it doesn't get at the interactive and dynamic nature of reading a text or journal article for application in actual practice episodes (Sergiovanni, 1986) because authors oftentimes introduce and clarify key concepts as they develop their argument.  Authors will also oftentimes contrast their concepts and arguments with what other authors have proposed. And, it is also not unusual for an author to lead the reader along only, in the last chapter, to pull everything together into a unified whole in a surprising way.

Is the solution to read the last chapter first?

No, definitely not.  Because the process of reading develops one's powers of intellect, it is crucial for graduate students to think about all of the matters implied by Adler and Van Doren's (1972) eight rules as graduate students engage in the challenging work of reading.  As one reads, then, the goal is to grasp the author's philosophy and main points and to note the key concepts the author uses in support of the argument as well. In addition, a good author will juxtapose arguments with other authors who have expressed contrary views.  It is important, then, for graduate students to bounce these rival ideas around in their minds as they read, that is, if they are going to develop their intellectual powers. This is how reading can become interesting, if not enjoyable, as the reader begins to predict where the author is leading the reader and begins to respond to the text while reading it. Unfortunately, reading the last chapter first and knowing ahead of time where the author is leading the reader is like reading a mystery novel already knowing what the outcome is. This does not hone the mind's powers of intellect to become increasingly alert to clues, shifts, nuances, and gaps.

Interacting with one's reading...

As graduate students engage in reading required texts and journal articles, they should consider responding to the eight rules identified above. For some, making sidebar notes and underlining critical concepts and notions is a helpful way to achieve this objective. Other students prefer to keep notes, for example, by jotting their responses to the rules in a notebook, on sheets of paper, on the text's inside cover. Then, as graduate students continue their reading, they can revise and edit these ideas into annotations, that is, statements identifying what the text or journal article was about. In addition, students can reference these notes and annotations in classroom discourse and in one's course projects without having to flip through the text time and again to find the point one wishes to raise.

Interacting with a text or journal article---the process through which the student, the text, and one's notes clarify the responses to the eight rules---is what hones the student's ability to read well, to know what one is reading, and to be able to engage in intelligent conversation about an area of scholarly inquiry...which is the goal at the graduate level. In sum, this is why professors assign scholarly books and journal articles for their students to read. And, to the degree that graduate students engage successfully in reading well, they need not fear forgetting what they've read because they can reconstruct factual knowledge through scholarly discourse and inquiry.

Reading can be rewarding...

What otherwise might be experienced as a very challenging and time-consuming chore---reading required texts and journal articles---can also become an interesting and rewarding personal and professional venture. What graduates students enrolled in programs of professional studies are required to read provides an opportunity to think about themselves, their lives, and their work in new ways, to critique their organizational experience from new perspectives, and to consider how they will use what they are reading and learning in actual practice.


Adler, M. J., & Van Doren, C.  (1972).  How to read a book.  New York: Simon and Schuster.

Sergiovanni, T. J.  (1986).  Understanding reflective practice.  Journal of Curriculum and Supervision, 1(4). 353-359.