Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Reading and Note-Taking: A Question for the Dissertators

Since the last thing I want to do is look like a dumb ass to my advisor, I pose this question here to other dissertators. I seem to have a problem. I'm a nerdy sponge reader. What the hell is that, you ask? Let me define.

Nerdy sponge reader: a person who enjoys the dissertation subject being researched so much and is so concerned with making sure she doesn't leave a research stone unturned, that she reads most items cover to cover, soaking up everything and taking lots of notes.

While I can usually tell fairly quickly if an article or book really isn't going to be useful to my project, I have an extremely difficult time "skimming" the items that are related to my area of study. I find myself reading cover to cover, thinking that you just never know what else may come up that might be of help in my project. Now, reading an article start to finish isn't too much of a waste of time. But a book? Sometimes I have the advantage of a great table of contents, and I'm able to determine that only one or two chapters will be of use. And I'm somewhat lucky in the sense that there are only a handful of book-length studies done on the writers I'm studying. However, many of the books are only indirectly linked to my project. My project works to link them directly, of course, but in their own right, they're doing something else. I want to avoid the problem I had when I started reading for prelims: I read cover to cover, outlining entire books and taking pages of notes, rather than simply reading enough to get the main argument of a book.

So, my question to all the other dissertators is: Is it general practice to cherry-pick from your sources? Only read/use what seems obvious and directly related to your project? Don't you need to read most of a book to determine what's connected and what's not? Isn't there the danger of taking something out of context if one doesn't read the "whole" argument? I'm still trying to figure out the ropes here, and I want to make sure I'm "casting my net widely enough" as one of my committee members put it, but I also don't want to waste precious research and writing time reading something simply because I'm really interested in an indirectly-related source. I realize that some sources will turn out to be dead ends. But it seems more difficult to distinguish between sources that will be "a bit useful" and "maybe useful" and the "interesting, maybe I can use this" source. I'm guessing I'll get better as I go.


wwwmama said...

Well, I'm not a nerdy sponge reader, and I'm jealous you are. I can easily get lost in a book and want to read it all, but it takes me a LONG time to get through something. So I've only ended up reading a lot on my topic because I've been at it for years (probably near a decade if I include my master's work). It's only when I look back that I see how much I've read.
At this stage, I try to be picky about the things I choose to read cover to cover. As I get closer to a complete draft, it gets easier and easier to decide what to read because it's based on filling holes or rounding out my argument. That's when you need to zoom in on sources. Early on, it's difficult to know what to read, because you just feel like everything relates and it's all so interesting and you just want to read it all. My advice is to try to work on a general area, scanning sources in relation to each-other, and use introductions and conclusions and table of contents to guide you(this is especially helpful if the author/editor is providing a background section and summarizing other works on the subject, because you get a good sense of who is really vital to read).
Then when you do read something close, make sure not only to take your detailed notes but also to summarize the whole piece (chapter or book) in one or two lines so that you can quickly reference the source when you come back to it. I usually write the main argument and how I felt about it, like if it was a great read but had shaky support.
Oh, and I have tons of xeroxed table of contents where I made notes like "cool but not useful for me" or "come back to this later when I'm revising Ch 2" to help me when I inevitably come across the same source later and forgot that I already scoped it out.
Use your advisor too. My advisor told me there was one reference source I HAD to read first, and it was huge, and I literally spent three months in the library going over it with a fine-tooth comb. When I was done though, I was able to skip a lot of other reading that wouldn't have given me the depth and range that this one source did.

mgm said...

I would second everything wwwmama said. I, too, am most certainly not a nerdy sponge reader. (Why do I feel like a jr high schooler hurling playground insults?)

Reading for my exams taught me intros and conclusions first, then any relevant chapters. I am also a huge fan of going straight to the sources whatever book I am reading uses. I find that I can often cut several researching steps that way.

M said...

I too can get caught up in reading things relevant to my topic--in fact, I've just finished 2 books that were only peripherally related! But I do, as mad grad mom suggested, try to focus on intros and conclusions, and then skim relevant chapters. I have started looking a footnotes first too, which has proven very helpful in terms of finding other useful sources. But like you, I take lots and lots of notes, which is time consuming, but I find it very helpful when writing.

AcadeMama said...

wwwmama, mgm, and M:

good and useful advice, as always! thanks for the tips! i think i'm just going to have to force myself to "just keep skimming, just keep skimming" .. :)