How to Read Theory and Other Reading Strategies for Grad School and Beyond!

Nov 28, 2020 | PhD Tips Blog

How to Read Theory and Other Reading Strategies for Grad School and Beyond!

Part 1

Collated (and slightly edited) via twitter by Ameena Ghaffar-Kucher (PennGSE) with permission from the authors. Dr Jonathan Rosa and Dr. Roy Perez

At the beginning of every graduate seminar, @DrJonathanRosa (a sociocultural and linguistic anthropologist at Stanford University’s School of Education, who analyzes the interplay between linguistic discrimination, racial marginalization, and educational inequality in urban contexts.) suggests the following reading strategies for the social sciences:

  1. Before picking up a text, learn something about the author & where this piece fits into their broader body of work to get a sense of key stakes, themes, & trajectories 
  1. Study the placement of a reading on the syllabus to get a sense of the overarching topics & concepts for the week, as well as those that precede and follow it—this can help you to bring questions to the reading
  1. Identify the genre & scope of the text to figure out the amount of time & mode of engagement necessary to make productive meaning of it based on your particular reading habits & the goals of the course 
  1. Read strategically—not necessarily sequentially—based on genre & partitioning; with social sciences texts, it’s often helpful to begin by reading the abstract/intro & discussion/conclusion, & then as much of the body of the text as possible focusing on key themes 
  1. After identifying key themes for the week & the structure of the text, strategically focus on the most relevant sections & chapters—to the extent possible, identify those in advance & read them first 
  1. Rather than narrowly focusing on the argument, begin by identifying an argument that resonates with you & your work, & dissect that argument: whose work is it building on or challenging, with what evidence, logics, & stakes? 
  1. The more time you have to engage with a text, the more questions you can consider: What is the intended audience for this work, how is that reflected in it, & with what conceits? Are the evidence & methods employed effective for the advancement of the author’s argument? 
  1. Critical reading dovetails with critical note-taking & reflective writing—doctoral students in particular should use written annotations & reflections not simply to summarize, but rather to recontextualize readings in relation to your emerging research agenda 
  1. Finally, my most important advice: Reading is often mistakenly assumed to be a passive practice rather than an active dialogue among readers, texts, authors, & their worlds—take authors seriously on their own terms but also take yourself seriously as a reader & researcher 
  1. One more thing: The broader point is that “doing the reading” isn’t simply reading every word or page, which is often unnecessary, unproductive, & unsustainable. In fact, it’s quite beautiful & inspiring to observe the infinite forms that meaningful textual engagement can take!


Part 2

Here are tips from Dr. Roy Perez (writer and an assistant professor of Ethnic Studies and Critical Gender Studies at the University of California, San Diego.) that he wrote for his students on how to read theory in a humanities/interdisciplinary context because he wants his “students to read theory with more confidence and less self-sabotage”. 

  1. Theory is an effort by writers to make sense of phenomena for which we don’t yet have sufficient language. So, reading theory can feel difficult, and the writing can seem unnecessarily complicated. It’s helpful to think about why and how we read theory. 
  1. Be easy on yourself. You will feel lost often. Grasping theory is an iterative process, which means ideas get stated over and over in different ways. Ideas evolve within an essay and from one essay to the next. Like all writers, theorists improve over time. Stick with it.
  1. Theory is a poetic process and an imaginative endeavor. Style and language matter to theorists in a way that they might not to a scholar whose goal is to transmit data or information. Clarity isn’t always better because it often simplifies things that need to be complex.
  1. Reading closely and actively is more important than reading completely. When time and energy are tight, you can get more out of taking your time with five pages than getting through 50. Make the most of what you can read.
  1. Reading actively includes: marking passages that are confusing or clear; writing notes in margins; establishing a practice of jumping around pages for footnotes and rereading; capturing questions as they cross your mind; and writing (in complete sentences) about the reading.
  1. Theory is a cumulative project. This means that the language we have now didn’t exist when the authors were writing, and many of these authors gave us the language we have now. It also means that theory is a conversation, not a singular thesis: ideas move and change.
  1. Find and follow pleasure where you can. Some ideas will blow your mind, so track down those conversations and read more about those ideas. You won’t connect with all theory, but pay attention to your gut when you do connect. You’ll write better about stuff you like.


you are what you read. #PhdTips

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