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How to Read in College (swarthmore.edu)
71 points by woodcroft on July 26, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 37 comments

The comments here remind me a little of Pierre Bayard's delightful(ly) postmodern monograph, _How to Talk about Books You Haven't Read_ [0].

It's an entertaining read.

[0] http://www.amazon.com/Talk-About-Books-Havent-Read-ebook/dp/...

I don't really find his initial assertion correct at all:

> Professors assign more than you can possibly read in any normal fashion.

I took a chembio and CS bachelors degree at an expensive private institution and a software development masters at a large public institution and read all assigned reading quite easily. Actually, I'd usually read all the textbooks before the semester even started.

That said, I do find his speed reading methods useful. I'd usually speed read the book a couple times first before reading entirely through, and speed read the relevant chapter before any exam. If you only read the reading material once through, you are doing something wrong, since that isn't the way to memorize it.

> I don't really find his initial assertion correct at all

> any normal fashion

>Actually, I'd usually read all the textbooks before the semester even started.

Check your logic

He covered this:

> I'd usually speed read

Clarify the syllogism?

"I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It involves Russia." - Woody Allen

This also is probably more focused on degrees in the humanities, where it is more common practice to have to a read a few books a week for a course, rather than a few chapters a week from a text book.

The problem is real. Reading assignments are much longer and often more challenging in the humanities than in the sciences. If you study history or sociology or philosophy, you're expected to read long and (initially) seemingly incomprehensible articles and books every week.

As others have pointed out, this is more specific to the Humanities. I had a Classics professor who probably averaged 150 page reading assignments per lecture -- of non-trivial authors like Thucydides, Aristotle, or Livy -- with many assignments going north of 200 pages. As a junior and senior Classics major, I probably read 1000 pages a week on average between all of my classes, plus maybe another 30 pages of reading in Latin and/or Greek, which obviously took a lot longer to get through, lol. Computer Science coursework always felt like a welcome relief from the time spent in front of the printed page: a lot of programming lab and project time, but only about 50 pages of reading per week, if even that much.

Good advice. I recently took the GRE exam (required for Grad School admissions in the US) and this article mirrors the advice almost all books (including the official guide) prescribe. When reading dense academic literature, you want to read actively and have an eye for detail, but at the same time, you don't want to get stuck on a particularly complicated sentence. You want to quickly gather up a few important things:

1. Context

2. Main Idea

3. Tone

4. Assumptions

5. Implications

6. Conclusion

7. Intent of Author

It wasn't till after I graduated that I started to realize the enormous volume of books arts majors had to read. And I don't understand why their information is presented in such an inconvenient format.

If the book is making an argument with a lot of discrete points and interconnections. Why isn't it a diagram or some kind of interactive hyperlinking thing? Why don't the individual points at least have a box around them so you can separate them visually from the other stuff without having to actually read it all?

Arts text books and essays just don't make sense to me. I can understand text format if it gives the reader motivation to understand that a soul-less diagram might not, but it sounds like most of this writing doesn't do that either. So I guess my question is, is this information really too complex to structure in an obvious way, or are the authors too lazy to design such a structure, or is it simply an ingrained culture that nobody can break free of?

Reading is a skill, like anything else. If you're good at it, there's nothing inconvenient about the format at all.

Consider that a command-line interface is an extremely inconvenient way for most people to use a computer but perfectly natural for others.

Perhaps this [1] is a format you would find convenient.

[1] http://www.wikisummaries.org/Pride_and_Prejudice

I can't tell if this is a prank.

A post on "How to Read in College" targeted at college age students who (paraphrased) "can't possibly read everything assigned to them" goes over...3000 words without even an overview?

He then adds nonsense disclaimers, buried at the end. This post is hopeless.

it's verbose because he uses examples from a specific reading. this was originally in print; had it been written for the web, with shorter expectations of length, it could be summed up pretty concisely.

his disclaimers are hot garbage though. "NONE of this advice applies ... if you’re otherwise operating in a discipline where close reading is centrally important to the way the discipline thinks" and goes on to say "my advice is most useful in ... literary or cultural criticism" - derrida would like to have a word with you about how you think literary criticism doesn't involve close reading

disclaimer: i skimmed the article

This guy is a history professor. A history student at a school of Swarthmore caliber who has e.g. two upper division history courses plus one course in a related field like philosophy/political science/sociology/cultural criticism and maybe one physical science course or something to satisfy some general ed requirements is going to be assigned something like 1000+ pages per week of reading, in addition to a substantial amount of writing and whatever work that science course requires, and of course time spent in lectures and discussions.

If the student tries to read everything carefully at a leisurely pace, that’s going to take 25+ hours a week of just reading.

History students can’t afford the time to read everything line by line. They need to learn to skim, track the structure of the argument, figure out which bits are fluff and skip over those, and then focus down on the tricky sections.

It’s not that close reading isn’t also important in those fields (it absolutely is!), but not everything can be read closely.

To the grandparent poster: 3000 words is peanuts compared to the kind of reading loads this professor is talking about.

I don't mean for this to be a "you kids get off my lawn" type comment, but back in my day 1000+ pages/wk was not unusual. But this rarely meant reading every word; the ability to summarise and skim is crucial to how easily you read that many pages:


At least the '1000 page rule' seemed to be the expectation if you were, like me, a humanities student at a private university in the US or UK in the days of yore.

It was the same for me (UVA, BA double major in History & Religious Studies, '99).

That's exactly why this is an article on summarizing and skimming techniques!

No. 3000 words is unnecessary for his argument and 10-15 min. of discretionary time is material. Partially to blame, and as another poster pointed out, the article was lifted from a text and maybe not packaged for a blog chunk.

With that, the author spends 2800 words to offer guidance on topics among which <when to look up words in the dictionary> (really! that's a section in his post!) and then tops it off with two awful disclaimers that his advice to skim critically gets trumped if 1. you're taking a class requiring full apprehension and/or 2. your prof. has exacting standards.

I don't think a Swarthmore-caliber™ student needs a reminder on any of the above, let alone to hear this mess in 3000+ words. It's as simple as prioritizing your time across grades, interests, learning, etc. Priorities differ and depending on your goals, you can be expected to read/study/analyze 25+ hours a week for any given subject -- not just the "non-social sciences."

If you had already internalized the advice in this article, you would have spent 2 minutes glancing through the post to decide it wasn’t relevant to your needs, and you wouldn’t have wasted 15 minutes reading it or another 30 minutes arguing about whether it was too wordy on a forum for computer programmers.

On the other hand, since you seem not to have previously learned the lessons this post is trying to teach, spending 15 minutes thinking about the argument and then applying what you learn whenever you need to skim in the future could save you many thousands of hours. Perhaps you should be writing to the author to thank him!


Sorry, I'm not following your ad hominem nor how its related to the thread.

I don't know if I've internalized its advice myself necessarily, but I used my stopwatch and it took me pretty much exactly 2 minutes to read. I studied subjects at school that required a lot of reading, and so I probably got the practice from that. (Of course, not all texts are suitable for reading this way.)

What you appear to have done is: spend 10 minutes reading the article, then 5 minutes complaining about how it is unreasonable to expect anybody to read 3,000 words. 15 minutes in total. (All times are estimates.)

Perhaps a better course of action would be: spend 10 minutes reading the article, and then wonder perhaps how you could put its advice into practise. 15 minutes in total.

Suppose you take its advice to heart and immediately end up being able to do what I did and read articles such as this one in 2 minutes. Your total time investment for reading n articles (excluding this one) will then be 15+2n. Maybe it takes longer to get the hang of, and it works out as 15+5n?

But suppose you continue as you are - time investment for the same will be more like 15+10n. A steeper graph. (And actually, more like 20+10n, because those 5 minutes you spent complaining are now spent.)

I think this is the guy's point.

(How do I spend the time I save? Why, by writing comments such as this, of course.)

You too are very presumptuous with your claims even with your humble attempt to frame another's point.

That said, I would like to address your claim of a 2min. read-through:

  "but I used my stopwatch and it took me pretty much exactly 2
  minutes to read. I studied subjects at school that required a lot 
  of reading, and so I probably got the practice from that. (Of course,
  not all texts are suitable for reading this way.)"
And how much comprehension did you get with a 2 min. flyby? With all due respect, you didn't read the equivalent of 10 pages of font-size=11 text in 2 min. If you're reading at that rate FOR comprehension then you're a savant. Otherwise, you're skimming, not reading.

Speedreading is snakeoil. [1]

[1] http://lifehacker.com/the-truth-about-speed-reading-15425083...

I thought I'd made it clearer than I did that I was skimming, but that was indeed what I was doing. This is after all what the article suggests you should do. And that's how I got through the article in 2 minutes. And that's why the article tells you to do it!

Once you've got through 3,000 words in 2 minutes, you might not recall all of it, but you'll at least be able to tell whether it's worth going back for a closer look, or just making a mental note, or forgetting the entire experience.

This isn't a useful technique for everything. But when/if you have a huge pile of big, thick books to get through, all printed in small type with thin margins - probably the sort of thing the author here is thinking of - your options are a bit limited.

> Derrida would like to have a word with you

Yeah, but no intelligent person would like to have a word with Derrida...

It's a little meta. You have to apply the techniques learned to the post itself as you read it.

3000 words isn't much for the typical college student reading 100+ pages a week

Let's say that you're reading for comprehension and read fast (200 wpm). That's 15 min. carved out of your discretionary time budget.

That's significant, let alone the fact you're taking a chance ROI-wise by reading a random blog. Furthermore, asking "Can you?" is different than "Should you?" I'm hitting on the latter.

Reading this reminds me how happy I am to be graduated.

Skimmed it.

better title how to read like a hack. Or how to read like a entrepreneur.

My thoughts exactly. Especially damning is "Nor would I personally want to talk at my students day in and day out" - I'm unsure as to why this person chose to become a teacher of any sort in the first place.

Don't make fun of Tai Lopez...he's got Lambos and a bookshelf FILLED with books in his garage. ;-)

edit: TL's the youtube ad guy who claims he can teach you how to read ANY book in 10min.

Video for anyone who hasn't seen it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zZKp_jFxQJc

It has also spawned plenty of parodies :)

Stopped reading at

The first rule, in some ways the only rule, is skim, skim, skim.

Nonsense, try to do that in a mathematical text and you understand literally nothing anymore. This might work for lightweight texts, not densely written heavily mathematical and algorithmic texts. Maybe that works if you're studying something like literature and don't need to understand complex things afterwards.

EDIT: He's a professor of history. I am not surprised.

EDIT2: brudgers is right, the professor wrote like 2000 words later that none of his advice applies to the situation I mentioned. I think he should have clarified that in the beginning instead of the end of the post. Introducing a rule as universal and introducing exceptions much later is not a good practice.

When I skimmed the article, I discovered that the author identifies contexts in which different tactics are appropriate in the latter half of the article.

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