Surviving Seminary


  1. Active Reading [August 24, 2012]
  2. Reading Strategically [September 14, 2012]

Active Reading [August 24, 2012]

By now, you’ve looked at that mountain of course books and thought, “OMG! How am I going to read all these?!?”

Trust me on this: “Just” reading them is not going to help. You can’t read scholarly materials as you would a novel or a newspaper. You need to read them actively. One way to go about this is to imagine being in conversation with the author.

  • Question the writer. Why does she care about this and why should you? What’s at stake?
  • Don’t accept what the writer says at face value. What are the writer’s biases? Are the arguments and evidence relevant and presented clearly? Do they support the writer’s conclusions? Are there relevant issues that aren’t addressed?
  • And if you agree with the author, be even more skeptical. What new or unanswered questions are you left with?

“Oh, no,” you groan. “That will take even longer!” Maybe at first. But reading once with understanding is a lot better use of your time than doing the reading and coming up blank at the end. There are ways of speeding through the (necessary) elaboration and sticking to the meat of the discussion. But the real payoff? Reading this way can improve retention and make prepping for exams much easier.

If you’d like to learn more about active reading strategies, check out the “Active Reading” resources page at the University of Manchester Faculty of Humanities Study Skills Website:

Reading Strategically [September 14, 2012]

Beginning at the beginning and reading through to the end is not always the best way to approach a text. Stepping back a bit and looking at the work as a whole may help you read it faster and understand it better. Here’s how:

  • Identify the book’s genre and intended audience for a work to better understand it. For example:
    • An introductory work, like a standard text book, is likely to summarize a variety of positions on an issue and indicate how widely accepted each is.
    • A scholarly work will probably argue in favor of a single particular position or interpretation in opposition to other possibilities.
    • Ancient texts will use different organizing principles and rhetorical devices than modern texts, though editors and translators may add pieces to help you get oriented.
  • Skim the work and look at its structure, noting the chapter headings and section headings. These will give you an idea what the work is about and where the most crucial elements lie.
  • Read the introduction and the conclusion first. This isn’t cheating. A well-organized writer will tell you where she intends to go in the former and will summarize her argument in the latter. Knowing these will provide a framework for reading the work with better understanding.
  • All sentences and paragraphs are not equally important to you. Depending on your purpose in reading the work, you can skim some of the detailed exposition in favor of focusing on the core discussion. Look for topic sentences, as well as introductory and concluding paragraphs. They should signal the purpose of any given paragraph.

To learn more about intelligent reading, see:

Adler, Mortimer J. and Charles van Doren. How to read a book. Rev. and upd. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972. This entertaining and informative work has stood the test of time and is still available in paperback and now as an e-book.