General

Tackling the Big Bad Reading

Why did my professor do this to me? Why is she making me read this overly dense, buzzword-ridden, thinly veiled torture device of a book? We are repeatedly told never to make our essays too “wordy.” We’re told to keep things simple and clear. Why, then, does the stuff we read seldom seem to follow the same criteria?

I love to complain and insist that my professors assign dense readings just to make me suffer.

Pictured: A still from PBS's Arthur Episode 2, "The Real Mr. Ratburn" where Mr. Ratburn, in silhouette, is lecturing a bunch of terrified third graders.

I picture Mr. Ratburn, before Arthur and the gang discovered he wasn’t actually a monster who ate nails for breakfast and assigned a ridiculous amount of homework just for the fun of it.         (Image courtesy of http://arthur.wikia.com/wiki/Arthur_and_the_Real_Mr._Ratburn).

A few days ago, one of my professors acknowledged that her reading assignment was tricky, she told us that she has struggled with it too, but she insisted that the points made—once you work to pull them out of the dense prose—are worth the effort.

Pictured: a page of one of my readings, with a particularly complex passage circled in red and the word "huh?" written above it.

Working on it…

Our professors love what they teach and they are pros at sharing that love with us. So when I’m starting to resent a prof for having the audacity to make me read a piece that is riddled with words like “paucity” and “limn,” I try to take a step back and trust that there is likely a very good reason why she’s making me do it. Then, I try to dig up that reason in the text itself.


Here are some strategies that I use to get through—and understand—dense readings:

  1. Fight the urge to speed read

Usually, my instinct is to power through dense readings as quickly as possible so as to end my suffering asap. I have found that this is extremely counter-productive because I end up not digesting much of the information. When it comes time to review, I’m back at square one and I have actually increased the amount of time I’ll spend agonizing over the reading in question.

  1. Highlight, write notes, and mark passages

The particular note-taking strategy that I use for a particular reading will vary by class, but I always like to take note somehow because it helps me to read actively and pick out the important points. The notes are also helpful when I return to the reading later, either when I’m writing an essay or reviewing for a test or exam.

I also like to mark passages that I don’t understand so that I can discuss them with my peers or with the professor during office hours.

  1. Have a dictionary handy

Academics sure do love their jargon! I like to use a physical dictionary rather than an online resource whenever possible because keeping away from electronics makes me less likely to get distracted or procrastinate.

  1. Read aloud

I’m not really sure why this works for me, but something about vocalizing what I’m reading can help me to grasp the meaning behind it. Reading aloud also helps me stay focused and better remember the information I’m absorbing.

  1. Set goals and take breaks

Sometimes, I’ll buy a chocolate bar and reward myself with a piece every ten pages. If I didn’t take little breaks every once in a while, I wouldn’t be able to stay sharp and focused and the whole endeavour would be a lot more arduous.

  1. Collect your thoughts afterwards

Sometimes, the best way to digest what you have read is to take a moment to reflect after you close the book. I like to take a walk once I’m finished; the fresh air helps me put my thoughts in order.

  1. If all else fails, wait until after the lecture

This one is for desperate times when I am really struggling and I feel like I’m not digesting any of the information. I try to pick out a few points so that I can still participate in class, but other than that, I put the reading aside.

The professor’s lecture can help me figure out what to focus on so that when I come back to the reading after the lecture, it finally starts to make sense. Of course, I usually try to get a week ahead in another class to make up for the time I’ll lose doing the particularly troublesome reading after the fact.


When you have the proper strategies at your disposal, the whole library is your oyster!

Pictured: DW from PBS's Arthur holding a library card. The caption reads: "Now I know what true power feels like."

D.W. knows what’s up                                                                                                                         (Image courtesy of http://poplibrary.tumblr.com/post/95835561085/indianazoe-true-power)

What strategies do you use to get through tricky readings? Let me know in the comments below!