How to Read and Survive the Reading Workloads in Postgraduate Study (Part 2)


If you choose to venture upon humanities or social sciences for your master’s degree, there is no doubt that you will be spending a great deal of your time reading; be it journals, textbook, articles or manuscripts. In fact, your study time will be mostly planned out around how many books you have to read throughout the term time. At this point, you must first realise that your task is not just absorbing and memorising the new knowledge from the reading materials. In post-graduate level, reading pretty much prepares you for writing a paper, in which you have to digest all information you read, weigh on the arguments, contextualise it and decide your own stance on the issue discussed. In other words, based on your reading you should demonstrate your understanding of the relationships between the diverse texts you read and use it to support your own ideas and validate your position. Therefore, as a more developed and intellectually mature student, what you need to keep in mind is to read with a critical eye. Below are the basic steps and strategies on how to develop critical thinking for critical reading:

1. Inquisitiveness
I assume when you have decided to take a certain subject of study, you base it on your interest and passion. Keep your genuine keenness alive during your master study so that you are ready to open your mind and submit yourself into the whole new world of ideas that you will be discovering for at least the next 1 or 2 years.

2. Activate Prior Knowledge
One of the ways to feel closely connected to your reading materials is by creating an explicit link between the topic of the text and your own life and experiences. There’s always a possibility that your past experiences -somewhere in your undergraduate studies, high school times, or between TV channels you watch and comic books you read in your spare time- can give some small link to the new ideas you are about to engage. So during your readings, no matter how unfamiliar you think you are about the topic, give some time to preview the text by looking at the title, headings, subheadings, keywords, etc, and reflect on what you have/ haven’t you known/ learnt about the topic. Again, here you have to connect the dots in order to make your reading become more meaningful.

3. Subjectivity and Objectivity
The truth is, any written text; be it academic, news, magazine, etc, is always biased; meaning that it has a position and a motivation to draw its readers to certain beliefs or opinion. A good author, though, is the one who can shrewdly interweave their subjective take on an issue with a series of relevant facts, stastistics or theories. The objective parts might be easy to capture, but it is a little bit tricky to reveal author’s subjective purpose. At this point, ask yourself:
1. Does reading the text trigger any kind of emotions? What kind?
2. What impression do you have on the author’s tone or voice in the text? Is it cynical? Solemn? Compassionate? Sympathetic? Sarcastic? Blatant? Nostalgic? Optimistic? Pessimistic?
3. What words and expression does the author use to stimulate that feeling and impression you have? Do they use more connotative or denotative language? When do they use that certain language?
4. What information has been repeated or emphasised across the text and what has been ignored or omitted? Why?
5. What capacity does the author have for the subject discussed? (This is more to the author’s social and intellectual bakcground)

4. Visualise
The images popping out in your mind as you read is often called “brain movies”. They are the mental image that relate directly or indirectly to the material. This is a highly individualistic process that widely varies, though. People imagine things differently inside their head. However, any images created can strenghten the message and boost retention.

5. Discuss
If after all efforts you’ve put through you still feel that you only have restricted or insufficient knowledge on an issue, ask your classmates and have a group discussion. Listening to other people’s opinion and evaluation on the reading materials can enlighten your mind profoundly and guide you to things that you previously fail to spot.

Pile of books intimidates you? Sort and label them out!
Pile of books intimidates you? Sort and label them out! (Photo Courtesy of Pixabay)

After you develop some strategies to critical thinking and reading, the next thing you need to do is to make your reading experiences less overwhelming, more efficient and simpler;

1. At the beginning of your coursework, you will be given reading lists from the courses you take and those can be both exciting and daunting. At this point, you must realise that you won’t be able to thoroughly read all of those in one term time. Therefore, they have need to be viewed with some degree of pragmatism. Sort out your reading materials as ‘essentials’ and ‘supplementaries’ as you progress through the class in order to avoid future disarray. Also remember that only certain parts of the book may be useful for your coursework, so make sure that you figure this out from the beginning.

2. Use different strategies of reading for different purpose. Assuming that you have limited time for reading in by the end of a term time, divide them into two types; general reading and reading for assignments. For general reading, use reading tactics such as skimming and scanning to identify the gist and the key words on the topic of discussion so that you, for example, don’t come to the class discussion empty-handed. Later when you have more time aside, you can dig deeper into the text if you are interested. Reading for assignments, though, means that you need to read for details. You better have a list of relevant details that you need to look for in your assignment so you can sort out which text you should/ should not focus on. This time, prioritise what needs to be done in your assignment and what readings can help you reach that. Use some ‘recording’ methods during this kind of reading, such as writing down key points in your own words, noting down your comments and questions on the issue, and write a brief summary after reading.

3. Plan your week ahead. Thematise each week’s ‘readings’ so you can have a picture of what might be presented and discussed in the lecture (sometimes the lecturer does this in advance by including it in the syllabus). Note down your questions and commentaries on the subject as well.

4. Explore other possibilities. Imagine that your library is the pirate’s loot on a treasure island and you want to find that treasure. If you find yourself at dead ends because you can’t get hold of the texts, there are other authors out there that may have friendlier and more understandable ways to explain those things to you. Get into the habit of taking notes of the writers’ name and books cited in the listed book because those will guide you to other relevant sources. Also explore your campus library or any libraries in your city if the books on your list do not suffice your thirst of knowledge.



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Najwa holds a bachelor degree (Hons) in English literature from Universitas Indonesia and has recently finished her master's degree (Hons) in critical media and cultural studies from SOAS, University of London with a Distinction. Before her educational pursuit in the UK, she once worked for a global cosmopolitan Muslim magazine, from which she develops profound interest in media and journalism. A keen observant and bookworm, Najwa enjoys carefully studying the capricious vagaries of everyday life in Indonesian society and aspires to immerse herself in the field of popular culture studies and new media. She is currently working as a project coordinator and academic English lecturer at FIB UI, as well as researcher on topics related to the global Islamic economy, especially on lifestyle and modest fashion industries.


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