Reading as a Graduate Student

Why Reading Matters

Karen Wulf of the Omohundro Institute has a nice post at the Vast Early America blog on “reading” in graduate school.   If you are studying for your comps and find yourself awash in a sea of monographs, this piece is very helpful.

I’ve seen graduate students struggle with a heavy reading load, and I’ve seen them use various methods to try and lighten that load.  One is to not make it through the reading, which is obviously not ideal.  (Understatement.)  I’ve also seen some use book reviews as a substitute.  Also not ideal, but for reasons I’ll explain below.  And I’ve seen students sacrifice a lot to make it through every last page, and sometimes (often?) that trade-off (especially with sleep and general health) wasn’t a wise one.

The reason students do this are many, but among them are a sense of anxiety about their ignorance.  I don’t think they believe me when I say that the more you know, the better perspective you’ll have on just how little you know.  Plenty of clever people have found ways to phrase that.  Earlier this month astrophysicist Adam Frank described for NPR how important ignorance is in a world that seems increasingly casual about expertise and “alternative facts.”  It might seem counter-intuitive, he noted, but by exposing the limits of our own and others’ knowledge it clarifies where expertise lies and has been achieved.  Get used to being ignorant because it’s not only okay, it’s the natural state when you’re leaning.  The helpful bit here for graduate students is the same, I think, as it is for me.  It’s not to say that we will never achieve knowledge, even expertise, but that there will always be limits to it if we’re curious about the world.  If we think that learning is not only important but exciting and interesting then–yay!–we’re in for a lifetime of acknowledging our (relative) ignorance.

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