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.

Click here to learn about her “TICCN” strategy.

What Black Readers Read in 1943

Beecher Terrace

Over at History News Network, book historian Jonathan Rose discusses a 1943 study of African American reading habits in Louisville.  Here is a taste:

In 1943 a study of reading habits was conducted in Beecher Terrace, a black Louisville public housing community. At this point “the projects” were new, clean, and well maintained, a vast improvement over the hovels they replaced, and not yet ridden by crime and drugs. The residents were nearly all domestic, service, and industrial workers, but only 11 percent of households were headed by single mothers, and the unemployment rate was just 4.4 percent. As for schooling, 44.2 percent had some elementary education, 44.8 percent had attended high school, and nearly 10 percent had some exposure to higher education. Beecher Terrace offered a range of social and recreational services and was located near a black business district and a segregated branch public library. It was a stable and hopeful community, and although life wasn’t easy, it was improving.

The investigator, Juanita Offutt, visited all 616 homes and interviewed the residents about the books they owned, read, and borrowed from the library. And when she asked about their leisure activities, the most popular answer, volunteered by nearly a third of all residents, was reading. A 1938 study of Cincinnati had found that 34 percent of black homes were bookless, but the figure for Beecher Terrace was just 7.3 percent, though four times as many had only a Bible, and another 13.1 percent only a Bible and dictionary. Nearly half of the Beecher Terrace homes had more substantial libraries, averaging 3.7 novels, 2.3 religious books, and 1.5 works of non-fiction.

Offutt compiled a complete inventory of all the books she found in residents’ homes, a total of roughly 1,800 volumes. Mostly they were standard romantic and detective fiction, Tarzan, westerns, children’s books, religious tomes, Sherlock Holmes, Rudyard Kipling, Louisa May Alcott, and seven copies of How to Win Friends and Influence People. But there were also some classics: The Arabian Nights, Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights (four copies), Pilgrim’s Progress (four copies), James Fenimore Cooper (eight individual volumes plus his collected works), eleven volumes of Charles Dickens (including three of Oliver Twist), Lewis Carroll, Silas Marner (three copies), Madame Bovary, John Dryden’s Marriage à la Mode, The Vicar of Wakefield, Far from the Madding Crowd and The Return of the Native, Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Moby Dick, Ivanhoe (three copies), Tristram Shandy, Gulliver’s Travels, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, Brave New World, Das Kapital, Thus Spake Zarathustra, and twelve individual Shakespeare plays plus two volumes of his collected works.

There were four volumes of essays by Emerson, a popular author among black autodidacts (Ralph Waldo Ellison was named after him). Eighty-three households stocked some poetry, mainly Robert Browning, Burns, Byron, Chaucer, Coleridge, Virgil, Kipling, Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, Masefield, Milton, Thomas Moore, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Tennyson, Whittier, Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, and nothing really modern. There was some contemporary middlebrow fiction: Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth (three copies), A. J. Cronin, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (four copies), John Galsworthy, James Hilton’s Lost Horizon, Main Street and Arrowsmith, Somerset Maugham, O. Henry, All Quiet on the Western Front, Treasure Island (8 copies), The Grapes of Wrath, Booth Tarkington, H. G. Wells, and even P. G. Wodehouse.

And Offutt found seventeen sex manuals, including Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis, but mostly common-sense guides for married couples, such as Harland W. Long’s Sane Sex Life and Sane Sex Living. As Offutt conceded: “Frequently the tenants admitted that the books were given to them and that many of them had not been read by any one in the family.” But the sex guides clearly had been bought and thumbed through.

Very few households regularly subscribed to magazines, but some were bought and read at least occasionally: the most popular were Life (23.3 percent of homes), True Stories (21.9 percent), Good Housekeeping (13. 1 percent), and the Ladies Home Journal (8.2 percent), compared to just 3.1 percent for Time and 1 percent for the Crisis, the NAACP organ.

Four out of five households read the Louisville Defender, the local black weekly, a comparable proportion read the white-owned Louisville dailies, and only 5.5 percent of households never took in a newspaper. (In 1943 total circulation for African-American newspapers was 1,613,255, more than triple the figure for 1910, and rising rapidly.)

Read the entire post here.

What the Founding Fathers Read

founders

I just learned about Greg Specter‘s Duquesne University course titled What the Founders Read at the Pedagogy & American Literature Studies blog.  It looks great.  Here is a taste of his post on the course:

This semester I’m teaching What the Founders Read. The class is a 200-level literature course and it is cross-listed with Political Science. I had one goal when I began designing the course: make sure that the Founders would run. I made several tactical choices about the focus of the class and the works that I included. I made sure to include Hamilton; I made sure to play that up in the course description. I included works like The Federalist Papers in order to meet the needs of the course’s cross-listed audience. Many of these choices altered my initial vision for the course. As I began planning the day-to-day trajectory of the course, I felt the class leaning towards what the Founders (and Lin-Manuel Miranda) wrote—not what they Founders read. I began to see nothing but problems the foundation of my class. Honestly, I started to rue even thinking about planning and teaching the class. I still find it a challenge to write and think about this course…

In light of the narrow topic of the course’s primary readings, I sought to assign additional resources that introduced a variety of perspectives. Given the topic of the course, the content is largely white and male—a direct result of the topic proposed. I sought to mitigate this limited focus by including a unit on the correspondence of Abigail and John Adams, plus a unit on the poetry of Phillis Wheatley. Still, the women included in the course can be seen as defined in relation to their connection to the Founders. I wanted to include additional voices and perspectives in this class. This is a 200-level course with a lot to cover. I did not want to add a wealth of secondary materials, but it would be irresponsible in a course like this not to include current critical conversations related to the Founders. I tried to reach a middle ground on this issue in two ways. First, I wanted the course to have a component that focused on public scholarship: pieces that were easy to read, models of writing for a general audience, but still rigorous. I selected works from popular media, blogs, podcasts, and other sources.

I tried the best that I could to include a diversity of voices and perspectives in the class, especially regarding scholarship by women, but I need to do better. In selecting readings and podcasts I added as many voices as I could. In day-to-day course meetings I try to be aware of which voices I emphasize from our readings. I try to point out these disparities in class discussion. Though the course doesn’t emphasize assigned secondary readings directly from journals or books, I want students to come away from the class aware of the ongoing critical conversations– like those that inspired the Women Also Know History initiative. In selecting the assigned pieces I made sure to select works that could act as conduits to additional secondary sources. I also created a Twitter list that could be a student resource.

Read the entire post here.

On the Loaning of Books

Bookshelf

Over at U.S. Intellectual History Blog, Robert Greene II has a nice piece on the experience of loaning books to his father.  It reminded me of the power of ideas and the importance of making those ideas accessible to people other than academics.

Here is a taste:

Perhaps not all historians can write for a general audience. When we lament that folks outside the academy don’t (or can’t) read our work, however, we never seem to slow down and think, “Wait a minute. Are we sure our work is that hard to comprehend?” Or to put it another way: is it time for us to stop underestimating what people outside the academy can read, understand, and enjoy?

Again, I only bring this up because I think about loaning monographs to my father and getting his reaction to reading them. Just today, I went home to celebrate his birthday. I was glad to, in addition to handing him his gift, to loan him my copy of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and George Frederickson’s White Supremacy. I handed over The New Jim Crow because my father, during casual conversation last week, mentioned wanting to get the book down the road. Wanting to spare my dad a few bucks, I briefly perused my book shelf before finding it and letting out a small whoop of satisfaction.

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with Kevin J. Hayes

GW BooksKevin J. Hayes, Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Central Oklahoma, now lives and writes in Toledo, Ohio. This interview is based on his new book, George Washington, A Life in Books (Oxford University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write George Washington, A Life in Books?

KJH: After finishing The Road to Monticello: The Life and Mind of Thomas Jefferson, I began searching for a similar project, that is, another intellectual life of a major figure in early American history. Once I started researching Washington’s life of the mind, other historians tried to discourage me, asserting that Washington had little intellectual life. My preliminary research told me different. The more I researched the more I realized I could tell a story of Washington’s life unlike any previous biography.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of George Washington, A Life in Books?

KJH: My book presents a biography of Washington that concentrates on how the books he owned and read shaped the man he became. Organized chronologically and thematically, George Washington, A Life in Books examines many different subject areas Washington studied — devotional literature, histories, travel writing, political pamphlets, agricultural manuals — and situates them within the context of his public and private life.

JF: Why do we need to read George Washington, A Life in Books?

KJH: Though there are numerous Washington biographies available, mine presents a fresh look at Washington, portraying him as both a reader and a writer. It provides a unique view of Washington’s life and adds a completely new dimension to the story of a man we thought we knew.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

KJH: I chose to attend graduate school at the University of Delaware because it was one of the best places in the country to study American literature during the eighties. Professor J. A. Leo Lemay, a leading scholar of early American literature, informed me about the numerous opportunities in his field. In addition to the critical study of literature, the field of early American literature would let me pursue parallel interests in American intellectual history and the history of the book. Researching the literary history of early America, I could be both literary scholar and historian.

JF: What is your next project?

KJH: I write biographies. This summer, Reaktion, a London publisher, will release my next book, Herman Melville, as part of its series Critical Lives. Over the past few years I have unearthed a considerable amount of new information about Benjamin Franklin, which I am now incorporating in an book-length study of Franklin’s life and writings.

JF: Thanks, Kevin!

The Mind of George Washington

HayesHistorian Kevin Hayes has a new book out on the reading habits of George Washington. (Kevin, if you are out there I would love to interview for the Author’s Corner.  I can’t seem to find an e-mail address.  Thanks).

He gives us a preview of George Washington: A Life in Books at the blog of Oxford University Press.

Here is a taste:

A hundred years ago Ezra Pound criticized American history textbooks for ignoring George Washington’s intellect. More often than not Washington has been seen as a shelf-filler, someone who decorated his home with books, but seldom read them fully or deeply. Here’s an alternate theory: though George Washington never assembled a great library in the manner of, say, Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Jefferson, he did amass an impressive and diverse collection of books that he read closely and carefully and that significantly influenced his thought and action.

No one has ever written an intellectual biography of George Washington. Though Washington’s surviving comments about books and reading are not nearly as extensive as those of other Founding Fathers, he did leave many different types of evidence that, in the aggregate, can help to reconstruct his life of the mind. The evidence takes many different forms:

Surviving books

Though Washington’s library was widely dispersed during the nineteenth century, many of his books do survive. The Boston Athenaeum holds the single largest collection of books formerly in his possession. Additional books survive at Mount Vernon. Other libraries—the Firestone Library at Princeton University, the Houghton Library at Harvard University, the Library Company of Philadelphia, the Library of Congress, the Lilly Library at Indiana University, the Morgan Library, the New York Public Library, the Virginia Historical Society—all hold books from Washington’s library in their collections, most of which I have examined.

Marginalia

With the notable exception of his copy of James Monroe’s View of the Conduct of the Executive of the United States, Washington’s surviving books contain little marginalia, but he did write in his books occasionally. Most of the time he did so to correct typographical errors, but sometimes his marginal notes reveal how he read. Occasionally his notes in one book indicate other books he read. The fact that Washington wrote in his books has gone largely unnoticed, because uncovering these notes requires work that some find tedious. One must examine the surviving books meticulously, turning over one page after another in search of the slightest pencil marks showing that Washington did read the volumes that bear his bookplate.

Read the entire piece here.

Caleb McDaniel: How to Read for Your History Class

Are you taking a history class this Fall?  Are you a history major taking multiple history courses with large amounts of reading?  If so, you need to read Caleb McDaniel’s post on “How to Read for History.”

Last Spring I taught a course in British Colonial America that required a very large amount of reading. The students complained about the number of pages I had them read each week (I actually made a last minute decision to cut one book from the reading list–Peter Wood’s Black Majority–because I thought I had assigned too many books), but several of them seemed to feel a sense of accomplishment when the course was over.

Side note:  Part of this class was filmed for a future iTunesU course.  Stay tuned.  (No, Jonathan Rees–this is not a MOOC, at least not officially).

Here is a taste of McDaniel’s post:

First, whether you are reading a long book or a short essay, you should always skim your reading material to gather information about the structure and major points of a text. As we will see, skimming involves more than running your eyes across a page. It is a dynamic process in which you not only gather information from a text but also formulate questions that you will want to have answered when you move to the next stage of reading. Skimming is one of the most important stages in reading, yet it is probably the most misunderstood and least practiced. For that reason, I have dedicated the bulk of this guide to skimming.

Only after skimming will you give a text the slow read. But the second stage of reading entails more than just running your eyes over the words more slowly than you did while skimming. When you slow-read a book you will also be writing (taking notes), recalling (by constantly looking back to the information you learned by skimming), and reviewing (by pausing at the end of each section of a text to make sure you have grasped its main point).

The third stage of reading begins after the actual act of reading has ended. In the post read you will reflect back on what you have read and evaluate the arguments that the author has advanced.

I wish I had McDaniel’s post to distribute to my class last semester.  I will definitely use it in the future alongside his “How to Discuss a Book for History.”

These are great resources.  Thanks, Caleb!