Monday, April 26, 2010

How to Read a Book in One Hour

This is the first in an occasional series of posts where I will share some of my teaching materials. This particular post began when I answered a question on Ask Metafilter. These tips are designed for graduate students reading academic monographs--use at your own risk. Googling the phrase "How to read a book in one hour" produces this and this page as well.

How to Read a Book in One Hour

"How do I keep up with the reading?" This is perhaps the most frequent question I get from overwhelmed history graduate students. And no wonder. A graduate history course typically has 500 or more assigned pages a week, and a full slate of courses can quickly push your weekly reading assignments into the thousands of pages. How is it possible to read that much?

Those who survive graduate school learn along the way that it is necessary to change the way you read. As children we are taught that reading is always linear--you start on page one and end on page three-hundred-and-sixty-seven and skipping pages is cheating. That is the way you read all through public school and the way most people read their whole lives. Once you get to grad school, however, it is time to leave that childhood illusion behind.

You are no longer reading books for the stories contained inside. As a historian, you are reading them for other reasons--to understand the authors' arguments, to see how they handle evidence, to examine how they structure their arguments, and to analyze their work as a whole. Perhaps above all, you need to understand how any given book fits into the historiography, how it speaks to other works on the subject, its strengths and weaknesses.  Plodding through a book one page at a time is not the best way to understand a book in graduate school.

You need to devour books, to fall on them like a hungry weasel on a fat chicken. You break their spines, rummage about in their innards for the tasty bits, and make your way to the next chicken coop. Here is how to do it:

1. Create a clean space--a table, the book, paper and a writing utensil, and nothing else.

2. Read two academic reviews of the book you photocopied beforehand. Don't skip this step, these will tell you the book's perceived strengths and weakness. Allow five minutes for this.

3. Read the introduction, carefully. A good intro will give you the book's thesis, clues on the methods and sources, and thumbnail synopses of each chapter. Work quickly but take good notes (with a bibliographic citation at the top of the page.) Allow twenty minutes here.

4. Now turn directly to the conclusion and read that. The conclusion will reinforce the thesis and have some more quotable material. In your notes write down 1-2 direct quotes suitable for using in a review or literature review, should you later be assigned to write such a beast. Ten to fifteen minutes.

5. Turn to the table of contents and think about what each chapter likely contains. You may be done--in many cases in grad school the facts in any particular book will already be familiar to you, what is novel is the interpretation. And you should already have that from the intro and conclusion. Five minutes.

6. (Optional) Skim 1-2 of what seem to be the key chapters. Look for something clever the author has done with her or his evidence, memorable phrases, glaring weaknesses--stuff you can mention and sound thoughtful yourself when it is your turn to talk in the seminar room. Ten minutes, max.

7. Put the notes and photocopied review in a file folder and squirrel it away. These folders will serve as fodder for future assignments, reviews of similar books, lectures, grant applications, etc.

8. Miller time. Meet some friends and tell them the interesting things you just learned (driving it deeper it your memory).

Will you learn as much using this method as you would if you spent the 5-8 hours reading it in the conventional method?  Heck no. But the real meat of the book, the thesis and key points, will actually be more clear to you using this method. Otherwise it is too easy for a graduate student to get lost in the details and miss the main points.

This method works better with some books than others.  If a book is considered especially important, or if it falls squarely within your research area, you should give it more time. And never, ever tell the professor that you read the assignment in an hour. Not even if that professor is me. I'll flunk you.

[Image of a 1960s library poster from Flickr user VB Library and shared via a Creative Commons license.]

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Then and Now: at the Spokesman-Review

I like this as a variation on the before-and-after rephotography theme--a slide show drawn from the archives of the Spokesman Review and modern photos of the same scene:

The video page at the Spokesman has additional historic videos, including one featuring historic neighborhoods.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Online Resources at the Washington State Historical Society

I began working on a post about the new Columbia magazine website, but along the way found a treasure trove of other history resources at the Washington State Historical Society. So I will begin with the magazine and branch out from there.

I see that Columbia: The Magazine of Northwest History, the journal of the Washington State Historical Society, has a new and improved website. Those of you who are familiar with Columbia know that it is a superb journal of popular history, with articles and book reviews that present recent scholarship to a popular audience. The website does not contain everything that has appeared in the journal but many of the articles are available in full text. (This article is excellent.)

There are many other online resources available from the WSHS, including lesson plans, featured collections, women's history resources, and information about visiting the WSHS locations in Tacoma and Olympia. The featured collections is an especially rich resource, and includes digital collections of maps, American Indian Photographs, Columbia River Photographs, a Gustav Sohon Collection, and a Sheet Music Collection. The collections are very much oriented to the west side of the state (a search for "Spokane"  results in zero hits!) and are presented in ContentDM. But within these restrictions there tremendous things to be found at the WSHS site.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Oregon Experience Online

Oregon Experience is a documentary film program about important people in Oregon history from the Oregon Public Broadcasting. And they have a website full of resources. Two dozen episodes are available to watch online, covering people such as Sam Hill, Abigail Scott Dunaway, and York. Not only are the videos online but for each program there are supplemental materials such as images, articles on related topics, time lines, and other resources. The programs are very good, with deep research and excellent production values. The site is well-designed and easy to navigate, and the video player delivers high-quality streaming video with an option for full-screen viewing. These half-hour videos would be great for classroom use.

There is room for improvement of the site. Given the potential classroom use it would be nice to see some teaching material here--guided questions, primary source excerpts, even lesson plans. It would be nice to be able to download the videos to play on a mobile viewer or show where an internet connection is not available. Some of the linked essays are from the Oregon Historical Quarterly and are behind a pay wall, you can't read them unless you are connected to a university that subscribes to the database. But having 24 excellent programs online is a great thing!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

An Interesting Graduate Student Project

One of my graduate students, Shaun Reeser, is working to recover a long-lost government website for his MA public history project. Specifically, he will be working with some of the staff at the Washington State Archives, Digital Archives to recover the website of Ralph Munro, who served five terms as Washington Secretary of State from 1981 to 2001. Munro launched the first website for the Secretary of State's office in 1996, and the site was regularly updated until he left office in 2001. How to bring it back?

The Digital Archives has done something like this before, when we preserved the website of Washington Governor Gary Locke. In that 2005 effort the DA staff raced the clock to migrate Locke's website (an important public record) to the DA before it was taken down to make way for the website of Governor Gregoire. It was a pioneering project, but what Reeser will try to do is different. Munro's website was preserved in several versions at the Internet Archive Wayback Machine. But simply pulling the information off the Wayback Machine is not sufficient for establishing archival authenticity. And the versions of the website at the Wayback Machine are often incomplete, lacking some of the original images, for instance, and full of broken links.

Right now Reeser is trying to hunt down the original digital files and to interview Munro and members of his staff. He is also studying other efforts to spider and preserve government websites as historic documents. Does anyone know of similar effort that we should study?

[Image: Oh come on, you know.]

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Dick Takes a Holiday

In this rare photograph from an alternate American history time line, Walt Disney prepares to fire the Nixon family into space:

(Note that the craft seems to be piloted by the disembodied head of Art Linkletter--perhaps Walt experimented on Art before subjecting himself to the cryogenics procedures for which he is famous?)

Actually the image is from Davelandblog: The Nixon Family & Disneyland, Pt. 6, one is a series of posts about a 1959 visit of the Vice President and his family to the popular amusement park. Pretty far from Northwest history, but I had to share the picture!