The University 411: Seminar Prep and Reading Journals for ALL Readers, Writers, Students

Hello all! Today we’re going to talk about reading journals. It’s a great tool for your seminar or lecture prep, but also useful for any reader (i.e outside of school). I can’t express how much I regret not keeping one until much later in life as I’ve been an avid reader since I figured out my ABCs. Have you ever thought back on a book that you really enjoyed, but can’t remember anything about it? You want to read it again, but only vaguely recall the scene or premise and can’t remember the title, author, or even character names to help you with a google search. Now imagine you had a reading journal where you wrote down this basic info!

For myself, I only started a reading journal last year after I became a mum. I wanted to read the newly released book 4 of Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive. Usually, I’d re-read the entire series in preparation for a new book release. But throw in work, parenting, and the fact that I’m a fantasy researcher (i.e should be reading new books instead of re-reading my favourite mammoth series), I simply don’t have time to re-read 1000 page works every time a new book is released. So I am repeatedly kicking myself that I hadn’t kept a reading journal until now, especially as one of our university assignments in year 3 was to keep a reading journal; but the professor never explained the purpose of a journal, and so I saw it purely as a necessarily evil to get good grades and never considered it as a useful tool in itself. There are a number of reasons why a reading journal can be useful, in any field or discipline (in school), or if you’re a casual or avid reader (outside of school). I’ll try to cover the main advantages, but if you use your reading journal differently, please drop me a line in the comments!

First, a reading journal is a good way to log a list of your reading. Yes, Goodreads or equivalent can do this for you to. But you might also want to consider adding articles or other research to your reading log along with a 1-2 sentence summary. There’s been a number of times when I’ve re-read an article because I couldn’t remember if I had read it before or not. At the very least, consider keeping a log in your Bullet Journal (which we talked about last time). Include basic information in this log – Author, Title, and Initial Date of Publication (and a short summary if you’re not planning on keeping a full journal). For your reading journal, you may also want to consider recording the publisher and year of the edition published. Note that your paperback edition might be published at a later date than the original publication. If you’re citing the text in a paper, you will need to reference both dates. As well, making note of the edition might be important if you’re reviewing your reading journal years later. I say this because while I was editing my Shape of Fantasy manuscript, I realized that I had taken quotes from 3 different editions of Robert Jordan’s The Great Hunt – a US print, a UK print, and a Canadian ebook. The manuscript from start to finish took 8 years and I had moved back and forth between Canada and UK during this time. (It’s also worth noting that my ebook license purchased in Canada was invalid in UK, so if you’re planning to move out of country and think you’ve been clever with purchasing ebooks so you don’t have to worry about moving physical books, BE CAREFUL. Once you enter credit card info for your new country into your ebook reader, books purchased in your home country might become inaccessible.) With all that moving around, and with 3 different copies of the text to work from, I had a heck of a time confirming the edition of each and every page reference (i.e was this page in reference to my US print or UK print or neither?). As well, I soon found out that there were very small changes between the US and UK print; something as simple as “Rand said” was changed to “said Rand.” (WHY??? I have no idea why the editions differed). So take my experiences as a warning and log the edition information; thank yourself later.

Once you’ve logged the basics, next you want to focus on summarizing the piece. If it’s a length novel or a densely packed article, your summary can be pretty substantial. But I figure re-reading a 10 page summary is much quicker than re-reading a 1000 page book. For novels, I include character names and major plot points. Since I usually read fantasy, I also note down important world-building information. This is especially true for incomplete series, as I’m not entirely sure whether the piece of information will become useful. (For example, with works like George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, you might want to include information that you think foreshadows events or provides clues to unanswered plot questions.) While I keep a reading journal for my fiction reads, for non-fiction, I’ve switched to Scrivener, as it has a handy index card feature. (If you’re at a stage in your education or career where you need to make and keep lots of detailed notes for research, I highly recommend Scrivener and talk about it here.)

Except from my Reading Journal for Sanderson’s Steelheart

Next, you want to identify essential information. This bit is tricky, because what’s essential is highly subjective. If you’re using a reading journal as prep before class, then first I want you to take out your syllabus. Seriously. And a highlighter (either a physical one or use the highlighter on your ebook/pdf copy). Now go through your syllabus and highlight important concepts. Does your instructor provide objectives or key themes? HIGHLIGHT THAT. If you can’t find the information, take a look at the course description on your department’s website, or the table of contents in your required reading list, or the titles/labels of each lecture or seminar. What concepts jump out at you? Write them down in a handy list. (This is would be a good list to put in your bullet journal.) It’s also okay to take a quick look at google or wikipedia to skim through the key points of a topic or text. You’re NOT using wikipedia as research here (so don’t cite it in a paper); instead you’re using it as preliminary research to investigate the key themes and concepts of a work before you start reading. This will let you read the work as a more informed reader, with you eyes open for things you should be looking out for.

The next part is trickier to identify, especially if you’re a new student. What essential information is important FOR YOU? Why are you taking this course? What attracted you to signing up for the class? Take some time to reflect on this (yet another BUJO page. We seem to be wracking them up). These ideas are things that you might end up developing for an essay or project. For example, I remember one semester where I wrote all five final exams around the theme of gender. I had taken completely different courses (Children’s lit, Shakespeare, Roman mythology, etc), but feminist ideas was what appealed to me at the time and so it’s what I took note of. You want to take note of things that interest you while you read the work. Maybe quotes leap out at you or a particular phrase or definition. If you’re an aspiring writer, you might want to note technique or things that give you inspiration for your own work. Other things you want to take note of in your reading journal are things that confused you; make note if it so that you can bring it up in class or study group to discuss or to investigate further on your own. If you’re keeping the journal as prep work for class, think about things that YOU want to talk about in class; things that interest and excite you, or questions that you have. If you’re keeping the journal for pleasure, then the same still goes. A reading journal is exactly like any journal, only one focused on your reading content.

Since we’re talking about prep for class, I want to end on a note of caution. You do NOT have to read EVERYTHING on the recommended reading list. And, even if you instructor states that it’s required and not just recommended, I would still approach a heavy reading load with caution. Some instructors are just assholes. So if you’re meant to be reading 6 novels a week for just one of your modules, FAKE it. Focus on just one of the texts so that you can contribute to some part of the conversation, and do a quick internet investigation of the other 5 so that you know basic points and can identify points of comparison with the text you’re focusing on. While 6 books a week might be an exaggeration (the most I’ve had as a student was 3 novels a week for one of my senior-level undergraduate seminars), the point is that you shouldn’t be killing yourself to reach some unattainable model of perfection set by an instructor who thinks your university experience should break you. DO make note on it with student feedback/course evaluations. Even if you’re tenured professor doesn’t care to look at them (as The Chair so brilliantly depicted), the department should. That being said, I can’t guarantee that trying to keep a healthy work/life balance won’t come back to bite you. Usually (in the humanities) if your final exam is formatted as a series of essay questions, these will be presented as broad questions which lets you select any of the texts/topics/figures covered in class (provided that you didn’t utilize the text/topic repeatedly for each essay question). Alternatively, if the topic is pre-selected by the question, these are still usually written in a way that gives you a lot of choice. (For example, you might have a choice of 20 questions, with 1 or 2 works identified in each.) But I remember one experience where the professor told us the that the final exam will be essay questions with a comparison of 4 books for each essay, and then presented each question with the 4 works pre-selected. This meant that, rather than focusing on texts that we connected to, we needed to have detailed knowledge of each and every one. Unfortunately, sitting down to write my final was the wrong time to figure this out. While I had read every book, I hadn’t bothered to study all of them. A brief perusal through a reading journal (if I had had one) might have at least helped me avoid a failing grade. If you can, get some information about the lecturer from other students early in the semester (remember to step outside your bubble); that should hopefully give you some idea of what to expect for assessment and you can revise your approach accordingly. If you know in advance whether your finals will be testing for detailed knowledge of ALL the material instead of focused knowledge on your areas of interest, then you can figure out in advance the size of your work load and how best to tackle it (we’ll talk more about this on Friday). *Fingers Crossed* that you have instructors who genuinely want to see you succeed rather than setting you up to fail. And good luck!

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