Scholar Hacks: How to Skim an Article

Skimming is a useful strategy, especially for preparing in advance for deep, critical reading/thinking. Additionally, some professors assign texts and ask their students to skim them for basic concepts/theories. However, skimming can be difficult to do effectively. For some folks, skimming denotes a lack of full attention directed to the text when the opposite should be true. Below are some tips to get the most out of skimming an academic essay, chapter, or article.

1. Prepare to skim by focusing your attention. Skimming asks you to be critically aware of what’s going on in the essay or chapter in order to find out what’s important. Remember: you’re working to separate what’s most critical from the less critical parts of the essay. You need deep thinking skills to find out what you can learn from the text before fully diving in, and critical thinking requires attention and a positive thinking environment. I like to listen to soothing, lyric-free mixes to help me concentrate, like this one. Spotify’s also got a great “deep focus” mix.

tl;dr: Figuring out what’s important in a mass of words requires diligence; don’t skimp on attention when skimming.

2. If possible, consider given context before, during, and after reading. What’s going on in the course that can help you get your bearings? Sometimes it’s helpful to understand a text relative to other things you’ve been studying/thinking about in the class. Some suggestions:

a. Is there anything in the syllabus that helps you contextualize what is going on (i.e subheaders such as “Public Sphere theory” or other such identifying groupings?) Has the prof. given you a framing point for where you are in the course, such as “next week we are transitioning from institutionalized aspects of advocacy to non-institutional methods of environmental protest…”? Use this as a lens when reading.

b. Ask yourself what you already know, or can intuit/guess about the text from where you are in the class. If you’ve been reading generally about critical feminist work, you can already ask yourself how your reading talks about power, gender, subjectivity and so on. What you have studied previously can help you understand where you’re going with this particular reading. Look for similarities/differences as you go.

tl;dr: Look for themes. What does the syllabus/your place in the class tell you in advance about the reading?

3. Ponder the title, the author, the author’s affiliation/job title, and if available, any author information (usually in a footnote at the bottom of the first page.) Gayatari Spivak has a different job title, different scholarly interests and different scholarly commitments than does Sadiya Hartman, and you intuit some of the differences in their writing. Scholars in communication have different ways of thinking and writing than do scholars in physics. The title should give you a heads up to where you’re going. Knowing this information can be useful when thinking about

    1. purpose
    2. method
    3. trajectory

…of the reading.

tl;dr: Use any and all text to get as much information about the reading as you can.

4. Look for any clues the author gives the reader, such as headings, bolded or italicized terms, and phrases such as “I argue,” or “this paper suggests.” Even the most seemingly dense writers want readers, and many if not most of your readings will contain such clues to give you a sense of place and purpose. Lots of work went into the writing and publishing of this piece; (theoretically) the author wants you to “get it” or she wouldn’t be writing it. As you practice reading academic essays, you will gain an intuition about how the text flows.

tl;dr: Be sleuthy, look for clues left by the author.

5. When reading and after reading, ask yourself:

    1. what is the purpose of this article?
    2. why did my professor assign this article? (not to torture you, promise.)
    3. what is the method of this article?
    4. what does this article contribute that is new and interesting?

tl;dr: Your prof. hopes for you to get something out of this reading. What is it, and why is it important?

6. Read the abstract, the introduction, and the conclusion.  Attempt to identify a thesis statement, find what sorts of evidence the author will use to prove the thesis, and identify what the “take away” message is. What should you learn from this essay after you’re finished with it?

7. Take notes, write a list of questions to the author/for the prof. etc. (either in the margins or in a separate notebook/document/etc.) and try to answer them during your second time around.

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