Her Campus Logo Her Campus Logo

How to Manage Your Readings as a Humanities Student

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at McMaster chapter.

In the humanities, our classes often include structured readings; whether it’s a textbook, article, novel, or poem, no matter the medium, we’re reading. I personally love reading, but even the biggest booklover can feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of assigned readings. 

If I’m assigned 2-4 readings per class, per week, and each reading is 10-30 pages long, that amounts to an average of 15 readings or 300 pages a week! When I first entered university, I read every single one of those readings front-to-cover, with ample notes in the margins. Honestly, this approach was unrealistic and inefficient. The dedication burnt me out and cost me too much time away from more important schoolwork. Since then, I’ve learned that by putting a little extra thought at the beginning of the semester, I’m able to rework how I complete my readings. 

The first thing I do when I start a new course is thoroughly read the syllabus to understand the nature of the course. How do the readings contribute to the learning objectives and content of the course? There are a variety of course structures in the humanities that lead you to interact with texts differently. This is a critical first step in order to understand how you prioritize the coursework. You may find that in one course, it would be helpful to read each reading before the lecture, whereas in a course without an exam, you would only have to read the ones you choose to write an essay about. 

After getting an idea of how I can divide up my time, I can go ahead and complete my readings according to the schedule in the syllabus. When faced with my reading, another deep dive is called for! Academic articles are not written like fiction: an author of fiction writes with the goal of immersing readers in the story and evoking emotions from each word. Contrarily, an academic writer writes to inform readers by curating their topics into subheadings/chapters and paragraphs. 

I recommend critically skimming the article to find your desired information. Read the abstract, thesis, roadmap in the introduction, and conclusion. At this point, you’re free to skim the text’s body paragraphs in search of signposting (transition words) that guides you toward premises, examples, evidence, and other remarks. If you reach a paragraph that seems irrelevant to your needs, don’t feel ashamed to skip right past it. 

The only exception to skimming is if your assigned reading is a piece of creative writing. Generally, skimming a poem or short story will lead you to miss key structural and thematic elements of the prose. Skipping a paragraph in academic writing is not equivalent to skipping a stanza in a poem. When reading an assigned novel, I have found success in reading it as I normally would, but paying special attention and writing notes about the relevant themes your course will discuss. Above all, efficiency is key for reading a novel in a short timeframe…but don’t let that distract you from enjoying the storyline! I have also enjoyed listening to required novels as audiobooks.

My last piece of advice is to make margin notes. This is where you jot down clarifying information, summaries, and questions in the margins next to relevant passages so that even without reading the whole text, you have consolidated your understanding into a few point-form notes throughout the document. I especially recommend noting questions that arise while reading that you can bring up in class or turn into an essay topic. 

Everyone has a unique method to read and study material. Take these tips into consideration when tackling 10+ readings per week, but ultimately, it’s up to you to adapt them into your own personal learning style. Happy reading!

Mayson is a third-year McMaster student majoring in Indigenous Studies and English & Cultural Studies. She loves writing, making playlists, reading, and walking her cat. Whenever she's back in her hometown, Mayson takes her deaf cat Holiday on daily walks outside!