I'm in the second year of an International Affairs undergraduate program. When classes first began last year, I - like most of my peers - felt overwhelmed by the amount of text assigned for reading, which I averaged as 400 pages per week, the whole year. I initially managed it by reading the texts faster than I should (thus not properly apprehending the text) and prioritising the ones with an obvious precedence and skipping others right away.

If that wasn't improper enough and made me feel lacking, we were briefed on how to do scientific reading in two of our disciplines. Basically we were 'taught' how to do a 'micro-research' on every text assigned to us, by first reading the text superficially, taking notes of everything unknown to us (authors, dates, events, places, concepts, word definitions) and then getting to know each of those, to just then go back to the text with the goal of apprehending and taking notes of the logical structure of the text, identifying its main theses and how arguments are presented, in order to be able to reconstruct the presentation the author gave accurately, either mentally, or when giving a speech or writing.

In theory, we should be doing that to every text. In practice, I felt like I barely had time to read the texts once and then I would go to the next. By the end of last year I assessed I had to at least double my reading skills to handle that amount of text. I maybe improved 20%, tops.

Now we began having online classes because of the pandemics. There was a lot of opposition from professors and students, but as a state university, costs were still running and there was a lot of pressure coming from the upper realms, thus, online classes began. Now, we're being given harder texts. I just finished watching a Political Theory class. I literally didn't understand any of the texts, neither the class itself made sense and my professor kept asking questions to me, it was frustrating.

It makes me feel somehow depressed and it makes it even worse when I see there are a few students who not only seem able to handle it, but are doing research and a lot of other stuff, I can't even imagine how they do it.

Edit: One thing that gets me beaten and very sick sometimes is how relatively unimportant authors that talk about the simplest concepts are the ones writing texts that almost demands me to become cryptologist. On the other hand, some of the authors presenting the most complex topics, e.g, Kant and Weber [especially Kant], despite being very demanding, seemed to be quite clear and straightforward in their argumentation. The problem here, again, was time. When reading Kant I had to skip almost all the other texts in other to complete it with a satisfiable understanding of the text. I got the 2nd best grade of the class in that discipline.

Edit 2: I also find it interesting, for lack of a better word, how some professors throw you in the lion's pit. For today's class we read a text by Italian Norberto Bobbio which is an answer to a critic of an earlier text. I felt totally out of context, as we didn't read the first text nor the critics, I was simply unable to understand half the text, as it was constantly referencing stuff we didn't read and would never be able to do it in time.

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    400 pages/week sounds pretty crazy, it's not really possible to read that much in a week unless the material is really easy. – Allure Aug 13 at 1:43
  • @Allure In the first year at least, I didn't feel like any of this was voluntary on the professor's side. You do have to get a grounding in many different topics for you to be able to 'navigate' on. We had a broad introduction to History that went from antiquity until very recently and I can't imagine how you can discuss anything else related to International Affairs if we hadn't gone through extensive reading in that subject, for example. However, I felt like many of the professors simply forgot we had other assignments and gave us unreasonable amount of [difficult] text. – Ezequiel Barbosa Aug 13 at 2:13
  • And 400 pages was in average, some times less, some times more. – Ezequiel Barbosa Aug 13 at 2:16
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    Sounds similar to my daughter’s reading load. The not simple answer is that reading that volume for comprehension is a learned skill like many others. Pay attention to what the prof wants you to get out of the material. – Jon Custer Aug 13 at 2:33
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    Does your university offer a general introductory class on "study techniques"? This should also cover strategies for efficient reading. – henning -- reinstate Monica Aug 14 at 19:16

I studied IR and this was a problem I really struggled with. Given my course load I was ultimately forced to conclude that there was no feasible way to thoroughly read all of the materials assigned. I really didn't like this feeling of always being underprepared.

I don't know if this is an adequate answer, but a few comments:

  • You will get a lot better at reading and writing quickly. 20% improvement is already really good! Some people are natively just faster at reading to begin with - it doesn't help to compare with them. You'll improve at your own pace.
  • If you only have time to pass through an article once, I find the best way to do it is to make highlights and notes that clearly sketch the structure of the article. For example, focus on highlighting topic sentences and key quotes you might use for your paper. In the margin you can number the key points, etc. In this way, once I've read an article, I can look back at it and just read the highlights/annotations to reconstruct the whole thing, without having to delve back into each paragraph. This is also useful in discussion sections when looking for part of an article.
  • You'll need to start shifting from high school mindset (do all the tasks assigned) to college mindset (do the tasks that are useful to your understanding of the topic). This was the hardest part for me. Basically: choose to carefully read the texts that seem important and influential, for example those frequently referenced and cited (Kant and Weber seem like a good place to start). You do need to do some readings in depth or you won't learn. On the other hand, if you feel some reading is useless/irrelevant/poorly written, spend a shorter amount of time on it (or, find a better alternative text covering the same topic). I guess it might be embarassing if you get called on for a text that you don't know well, but generally, the important thing is to make optimal use of your limited time in order to maximize learning. In your Kant example, it seemed like this proved true.
  • Generally, I think some professors focus more on having comprehensive syllabi than on workload. From their perspective, they are adding value by pointing you to key texts that are critical in the field (and that you might have a hard time compiling for yourself). Sometimes, I got the sense that they simply didn't realize the impact on the students -- for example, assigning a whole book for reading when only 1-2 chapters were relevant for the topic at hand. Other times, we were genuinely just given references that were terrible and I could never figure out the reason they were included. Try to remember that the person compiling the course outline was trying to be helpful, and figure out what is actually helpful about what they've put together.

Finally, have you considered speaking with your professors in office hours? You can explain that you are struggling to keep up with the readings and ask if they have any tips for how you can best prioritize. They might have some helpful guidance about how you should be studying.

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  • Speaking with professors won't solve any problem. Rather they will worsen the situation by giving ill advices. My experience. – user366312 Aug 20 at 10:47
  1. You don't need to read from the first word of the title to the last word of the conclusion. You should learn how to skim through the large materials. Use a highlight marker to highlight important sentences, terminologies, dates.

  2. If you find it the text lengthy, try replacing it with online videos or similar shorter texts. A book can be replaced by a single research article.

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  • So basically telling one handles that amount of text by cheating. That's precisely what I've been doing, I just think I'm not efficient in doing so, especially considering, as I mentioned above, those 'scientific reading' classes put a lot of stress on detailed reading early on, so I guess you can understand I'm not coming from a favorable position. – Ezequiel Barbosa Aug 13 at 1:11
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    @EzequielBarbosa Using one's reading time efficiently is not "cheating". For some works it is enough to know it exists and what it is about. – Patricia Shanahan Aug 13 at 1:16
  • @PatriciaShanahan makes sense. This is actually being eye opening, because, in all honest, I thought I'd somehow just learn how to read and understand all of that text, like, you know 'Yes, it must be possible, I just have to learn how', that's how I've been thinking to myself. – Ezequiel Barbosa Aug 13 at 1:22

My understanding is that for history/political science type majors this is not an uncommon amount of assigned reading.

Here is a trick for humanities reading: read the first and last sentence only of each paragraph. That is usually enough to give you an overview of the content of the paragraph, and you can then decide if you want to read it in more detail. Doing this for a whole article can give you some idea of what the article is about and how the author structures their argument while cutting down on the reading time dramatically. Make sure you write down some quick notes about what the article covers so that if you’re writing a paper later you don’t have to skim the whole article again to figure out if it’s useful.

This routine can help you learn how to effectively skim articles and you’ll find over time that you’ll get less regimented about it.

When trying to decide what information is most important to extract from your reading, it’s helpful to look for details that you can either connect to another reading or to discussions/lectures in class.

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Though I have no way of knowing what your particular instructors are thinking about your reading assignments... in my own experience (in mathematics, which might seem wildly different from humanities, but in fact is not so much so, I claim...) with myself and my students, a large part of the point is to learn how to cope with bodies of information which one has not been able, or had time to, "master"... but have to discuss/use, nevertheless.

There's no simple answer, but there are obviously (as you perceive) many obvious failures of more-pedestrian line-by-line-reading approaches. Impossible.

Then what?

The answer to that is very complicated, in any subject, I think. But/and that is perhaps the genuine issue. So, yes, how will you deal with this? :)

EDIT: in some senses, there is no "solution" to this "problem". Rather, as perhaps was tooooo implicit in my earlier remarks, one must "let go" of (naively?) more-idealist notions of "reading" and "mastery" and so on. It's like "the train is leaving..." with no room for negotiation. Indeed, many of the earlier school-inculcated ideas about "perfect" understanding/reading, become useless and hopeless. (The US baseball analogue is something like, "even if you were a super-star as a kid and batted 1000 in Little League, you will be lucky to bat 300 in the major leagues... supposing you're lucky enough to get there at all")

A sort of "external" description of strategy is that the fundamental goal might/should be to "get to the end", rather than "being super-careful and getting as far as you can".

It is psychologically discomfiting, yes, ...

Another analogy is that "showing up is half the game". E.g., "showing up" at the scheduled time, rather than failing to show due to dithering about being ready...

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  • Thanks for the answer, Paul. I found these, especially, quite interesting of your part. "[...]a large part of the point is to learn how to cope with bodies of information which one has not been able, or had time to, "master"... but have to discuss/use, nevertheless." and "There's no simple answer, but there are obviously (as you perceive) many obvious failures of more-pedestrian line-by-line-reading approaches. Impossible." And yeah, how will I deal with this. In asking this same question I came here in hope for some insight. – Ezequiel Barbosa Aug 13 at 1:27
  • Now, you definitely have more experience than I do in the academia and I thank you for taking your time to answer the novice. Although not conclusive, it's good to see a parallel and as you put it, it is something common in academia that has to be handled. There's no way I can just ignore it. – Ezequiel Barbosa Aug 13 at 1:29
  • As well as the advice, of course. – Ezequiel Barbosa Aug 13 at 1:30

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