One of the biggest stumbling blocks in your academic career will come when you’re faced with a text you can’t understand. It won’t be because it’s poorly written, or because you’re stupid, or because the author’s stupid, but because some academic texts are just difficult to read. Some even intentionally. Learning strategies to help you cope with this, and to access the author’s intent and content, will benefit you greatly to developing a keen eye for applying theory throughout your degree.
The first time I read through post-modernist theory, I didn’t know why the authors were making my life so hard, nor what it was that I was supposed to be understanding from them or if I should even care. Reading summaries of what the authors had said, I became more frustrated that these theories were brilliant, but inaccessible. Realising that inaccessibility is a hurdle to overcome, and not a road block, can help you appreciate a text’s content. Breaking texts down into paragraphs, or natural breaks in the structure, allows you to ask two questions: what is the author saying, and what is the author doing. Are they discussing gender in Shakespeare? Why are they using Viola at this point in the text? Asking questions of the text constantly will allow you to follow the structure of the argument better, and not be distracted by the sometimes confusing syntax or structure.
Some lecturers will advise you not to read summaries. Some supervisors will spot very quickly if you’ve lifted materials from other people’s criticism of core texts. In spite of this, however, reading other people’s summaries or criticisms can be incredibly helpful to your understanding of a difficult text. It is important to not uncritically take on board a summary or critique without having an original interpretation, as this will be found out very quickly, but summaries are a door to a greater level of understanding. If you’re a humanities student tasked with understanding Deleuze and Guattari, reading A Thousand Plateaus a million times might not get you any closer to understanding their central thesis if you don’t know where to begin. Summaries will guide you as to what the key point of a text is.
Perhaps an obvious point, but one well worth keeping in mind. You might breeze through Adiche’s Americanah but find that reading a page of Woolf’s The Waves takes you as long to understand as a whole novel. Not all texts will take the same energy and mental processing as others do, and understanding that your strategy for reading must adapt to the text is necessary for making sure you do the reading you need to do. Some texts can be read in one sitting and stay in the memory, while others you will need to break down paragraph by paragraph and write copious notes to understand. Tied into this is understanding the cultural lexicon of a text; knowing that Bulgakov wrote in satire of the Soviet government and Fitzgerald wrote in response to the Great Depression can help you contextualise texts to give way to greater understanding.
The reason other people’s summaries are so digestible and accessible is because they are meant to be that way. They are meant to offer simplified representations of complex ideas for the sake of conveying an argument. Writing summaries of texts you have read will force you to confront fully whether or not you have understood a text. Writing a response to a text will force you to think through not only what the text says, but what it does; how has the author made you change, or not change, your mind? Was the author convincing? Not only will this help you understand the text in the present, but it will allow you to understand the text in the future when it comes to reviewing your notes.