As the wise man Forrest Gump once stated ‘life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get’ and as it is with life, so it is with reading lists.
Now in an ideal world, exactly what you need to read for each seminar would be clearly marked, possibly even rated so that you know what is key, what is recommended and what is there in case you happen to be awake at 3.47 the morning before class and can’t get back to sleep. Chances are that when you open your reading list at the start of the semester this is not what you’re going to find, because as we pointed out to you in our post on lectures, the thing you have to keep in mind is that all tutors will do things slightly differently, and probably have slightly different expectations of what they require from you in return.
At the very least a tutor will expect you to come to class having read a sample of the material that is available, to have thought about it (not just copied out chunks of it) and to be prepared to share your thoughts on the issues that were raised by what you read – these could be questions, problems, links between concepts, things that seem to contradict each other, what we can learn about the same topic by using a different source base and so on. Don’t worry, we’ll come back to this issue of how to prepare for your seminars another time. What we want to see from you in a seminar is that you have gained sufficient knowledge to be able to engage with the ideas that are central to the topic that is being discussed, and the gateway to obtaining this knowledge is your reading list.
First before you even get to the reading material, the module handbook or reading list is likely to contain really important information that you shouldn’t overlook. It is here that you are likely to find things like:
- Your tutor’s contact details, when their office hour is and where their office is
- What the assignments are for the module, their weighting and their length
- Guidance about what is expected from you for tasks such as presentations, e.g. does your tutor want you to use PowerPoint or not, to produce a handout, and are they willing to copy that handout for you if you get it to them by a certain time?
- The seminar and lecture schedule
- Essay questions and guidance on submitting work
Don’t skip over this section but take time to look at it properly, noting important dates and highlighting things that are going to be significant later in the semester. Try and make this section your first point of call for basic queries about the module and only then get in touch with your tutor if you can’t find the answer. Bear in mind that your tutor is not just teaching you and is likely to be fielding questions and demands from a significant number of students; emailing them to ask questions that are answered in the module guide is not going to win you any brownie points!
The next section that you are likely to come across is a very general bibliography. This is probably a list of general texts that can be used time and again throughout the course or texts that are recommended as a starting point. Very few tutors will recommend that you buy a ‘text book’ – most lecturers will want you to read much more widely than this – but if you wanted to get an idea of the most basic texts for the course, this would be the place to look. You can always ask your tutor for more guidance if you did want to buy a book to prepare in advance if they haven’t made any specific recommendations.
Some tutors, in an effort to save space and trees, may only list the standard texts in this section. This does not mean that they should only be used at the start of the course and then forgotten but you should refer to this list throughout the module. You may even want to select 2 or 3 of the texts you find best to be your go-to books for a topic, perhaps even before broaching any set key reading for that particular week.
Many lecturers will also provide a list of online resources at the start of the reading list that will be useful for the whole course – again, be sure to come back and refer to them throughout. Staff are always on the lookout for good and reliable websites that they can recommend to students – collections of sources, audio-visual material and so on – if you come across something that you have found useful, tell you tutor so that they can share the knowledge.
Remember that there is an awful lot of rubbish online, but there is also a lot of great stuff; by using websites recommended by your tutor you can reduce the chances of you making use of unreliable material in your work. If you want to see how bad this can be, Google ‘Tree Octopus’ and let that be a lesson to you all.
It is probably about this point now that you will get to the heart of the reading list. Most tutors will offer you reading that is organised around a particular seminar topic, but you should also be prepared to be confronted with a list of works that are relevant for the whole module, but this will be quite unusual these days, particularly on a first year course. I’ll come back to some possible approaches to that kind of reading list later, but most of these general principles will still apply.
First things first, before you even open a book ask yourself some questions:
- What is the topic for that week, how does it relate to what you did last week and how does it fit in with any lectures that you may have as part of this module?
- What were the key questions or issues from the last seminar – are they going to be important to keep in mind when you doing your reading for this one?
- Were there things from last week that you didn’t quite understand? Do you need to go back over them so that this week’s reading makes sense?
Sometimes tutors will provide you with a short set of questions to keep in mind while you prepare, other times you will have to figure out for yourself what the central issues are. Either way, thinking for yourself about what the key concepts are and how they relate to what you’ve already done, is a good habit to get into.
Again, this is something that will vary from lecturer to lecturer but most will provide you with a list of key reading – usually 3 or 4 items. This does not represent the sum total of what you are expected to read but the starting point of what you need to read. A couple of things to bear in mind:
- Do not assume that because an item is ‘key reading’ that it will give you basic information on the topic. It may not be an introductory text on a particular subject but it may be an article or an interpretation that has caused controversy or that has proved very influential in the field. You may have to go back to the general texts before diving in to these works if you’re still trying to get your head around the general contextual material.
- You may find that if you have a seminar where there are 4 central issues, then there is a piece of key reading on each. Take this as an indicator of what the tutor is likely to discuss in the seminar but using the key reading as a base, build your knowledge on 1 or 2 of these themes in your additional reading.
- Tutors will show a distinct lack of sympathy if you come to class without having read these set texts. Many will be digitised and available on your VLE, for others you may actually have to go to the library but you must be organised enough to make sure that at the very least you have read what is listed here.
All well and good, but what should you do if there isn’t any key reading but you’re faced with just a long list of stuff? How do you decide what to prioritise?
- Has the tutor used asterisks to indicate what books they would prioritise over others?
- Look at how the list is constructed – is it in alphabetical order or has the tutor used some kind of ranking system in how they’ve compiled the list?
- If there isn’t key reading, are there key questions? Use the questions to decide what is important and select your reading from there.
- If there are no key questions, then go back to a general text and see how they discuss the topic, and then decide what to read based on the issues that you feel were raised.
- You could also use your lectures as guidance – what was the central issue of the lecture? Were there any historians that your lecturer specifically referred to and do they appear on the reading list?
If you’re still having problems, then get in touch with your tutor. For any guidance they offer to be helpful, this will have to be done several days in advance of the class!
So, for most modules, you will be looking at 3-4 items of key reading, but you will be expected to have read quite a bit more, maybe even the same amount again, in preparation for the seminar. For second and third years, the amount of additional reading you will be expected to do will be even more substantial. What do you do after you’ve read the key material?
If your tutor has offered key reading, they will probably have another section of additional reading which is likely to be much longer. How you approach this section is really up to you and you have a number of options:
- Are there issues or arguments that you feel you’ve not quite grasped?
- Are there debates in the literature that you want to know more about?
- Is there material on the additional reading list that just looks interesting?
- Are there items there that correspond to your own interests, that perhaps haven’t been discussed in the key reading?
Base your additional reading around what you want to know more about but always keep in mind how what you’re reading relates to the topic of the seminar.
Practically, you may find that what you read from this additional list is determined by what is still in the library as the material here is less likely to be digitised. One way around this is to read more journal articles. This has a number of benefits:
- Articles tend to start with a brief summary of the literature. Use this as a way of introducing yourself to the debates that are taking place, how the field may have moved on and who is writing on what subject. You can use the footnotes from this kind of review section to locate other relevant texts.
- Articles are not only shorter than books but they tend to be on much more specific topics. If you’re wanting in-depth discussion of an issue, you will probably be better off reading a couple of articles on the topic than ploughing through a more general text.
- Journals often publish articles around a specific theme; this is a good way of seeing how different historians approach the same topic and learning about not only the debates surrounding that topic but also how using different sources can influence the analysis you make of it.
This said you shouldn’t neglect books completely and things like GoogleBooks and other such digitisation projects may mean that you can read the relevant chapter even if there are no copies left in the library. When using books for seminar prep, bear in mind that it’s not very often that you will be expected to have read the whole thing! Learn how to use tools such as indexes and tables of contents to maximise the efficiency of your reading (watch this space for our top tips on how to read effectively). Also, try to strike a balance in what you read between important classics and up to date scholarship – be wary of anything older than you are unless you’ve been told to read it as a foundational text for a particular topic. On core courses where there may be several hundred of you, you will need to be especially organised. Don’t leave your reading until the last minute or else you’ll get landed with the book that no one else liked the look of. Chances are it will be 600 pages long and on peasants…
Other reading list quirks that you may encounter:
- Do you have to prepare a seminar presentation? Where is the reading to help you do that – has the tutor incorporated it into the seminar reading for that week or is there a thematic section at the back of the reading list? Again, make sure you figure this out in good time and if there doesn’t appear to be any reading on your presentation topic, either get in touch with the tutor to ask for recommendations or see what you can find using your own research skills.
- The same goes with essay questions – is there a separate essay reading list? Is this a part of the reading list or is it just on the VLE?
- Has the tutor recommended novels, or plays or poetry or possibly even films either from or about the era you are studying? Use these sources to supplement your reading throughout the term.
If you are literally presented with a long list of material with no breakdown of what is relevant for what weeks and which material is more important, many of these pointers apply such as thinking about key questions, using general texts, etc. but you could also try reorganising the reading list in a way that makes sense for you. For example, you could try cutting and pasting items into a new document or you could go through the list with different coloured highlighters to distinguish works on various topics.
Before you even get to the stage of being able to make informed choices about what you want or need to read, you need to make sure that you can use the library catalogue and any databases such as JSTOR so that you can actually physically locate the material. Don’t just rely on material that may have been digitised but get help from a librarian if you’re having issues.
Familiarise yourself with how your tutor uses the VLE if at all; is reading posted there, do they use that space to share information regarding missing books, or potential changes in what they want you to read, do they post information on books or articles that may have been published since the course started there, is there a forum space so that you can share your ideas or problems with the reading with your classmates, and so on.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that not all tutors will provide you with a hard copy of the reading list – make the decision to either download it onto your own computer or drive space or to print it off. Personally, I would go for the latter because it’s easier to note things like classmarks or recommendations that your tutor may make in class on the thing itself rather than on scraps of paper or random Word files.
My top 5 things to remember are:
- A seminar is only going to be worthwhile if you come fully prepared to participate, and as a History student that will involve hours of reading. Get used to it!
- As a very general rule of thumb, you should be primarily concerned with reading the most current scholarship. As my students quickly find out, Soviet history written before 1989 or after 1991 is often very different. Remember that scholarship is not only impacted upon by the social and cultural context in which it was written or by what was historically ‘trendy’ at the time, but also by what sources historians can get their hands on, and things like the fall of regimes, wars and the (de)classification of documents can all impact on this. This doesn’t mean that older material is worthless but you must be aware of factors such as these that could possibly influence its accuracy or its argument.
- The reading list is just the starting point not a comprehensive list of everything that’s been published on the topic. Get into the habit of doing keyword searches on catalogues and databases, see what else historians who you’ve particularly engaged with have published, and if you’re feeling particularly old-school, you can browse the library shelves at the relevant classmark – you’ll be amazed at what you can find that way!
- You can ask your tutor for guidance. The vast majority of lecturers would rather give advice on what to read than have you turn up for their class entirely unprepared BUT you need to take responsibility for your own learning and not expect them to simply give you the answers. Remember that part of a historian’s skillset is being able to find relevant material and that applies to secondary reading as well as primary sources.
- Finally, don’t be afraid to follow your own interests on a subject. Once you’ve conquered the key reading for that week, look to see what else is listed, and read what interests you the most. After all, this is your degree.