One of the most important things as a teacher is to challenge the idea that anyone should be able to do anything. It has always frustrated me that lecturers can think that reading academic articles is just something that students are meant to be good at, without really spending any time in addressing what is a weird and fairly unique kind of writing.
So in this article, I’ll break down some of the key steps. This is primarily focused on humanities articles but may be useful to other kinds of work too.
The form of a journal article or book chapter is usually that of a fairly long essay (usually around 6,000 words). While that might sound massive, it really isn’t, and it means that the writer can really only look at two or three aspects of an argument. So you will notice in most articles, the author will set up a big picture that locates the argument, and then immediately start to narrow it down to what they are going to do in this section.
If you’ve been asked to read something – then it’s likely it’s going to be highly relevant to your course or module.
It’s quite likely you will have to read a journal article at least twice, and probably more – to really get a clear overview of the shape of the argument, but ‘reading’ here is something slightly different than sitting back and enjoying a novel.
On your first read pay attention to the title which should start to clue you in to the focus of the argument or the article and the approach. The abstract should give you an absolute overview of the article and exactly what is going to be in it. It’s the most important part to decide whether an article is going to be useful to you or not.
Try and think about active reading: so you’re not reading like you’re reading a novel, you’re reading to find and understand the writer’s argument. Imagine you’re in a courtroom drama and the writer is the prosecutor trying to wrap up all the threads around a particular incident, and build an argument. To help make sense of this – it can be useful to make a list of keywords that the article seems to be structured around.
The best way for me is to make a list of questions that I want to be able to answer from this article: e.g. ‘why does the author think this view is correct?’, ‘what key questions are they trying to answer?’, ‘what is holding them back?’
Very often academic articles can be a bit overwhelming because they seem to be written in language which is not quite how anyone would speak. This is often called ‘academic register’, so you won’t see contractions (won’t, I’m, isn’t) and you will see very formal structures. If you are struggling to understand a sentence you have done nothing wrong.
You have done nothing wrong! This stuff is really hard!
Academic journal articles are generally structured like this:
Introduction Paragraphs (sometimes the first paragraph is a context or a problem, sometimes the argument goes straight in. Introducing the problem, issue, or idea that the article is about. It may tell us about something which has changed, a new issue or idea that needs a new approach.
A thesis statement – this is usually a single sentence which tells us exactly what the whole argument is about and sometimes why it is important
Contextual paragraphs – these explain the context of the argument, it might contain information about the literature or reading in the area. It might have to set up literature from multiple areas – in this case, fan studies, musical theatre studies, and the relationship between producers and social media. It should also suggest the methodology and approach that is being used to understand the problem.
Some kind of case study or close investigation and analysis. This allows the author to test out their argument, to show us how it helps us understand or frame a particular problem. This may demonstrate the thesis statement in action.
A conclusion or wrap up that draws up the argument and may suggest further areas of study.
When you are reading – it can be helpful to jot down your own questions. For example you might want to know – what exactly does the author mean by [this fancy term]. You may be able to work this out with further reads, but it’s fine if it still doesn’t make sense – bring those questions to your session.
When you read an academic journal article, you may not feel like you’ve understood every aspect of it. It’s important to note down what those questions are without judging yourself – you’re not supposed to know everything about a subject!
But I have no time…
So there is often a gap between what time lecturer’s might think students have, and what time you actually have, especially as we are in a cost of living crisis. This isn’t a perfect solution – but should help in dire circumstances.
- I have two minutes Read the title and the abstract: it’s not great but at least you have something.
- I have half an hour Read the abstract, introduction paragraph and conclusion paragraph. What questions are coming across in the material? What seems to be the main problem?
- I have an hour Do the above on your first read, and then read the first line of every paragraph. If you have time, try to read the introductory sections in more depth.
Remember – don’t judge yourself, this stuff is hard, and you’re doing a great job.