Reading for Classes in the Study of Religion

There are two starting points as a student sits down to read for a Religion class, and they are each linked with the other.

(1) There are many different ways to read a text, and so you have to decide which approach (described below) is appropriate to the assigned text.

(2) The student should ask: “Why was this text assigned in this class?” “What does the instructor expect me to get out of reading this text?”

Your goal as a reader is to appropriate the text: to make it your own by fitting it into the goals of the class, by linking it to what you know and what you are thinking about.

Reading texts appropriately
There are at least four different ways of reading a text. We might call them philosophy, newspaper, summary, and skim. Note that a given reading might be read using any of these four techniques, depending on the nature of the assignment and the nature of the course.

Philosophy. This will generally be a short text. The reader is expected to puzzle out every assertion, understand each argument, and be able to restate them and to analyze them. You should begin with a quick (two minutes or so) scan through the passage to determine what it is about, and where the argument is going. This is followed by careful reading, and you do well to stop every few paragraphs to take a note, or put something in the margin. At the end of each argument, you should write a paraphrase of what has gone on, and maybe a note suggesting implications of what the author has asserted or proved. Then at the end, write a short paragraph summarizing the steps of the argument and what was established. Alternatively, you might use this technique on a document to be used for research, and you should, on a copy, highlight, write marginalia, and write speculative notes about what could be done with the evidence in the text.

Newspaper. I refer here to a way of reading, not necessarily to a technique used just for newspapers. In these texts you should first scan the text to see what it’s about, then just read through the text and mark relevant passages and make a note or two at the end summarizing the point of the piece for the purposes of the course. A passage about the conquest of Jerusalem read for a history course might signify to you that this was done in 637 or that the natives helped the Arabs; for a religion course it might tell you that Jerusalem had a religious significance for Muslims or that the Muslims intended to reform the practices of the Christians.

Summary. Here the goal is to grasp the form of the piece more than specific details (although of course you will note important themes or facts). “Aha,” you will say. “This is what a hadith looks like.” Or, “Oh, so this is what Quran looks like: It has rhetorically balanced phrases, interrupted themes, pious interjections, and refers to God as ‘We.’” You will also note, let’s say, that God is refered to as “all-knowing,” or that here too Adam was tempted by a serpent. But the point is to know the genre, rather than to master every single detail in the text.

Skim. The “skim” technique has two parts, and most people usually forget the second one. First you skim the passage, but you need to summarize, in writing, what you’ve read following each section. Otherwise, what you read just evanesces.

PDFs. There is research showing that you retain more when you read from a page then you do when you read off the screen. For anything more than a page or two, print out the text and annotate

Posture. If it matters, there is also literature showing that you retain more if you are standing or sitting, than if you are reclining.

Remember: (1) There are many different ways to read a text, and so you have to decide which approach is appropriate to the assigned text. (2) You should ask: “Why was this text assigned in this class?” “What does the instructor expect me to get out of reading this text?” You need to annotate the text; you need, in some sense, to appropriate it.

Reading and lectures go together. The lecture can highlight certain readings, or supplement them, or the reading can provide the background without which the lecture is a kind of shadow. So it follows that you should read before the lecture and skim after the lecture, or vice versa; you should not defer to reading until long after the lecture.

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