Anonymous writes, “I’m already overwhelmed with work! It feels like it takes me one hour to read one page! Help!”
As an English, American studies, Black studies, and history major, I know a lot about the struggle of endless reading in the humanities. Your question thus prompts several responses, but I will limit my advice to four key points.
- Organize your time. You are the best judge of your learning style. Some students like to crank out work in a five-hour chunk of time, while others break their day up by alternating between two-hour bursts of work and leisure. Some students use a planner — monthly, daily, hourly (if you’re anything like me, you’ll use all three). The challenges of this are that sometimes our learning styles change or that we can’t always accommodate them. There have been semesters where I completely abandoned all three of my planners and instead relied on a daily to-do list app (I recommend “Do!” for all your listing needs). Some of those semesters, I didn’t have time to write everything down in three journals. Some trial and error might be necessary, but try to focus on pinning down an organizational tactic that works for you within the first few weeks of a new semester.
- Learn how to skim. During my first year, I thought I had to read every single word of every assigned text to fully understand the material. While I would encourage getting as much of the assigned reading as possible done, there are moments when it simply isn’t possible. In those moments, you have to rely on yourself to skim the material. One trick that often works for scholarly humanities readings is to first read the introduction, which will often map out the author’s main argument and the trajectory of the rest of the book. Then read the conclusion, which will often restate the author’s argument and summarize the results of their findings. If you have time, also look at the first and last paragraphs of every chapter. On this note, if you lack confidence in your ability to contribute to discussion without reading all of the material for a particular class (looking at you, philosophy), consider your strengths and weaknesses. Are you able to synthesize the material from your Black studies class well enough to form an insightful discussion question from just a single sentence in the reading? Perhaps you do all of your philosophy readings and only part of the readings for your Black studies class. No matter what, always make sure you bring points of discussion to the day’s class.
- Tap into your resources. We are fortunate enough to engage with extremely empathetic professors on the daily. While I can’t speak for every professor or every course, I think Amherst professors are generally open-minded and recognize each student as a holistic human being. Communicate with your professor that you’re struggling, and you’ll be surprised at the advice and strategies they can offer to help out! One semester, when I was working upwards of 40 hours a week, my professor told me which readings to focus on and which were less foundational to the course. I revisited some of the texts I couldn’t get to in a later semester, and I was extremely grateful for this professor’s flexibility. I was a much more engaged student having completed only half of the readings than if I had sacrificed my personal needs to get the reading done before the original deadline.
- Lastly, and most importantly: Shift your mindset. Much of the anxiety of low-income students comes from a need to prove oneself. Again, I can’t speak for every low-income student, but I can share my personal experience and the experiences of those close to me. I wasted much of my time here at Amherst trying to give to the institution as if I hadn’t earned my spot here, as if I had started from a place of incompetence and needed to work my way up. I spent much of my study sessions thinking of the “right way” to do the reading. I could also try the following bridging sentence just before it: Since much of the admissions process was spent trying to prove our level of intellect, many students come to college with the assumption that the purpose of college is to demonstrate knowledge one has already gleaned. The secret to college is this: You aren’t here to show off knowledge that you already have, such as figures or facts. I’m not suggesting those things aren’t important, but they’re not the destination. If they were, the entire conception of college as a transformative educational experience would need to shift. You’re here to expand your knowledge and apply it, to push your mind past its limits until you realize there’s no such thing. There’s a point at which you realize that you must make the institution work for you. College, despite its often uniform requirements, is not as one-size-fits-all as public discourse would have it seem. The reality is, you’re here to discover your interests, where your contribution feels most valuable, and what work feels most fulfilling to you. Remember that this is your education. Where do you find yourself feeling the happiest? What makes the most impact in your personal life? Where do you see yourself making the most impact? This is not to suggest that you should abandon or shut your mind to other endeavors. It’s to say that it’s okay if you can’t give 110 percent of yourself to every single thing that you’re doing. As you find your place here, you’ll begin to prioritize what you feel suits yourself best as a student, and that is ultimately exactly what you should do.
I hope I was able to address some of your concerns. Best of luck on your journey for the rest of the semester!
Kayah’s Korner: A Low-Income Student’s Guide To Navigating Amherst is an advice column for first-generation low-income students. Do you have a question? Ask here!