Saturday, December 30, 2017

How to Read Academic Texts

Academic reading is a specific skill. It's a lot different than savoring your favorite novel or poem. It requires speed, precision, and critical thinking. But, once you acquire this skill, you'll be well-equipped for life as a student. Need help learning how to read academically? My mentor Kathleen Flake has just the tips for you!

(printed with permission from Kathleen Flake)

Academic material is not meant to be read. It is meant to be ransacked and pillaged for essential content. This means that you should never just sit down to read academic works as if they were novels or magazine articles. Academic study is not suited to such an approach, and the chances are you could spend hours reading and then not have a clue what you have been reading about (does that sound familiar?).

Rule #1 Never read without specific questions you want the text to answer. If you want your reading to stay in your memory, you must approach your text with a list of questions about the particular information you are after, and search the text for the answers to those questions. Don't just read with the hope that an answer will appear.

Rule #2 Never start reading at page 1 of the text. If there is a summary, a conclusion, a set of sub-headings, or an abstract, read that first, because it will give you a map of what the text contains. You can then deal with the text structurally, looking for particular points, not just reading ‘‘blind'' and so easily getting lost. Always keep in mind what you need, what is relevant to the question you are asking the text.

Rule #3 Think critically as you read. In reading academic texts you need to develop a personal (but nevertheless academic and rational) response to the article/ theory/ chapter through
(1) developing an understanding of the content and
(2) evaluating and critiquing the article. Therefore, before reading a text closely, read the introduction or abstract and skim read the text to give you a preliminary idea of what it is about. Then read it closely and critically. Some questions to help you read critically are:
a. What are the main points of this text?
b. Can you put them in your own words?
c. What sorts of examples are used? Are they useful? Can you think of others?
d. What factors (ideas, people, things) have been included? Can you think of anything that has been missed out?
e. Is a particular bias or framework apparent? Can you tell what 'school of thought' the author belongs to?
f. Can you work out the steps of the argument being presented? Do all the steps follow logically?
g. Could a different conclusion be drawn from the argument being presented?
h. Are the main ideas in the text supported by reliable evidence (well researched, non-emotive, logical)?
i. Do you agree or disagree with the author? Why?
j. What connections do you see between this and other texts?
k. Where does it differ from other texts on the same subject?
l. What are the wider implications——for you, for the discipline?

Rule #4 Treat critical reading as a skill which can be developed through practices, such as:
a. Taking notes of the text's main ideas and adding your own responsive comments.
b. Talking to others about what you have read.
c. Relating a given text to others in the syllabus by identifying similar or contrasting themes.
d. Explaining what the text means to a non-specialist and noting what you would have to add to make it intelligible? (This will help you to see the underlying, unstated assumptions.)
e. Asking yourself: "Is it possible to disagree with any of this?"
f. Asking yourself: 'How can I convince my peers/teachers that I understand what this is about?'

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Bingeworthy: The Americans

"Only duty and honor are real, Mischa. Isn't that what we were told?"
Irina in The Americans

Happy Fall Semester, Friends!

This summer has been a whirlwind. I spent a week studying theology with a bunch of high school students, enjoyed a weekend thinking about the American church & public life with a bunch of pastors, visited my alma mater, and remodeled a 1950s bungalow. AND of course I watched Wonder Woman. Amidst the chaos, I managed to write a bit and get some research done. But I am way, way behind on t.v. watching and recommending! Mea culpa.

This spring I'll be teaching American Church history, and to prepare for it, today's post is about one of my recent favorites: The Americans.

At first glance, The Americans - a show about deep-cover Soviet spies in the 1980s who try to undermine the U.S. government while living under cover as a "normal" American nuclear family in Washington, DC -  might seem like a strange choice for class about Christianity in America. But The Americans offers watchers an opportunity to think about Civil Religion, a key concept in American religious studies, from a distinct point of view.

The term American civil religion describe the rituals, holidays, cultural events/places/spaces drawn from our national history that create a religion of America. This religion has key beliefs ("all men are created equal," citizens are guaranteed "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness) that amount to a kind of orthodoxy, and key practices (saluting the flag, standing for the national anthem, observing Independence Day, etc.) that are a kind of orthopraxy. The idea is that to be American, one must participate in the beliefs and practices of American civil religion.

The Americans offers us a chance to observe American civil religion from the perspective of those who believe that this religion is unorthodox and in fact a great evil that must be fought at any cost.... or is it? Through the eyes of "Elizabeth" (aka Nadezhda, played by Keri Russell), we see someone who works to maintain a purist vision of the Communist Party, and who is and disgusted by the materialism, comfort, and social injustice that surrounds her. Her partner/husband "Phillip" (aka Mischa/Mikhail, played by Matthew Rhys), on the other hand is not so sure. He finds that he actually enjoys American culture and he is reluctant to leave the life he has built there. After all, what's so bad about Coca Cola & McDonald's (this is the 80s - people don't hate these institutions yet)?

The Americans is about intrigue and global political strife, and it stands up very well as a political thriller. But it is most interesting when it parses out the tensions between Elizabeth and Phillip as they wrestle with whether or not they have been fully baptized into American civil religion. Elizabeth believes that her convictions (coupled with her brutal ability to extinguish human life on behalf of the Soviet Union) are enough to create a distinction between herself, her children, and American civil religion. The equally ruthless Philip wonders if the practice of being American has made him, and indeed their entire family, true believers.

What does it mean to be religious? Is religion about beliefs? Or practices? And what does it mean to be American? Is it enough to have citizenship, or must one convert? These questions and more are at the heart of one of my favorite summer binges.