I often find that Princeton professors assume that we all know how to “read critically.” It’s a phrase often included in essay prompts, and a skill necessary to academic writing. Maybe we’re familiar with its definition: close examination of a text’s logic, arguments, style, and other content in order to better understand the author’s intent. Reading non-critically would be identifying a metaphor in a passage, whereas the critical reader would question why the author used that specific metaphor in the first place. Now that the terminology is clarified, what does critical reading look like in practice? I’ve put together a short guide on how I approach my readings to help demystify the process.
Put on your scholar hat. Critical reading starts before the first page. You should assume that the reading in front of you was the product of several choices made by the author, and that each of these choices is subject to analysis. This is a critical mindset, but importantly, not a negative one. Not taking a reading at face value doesn’t mean approaching the reading hoping to find everything that’s wrong, but rather what could be improved. Continue reading In Between the Lines: A Guide to Reading Critically
Recently I have been thinking a lot about the environments in which I work best, and I have made some important self discoveries that have allowed me to be more focused and productive in my work. A couple months ago I wrote a post about how my peers have shaped my Princeton experience. I’m someone who values social interaction, and I think dialogue and exchange of ideas are absolute necessities within an academic environment. Conversations with my friends can be a saving grace when I’m in an especially tough spot. However, this semester I’ve given myself a lot more time to be alone, and that has contributed positively to my Princeton experience.
I’m not overly stressed right now … and it feels weird. Last semester, I got used to the combo of my procrastination and taking three seminars, so I was always drowning in last minute readings and response papers. But this semester, things changed: I’m deliberately managing my time better because I don’t want to experience the frenzy I went through in the fall.
It feels odd not to be under crushing stress. It’s almost as if I fear things will get gradually harder and I won’t be able to keep up. That said, I discovered I really like this calm state I’m in. I’m more focused and engaged, probably because I’m making an effort not to put myself in the same procrastination- stress-burning out cycle. My work is getting more demanding each week, but I’m still maintaining an equilibrium.
I realized I’d like to maintain this mentality as long as possible, especially when midterms and finals weeks hit. Here are some tips I have–whether you feel crushing pressure or just feel like you’re coasting through–on how to stay relaxed and optimistic even as your work becomes more demanding.
While listening to an astrophysics podcast, I stumbled into an epiphany about my course of study at Princeton. It was Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s StarTalk, and two female astrophysicists had been invited on the show to discuss women in the field. About halfway through the episode, I asked myself why I wasn’t pursuing astronomy as a major, especially since I’ve had a fascination with space since childhood. I circled back to high school for an explanation. I had gotten an A- in pre-calculus for the year, and since I was immersed in the high school mindset of perfectionism, I convinced myself I wasn’t good enough at math to pursue anything in the STEM fields. My fellow PCUR blogger Vidushi wrote about how this same feeling I had of lacking “innate brilliance” creates gender gaps in fields like astrophysics. She writes, “Women who don’t see themselves as innately brilliant mathematicians, musicians, or philosophers often do not give themselves the chance to pursue these disciplines.”
When it came time to apply to Princeton, I looked for things I thought I’d be “better” at, and that’s when I started looking into social sciences. I was attracted to the interdisciplinary nature of politics and had always enjoyed French in high school, so I decided to pursue these once I got to college. This course of study has not been easy by any means; however, I sometimes felt like I had settled into these fields because I wasn’t confident enough to pursue other ones. Complaints from my peers about the difficulty of the math and physics courses necessary to study astrophysics overwhelmed me, so I denied myself the opportunity to explore them. I also had this realization at the end of sophomore fall–right before having to declare a concentration in the spring. If you’re struggling with what you want to study at Princeton, hopefully I can give you some encouragement!
How many times have you had to research a topic outside of your area of interest? Whether you are fulfilling a distribution requirement or testing out a new field, developing sound arguments in areas that are new to you can be intimidating. With that in mind, I’ve compiled some tips that always help me when my I’m especially unfamiliar with my research topic:
Look for a rebuttal argument: Rebuttal articles usually clarify and outline the argument you’re researching in order to argue against it. This helps clarify some of your own ideas while also giving material to complicate your own arguments. I do this early in the research process, as it helps me solidify a direction with my paper when I have a lot of general ideas. I recently used this technique while writing a paper on Evangelical
environmentalism. I struggled to develop an argument until I read a text explaining why this framework would not be economically feasible. I used this rebuttal in conjunction with articles on viable economic models of Evangelical environmentalism to help me jumpstart my argument. Without the rebuttal article, I would have had a less clear understanding of the topic and would have approached my paper with a more limited perspective. Continue reading Writing Out of Your Comfort Zone: How to Sound Like an Expert on an Unfamiliar Topic
I recently got back a midterm essay and, as it turns out, I didn’t do so well. I didn’t give myself enough time to fully flesh out my arguments, and ended up with lots of logic gaps as a result. I was pretty disappointed, but I realized that I could turn this setback into a learning opportunity. So for the final essay, I chose to develop the ideas from this paper, working through its problems and retooling arguments. With the process of rewriting in mind, I’ve compiled a few tips to help you revise drafts and papers.
Talk to your professor. This might be intuitive, but don’t revise your paper using only your professor’s notes in the margins. Ask in person what worked and what didn’t so you can get a better sense of where to go. Then continue from there.
Start thinking about your thesis. Be honest with yourself, do you agree with it? Is it logical? My thesis was a huge part of what detracted from my essay, because I didn’t properly outline my ideas or prove the argument I had made. Think about how you could tweak your main argument relative to the evidence you already have so you avoid writing an entirely new paper.
Recently ranked the best university in the country by US News and World Report, Princeton has a lot to gloat about. Yet on the list of resources and opportunities that make Princeton exceptional, rarely are the students themselves mentioned. While my classes here have been enlightening, my relationships with classmates have had the greatest impact on me.
Every day, Princeton students take in a wealth of knowledge, and it’s only natural that we share it with each other. I have a friend interning at the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab down the road who discussed her project with me over dinner. She’s looking at data from four different satellites orbiting Earth to study magnetic reconnection events, or in other words, when solar winds (streams of high-energy charged particles from the sun) disrupt the magnetic field around Earth. I had never been exposed to this field, but in just a few minutes was able to understand several technical terms from a field of study completely different from mine.
And yet, most of my conversations aren’t outright academic. Amongst friends, there’s no pressure to turn conversations into precept. I’ve found that this balance between casual and academic actually aids my studies.
After looking at the midterm essay prompt for my French class, I was immediately overwhelmed by the amount of readings I would have to review and analyze. Dozens of articles, books, and excerpts loomed on the syllabus, and I had no idea where to begin. I often run into this problem. Synthesis is a meaningful combination of several sources, and can be difficult to do when everything seems important. The pressure to come up with a unifying and relevant thesis makes these initial stages of finding information even more stressful. Having experienced this struggle several times, I’ve come up with a few ways to organize sources that will hopefully be useful in the writing process!
Writing begins with a research question. That question might come from a given prompt, or from a personal interest. Either way, it provides a loose focus that will help eliminate irrelevant information when you’re reviewing and searching for sources. To speed up this process, make sure that if you’re reviewing sources you’ve already read in the semester, you’re just reviewing and not re-reading! You’ve already done the brunt of the work: simply skim through the readings to select ideas and passages that relate to your research question. Also, don’t feel pressured to use every source you’ve skimmed. Ultimately sources should function to bolster your own conclusions, so instead of crowding your paper with them, further analyze the ones most relevant to your research focus.
I made a goal this year to take more time to relax and gain new perspectives outside of campus. This means different things for different people. For me, it entails jumping on opportunities to step away from the insulation and pressures of Princeton. As much as I love going to NYC and Philly for daycations, SEPTA and NJ Transit costs add up, both in time and money.
Instead, I’ve been actively looking for alternative ways to escape campus, without ever setting foot off of it. Let me explain.
Since I study French and International Relations, my schedule is packed with humanities and social sciences classes. This leaves little room for natural science courses. Therein lies a problem—I’ve had a passion for space since I was a kid. But I don’t have the room in my schedule or the prerequisite knowledge necessary to take an astrophysics course. Solution: I bought several books to feed my curiosity. Reading about astronomy allows me to momentarily escape the limits of my Princeton schedule while cultivating a longtime personal interest.
It’s a few weeks into the semester, yet your summer abroad feels like it was eons away. The good news is your international experiences will fit right in on campus.
I spent four weeks this summer taking French 207 in Aix-en-Provence, France. Since this was a Princeton course, it was rigorous, but also enlightening. I wanted to bring that same immersive and novel environment back to campus and build upon it. Here are the four ways that I’ve found to be most helpful.
Take a course through one of Princeton’s several language departments to maintain or further develop your language skills. I’m currently enrolled in two French courses this semester. Not quite France, but it keeps my skills in practice.
Language courses are opportunities for you to form relationships with peers interested in the same foreign subjects as you. Form a study group to practice, share your international experiences, and get some meaningful discussions out of the process.
Didn’t enroll in a language class? Take a seat at a language table at dinner—they’re welcoming of any level! And of course enroll in a class in the spring!