By Katherine Duke '05

Hello, my name is Katherine, and I am a recovering habitual highlighter. Nine years ago, when I started my first year at Amherst, I got into the habit of studying with a hot pink or neon green or fluorescent orange marker in my hand, so that I could drag it across any lines of text that struck me as particularly important. It made me feel accomplished and scholarly—I could look back through the pages and see that I had really studied. It took me several semesters and many defaced books to realize that merely changing the color of what I’d read didn’t help me very much when I went back to re-read it later, and it was especially unhelpful when I found that I’d designated three quarters of every page as “particularly important.”

If, back during my class’s Orientation, I could’ve attended the Writing Center’s panel discussion on “Aggressive Reading”—as many of this year’s new students did this past Thursday afternoon in Porter Lounge—I could’ve started my college career with the knowledge that highlighting is, in the words of Thalheimer Professor of English and Women’s and Gender Studies and Director of the Writing Center Michele Barale, “a crutch.” Merely highlighting is too passive, she said while moderating the panel; it can’t help a reader truly understand a passage or remember why it is important.   

As it does every year, this year’s Orientation has provided new students with opportunities to learn about all kinds of things. There have been mini-courses on improv comedy and the Argentine tango. Students have met in Valentine with nutritionist Caren Weiner, Director of Dining Services Charlie Thompson and new executive chef Jeremy Roush to discuss their questions and concerns about meals in the dining hall. Coming up are info sessions on “Living Green at Amherst” and on volunteering with Habitat for Humanity. But I think the “Aggressive Reading” panel is the only event that might actually have helped me get better grades throughout college.

On the panel, senior philosophy major Rose Lenehan ’11 advised the first-years to “mark up everything you read” and to try to pick a balanced variety of courses each semester to avoid being overloaded with hundreds of pages of reading from every class every week. Elvis Mujic ’11 warned them that they will probably have to change some of their habits from high school and learn how to prioritize certain reading over the rest when it’s impossible to do it all. “‘Reading aggressively’ is reading with a purpose,” said Margaret Hunt, professor of history and women’s and gender studies, explaining that reading in preparation for a class discussion should be approached differently from reading in preparation for an exam, and that preparation to write a paper requires the deepest reading and most detailed note-taking. She recommended categorizing and copying bits of information into different columns and then drawing connections between the columns. Professor J.P. Baird of the psychology and neuroscience departments spoke of the particular advantages and challenges of science reading and noted that writing down information, in addition to just reading it, helps our brains to encode and store the information. He held up one of his own textbooks from his freshman year—regrettably filled with highlighting.

“I, too, was a serial highlighter,” confessed Assistant Professor of Russian Boris Wolfson. “Uggh, it still hurts.” Wolfson pointed out a few lessons that all readers can learn from the experiences of students who are struggling to master foreign languages, as well as from the ways in which youngsters (such as his own child) learn to read in the first place.

Barale brought up the importance of finding the right locations for reading, where one can be free from distractions but not so comfortable as to fall asleep. And if “your butt begins to hurt after a while,” said Wolfson, “that’s a sign that you’ve been reading too much.” It’s a good idea to take breaks and move around every so often.

During the question-and-answer period, a transfer student raised her hand. “I was really excited to come to this panel, because I thought it was going to be [about] how to skim entire textbooks,” she said, prompting laughs all around. “It’s kind of distressing that reading is this painful for everyone.”

“Reading is not a smooth experience,” Hunt acknowledged. “It’s an experience punctuated by moments when you have to really push yourself.”

Baird agreed: “Reading is a craft.”    

Barale adjourned the discussion by welcoming the students to “the life of the mind”—to years of passionate struggle with words and ideas. “The life of the mind is hell!” Hunt declared, but she was smiling.