Reading Lists and Primary Literature

In my post last week about advice for undergraduates, Katie Weakland shared a comment that I thought was particularly apt:

I suggest meeting your major professors early in your career – your first semester – and asking them to mentor you and/or let you do research with them. The early you can get your feet wet with research the better. I also suggest reading the primary literature in your field as soon as possible.

Meeting your professors and starting research early are both very important (I have stories I could share for each), but for the moment, I’m going to focus on primary literature.

Last week, one of the undergraduates I met is an undergraduate English major (a junior) who is thinking about graduate school. [Digression: her professors have given her a copy of Thomas H. Benton’s “Just Don’t Go.” Benton make some good points, and I recommend undergrads read it, but I also recommend looking at the responses (and responses, and responses) from other Christian humanities faculty that we’ve posted at the main ESN page. /digression]

We got to talking about reading lists, which were a passion of mine as an undergraduate, and turned out to be a passion for her, too. I was an English major as an undergrad, too, so I pointed her to some of the reading lists that had helped me over the years:

  • David Lyle Jeffrey’s Beginners’ Christian Bookshelf, which ranges from classics of theology to contemporary poetry
  • Stanford’s reading list for qualifying exams for the English PhD
  • The ESN Core Bibliography
  • GFM’s general bibliography for Christian academics
  • Two reading lists from my time at Regent: a biblio (PDF, 54 kb) for new students and a biblio (PDF, 158 kb) for a course they offered called “The Christian Life” which was, at that time, organized around 6 very important questions

(On those last two, both of those are PDF scans of my personal copies, so you might get some “value-added” insight, like the price for a new copy, in Canadian dollars, in 2000. If I become famous, feel free to use the scans in your biography of me. :)

Katie’s comment got me to thinking: because I was an English major and later did a master’s degree in theology and poetry, I have a pretty good idea of the primary literature in those areas. But I’m pretty ignorant elsewhere. I have no idea what the primary literature in, say, history, or chemistry, or sociology might be. I also wonder how well undergraduate programs communicate the importance of primary literature. So, here’s my question for the week:

What is the primary literature in your field? Are there readings lists (online or that you’ve assembled yourself) that undergraduates ought to read deeply before or during their graduate programs?

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Micheal Hickerson

The former Associate Director for the Emerging Scholars Network, Micheal lives in Cincinnati with his wife and three children and works as a web manager for a national storage and organization company. He writes about work, vocation, and finding meaning in what you do at No Small Actors.

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    Janine commented on May 19, 2009 Reply

    I’m an advanced PhD student in history, and would say that it’s not at all about content knowledge when you are deciding if you want to do the advanced degree in our field. In fact, being too book-oriented can be a major liability. A number of my friends (at least seven or eight) have dropped out of humanities programs here in recent years to do degrees in Library Science. They turned out to be too research-loving for the field. The test, I think, is whether you love your subject enough that you’d be willing to teach it to prisoners and middle school kids and old men in the community, for 30K/ year. It’s not enough to be interested in your subject; you have to be driven intellectually by little else. Some books of great artistic endeavor in my field of history include Gordon Wood’s _The Radicalism of the Revolution_, George Chanuncey’s _Gay New York_, Matthew Frye Jacobson’s _Roots Too_. However, I think the real test of whether you ought to go to grad school is if you can still love your job (and your life) if you only got to describe these books to people in order to keep them awake. Lots of people are dropping out of grad school these days (with a tight strain on funding and people \giving up\), and those of us who stay in usually have a zeal for the knowledge of the field that transcends \research.\

    Dave Snoke commented on May 20, 2009 Reply

    I have said before, the only reason to get a Ph.D. in anything is because you simply love the subject matter and want to go as far as you can in it. There are no good career reasons to do it, statistically. Becoming a professor is like making it in professional sports.

    In physics, I would say that you need to get all the quantum mechanics and other advanced courses you can. This is a problem primarily for students at small colleges. Consider doing a 3+2 program where you finish at a major school, or else get the a professor to do a directed reading course with you. Also, every physics major should learn how to program in a line-based language like C or Fortran.

    If your department has a colloquium series, attend it so you learn what are hot topics in the field.

    Kelly commented on May 20, 2009 Reply

    I majored in Biochem in undergrad, and am finishing up my Ph.D. in Pharmacology. The problem with the sciences is that the primary literature is HUGE! There are more journals published on more subjects than anyone could have ever thought was possible.

    That being said, getting used to primary literature during undergrad will be helpful (though I must admit, painful). Start by going to and looking for review articles on topics that interest you (for instance, diabetes and obesity or cancer stem cells or HIV vaccines). Once you find a good review, you can always follow rabbit trails in the references, and who knows where you will end up! Subscribing to news feeds from professional organizations is also a good way to get an idea of what’s going on in that field.

    The other possible problem is that not all universities subscribe to the journals. If you live near a major research university (like Penn State, VA Tech, Penn, etc…) take a trip to their library – once you’re logged on to their networks, almost all of the articles are available online.

    Micheal Hickerson commented on May 20, 2009 Reply

    Thanks for the great responses – I wasn’t expecting a push-back on the very idea of “primary literature,” but that’s why I turn to the community rather than trusting in my own wisdom!

    Your comment about sports is apt. Joseph Epstein wrote an essay about the food of New York for the WSJ called Good Grub and the Spirit of Capitalism, asking why New York City has so many more world-class restaurants than his home city of Chicago. His armchair explanation is “super” capitalism:

    I don’t know if Thurman Arnold or Joseph Schumpeter or any of the other theorists of the inner mechanics of capitalism have hitherto spoken of it, but there is, in capitalism, operating at a sufficiently intense level, a spirit of competition that can bring out the best in everyone, at least in those realms where you cannot fake it. Something similar operates in professional sports — the Major Leagues, the NBA and the NFL. Room exists only for the best.

    Something akin is happening in academia, I think, at least at the top end of colleges and universities. (And, like professional sports, there is a rapidly growing, poorly compensated “minor league” of people who work primarily for “the love of the game.” Unlike sports, though, the “objective” measurements of talent, ability, work ethic, productivity, etc., are far less clear or standardized, people almost never go into academia with the assumption that it will likely be a time-limited season of their life, and the coaching/mentoring apparatus is far less developed. What would the academic equivalent of a hitting coach be? Or a batting practice pitcher? But I digress…)

    Janine and Kelly, you make excellent points about the difficulty (and probable futility) in mastering such enormous amounts of material. I remember from my undergrad years some critic remarking that Milton was probably the last person to have mastered the complete literary canon of his day, in the West, anyway. (Harold Bloom might disagree.) So, perhaps rather than extensive reading for content, maybe a better question would be:

    What is the most strategic reading for an undergrad? And, alongside it, what are the most strategic research and study skills to develop?

    So, here’s two ideas that might get rejected: in English lit., the “return on investment” in reading Shakespeare and the King James Bible is perhaps the greatest, because of their influence on the following 400 years. And, if you’re an American, a good paperback history of England also has a huge ROI, so that you can put a social context around the literature.

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