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Why Should I Read for Your Class?

Written with Michael Brown

Mike: The comments on our last post were extremely interesting, partly because of the different ways commenters were thinking about how to motivate students to read, but partly because it was generally assumed that reading has a purpose outside of itself and therefore might be encouraged by enjoyable class discussion or incentives such as quizzes. I wanted to focus on another aspect of reading, appropriate to reading any text in the humanities and social sciences, not just theoretical studies.

Mary: I haven’t taught in five years, but when I did teach, I got very upset when students didn’t do the reading. I had spent a great deal of time choosing readings that I thought were powerful and provocative, and I was trying to make students stop and think about their preconceived notions about concepts like power, freedom, and justice. When they didn’t read, it made me question why I was teaching. My love for the texts led me to feel extremely disappointed when I was unable to convey this passion to my students.

Mike: I feel somewhat the same way when students don’t read on time. But even when they do, they might not be reading in a way that contributes to their ability to think critically (where that is different from having an opinion, debating, or judging). Perhaps students should give the benefit of the doubt to the teacher’s selection of texts. But if we believe, as I do, that education is designed to encourage a critical attitude, we should look at the quality of the activity of reading and not just at what students can say about the text on an exam or in an exchange of opinions.

What I want to emphasize is what is intrinsically motivating about a text, within the writing itself, rather than what extrinsic purpose is served by requiring students to read a given text for content alone. What students might gain from this is the capacity to ask questions and to appreciate how questions can be more important than answers.

Mary: Mike, I agree with you that process is more important than product. In this case, knowing how to read critically is more important than rushing to complete the reading.

This brings me back to a question I raised in our last post: What do professors hope to gain from their reading assignments? Why do you assign Volume 1 of Capital?  Why did I assign 1984 and Foucault’s Discipline and Punish? I used to begin my Contemporary Political Theory class with 1984 for many reasons, one being that to start with Discipline and Punish would have been disastrous.

When we are creating our syllabus and reading list, what factors come into play in our decision making? I realize that some courses have assigned texts and faculty are not able to choose the texts. Even so, when we assign chapters 1-3 in the first week, is this to complement our lectures, facilitate discussion, provide a common starting point, or some combination of these?

If we can think critically about why we assign the readings we do and what we hope to gain from these assignments, we can begin to think about the consequences of students skimming or skipping the reading altogether.

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7 Responses to “Why Should I Read for Your Class?”

  1. eacowan says:

    Give the students a reading test over the items assigned for that particular day. Make it an essay test that involves critical judgment, comparing, contrasting, listing, etc. That might spur the students to read their assignments. The test should be followed by discussion and analysis between the professor and the students about the text(s) at hand.

    Another thing: At the start of the course, encourage the students to form study groups. The word “student” derives from the present-participle of Latin “studere,” “studens,” stem and genitive “studentis”, meaning one who studies. Given the lassitude of present-day American students, they probably won’t do that unless the professor involves them in a Socratic discussion of the assigned texts. Make the students tell the professor what is in the assigned texts. (And, yes, my model is the kind of thing portrayed in the novel and TV series, “The Paper Chase”…) But don’t forget about those all-important SLO’s.
    – E.A.C.

  2. missoularedhead says:

    Since your conversation about why students don’t read and this one, I’ve been setting up a Western Civ class, and thinking about this issue. I find myself having to restrain my desire to give students far too many primary sources, and about the issue of the textbook itself.
    I assigned the textbook because, well, isn’t that what we’re supposed to do? And although I pride myself on finding solid but inexpensive textbooks, I’m questioning the need for one at all. I suppose it does provide students with a framework, but couldn’t that just as easily be done with an online wiki we fill in over the course of the semester?
    But I am wedded to the idea of the use of primary sources in a history class. They reveal so much more than a textbook ever could about how people thought about their world, even when in translation. But again, as I’ve said before, it’s more about how to read. What do I want them to get out of these documents, and what do they think they’re getting? If all they think is that it’s one more thing to do, then it’s sort of pointless. I have to sell them on it…my enthusiasm for the texts certainly helps (at least I hope it does), but even more, I want them to think about the texts as windows into the past, and into the way people thought in the past. I have to communicate that in some way.
    I hope my students don’t read this, but I really couldn’t care less if they skim the textbook. But the primary sources? THOSE I’m holding the line on.

  3. mark_r_harris says:

    The real “answer” to so many sincerely troubled pieces here at the Chronicle is the same: Teaching is futile, and you are operating in an existential void, so get used to that. Edward Gibbon said it perfectly more than 200 years ago: “The power of instruction is seldom of much efficacy, except in those happy dispositions where it is almost superfluous.” You will never “reach” most of your students, although you have to act as though you could. Many of them will never “do the reading,” because for whatever reason, they have no interest in doing so. Many of them are taking the class to get credit for taking the class, not to learn the material the class is ostensibly meant to convey. Thus it ever was; thus it ever will be. So you, the teacher, should do what you think is best — knowing in your heart of hearts that it makes all too little difference — and get on with the business at hand. As with so much of life, the effective path is difficult to find precisely because there is no effective path; the important thing is to develop the proper Stoic attitude that will see you through.

  4. jesor says:

    I’m reminded of two graduate courses I took, both with a similar reading load.
    In the first one we would come to class and debate and discuss the readings that were assigned. These readings would be a mix of journal articles and textbook chapters, all related to each other by the goals of the course that week. We were asked probing questions by the faculty designed to encourage a productive seminar where we would be asked to not only think critically about the material, but show that we had thought critically. We often were only able to discuss about half of the assigned material as myself and my cohort joyfully dissected and analyzed each conclusion.
    In the second course, we would be assigned a similar combination of textbook chapters and journal articles. When we arrived in class the faculty member would spend the majority of the time delivering a presentation on the next set of concepts to be covered and then answered questions about the theories or phenomena that had beed presented.
    To this day, I still remember and cherish the first course, and I can also tell you that the reading for that course was my first priority. I learned to enjoy reading research and textbooks from that course. The second was a chore and I found myself skimming for key facts and concepts rather than critically digesting the material. To this day I still feel that there are areas that I should have spent more time on. Honestly I regret not paying as much attention to that second course, but the blame does not lie entirely upon me as the student. When asked to prioritize my time as a graduate student, it was only logical that I focus on the course that was the most engaging, and where I would be immediately held the most accountable.

  5. sherbygirl says:

    I just did a PD about “Growing the Readers You Want”; it was excellent. The facilitator (if you want to call her that) was a literacy specialist, and pointed to the fact that many if not most of our students aren’t actually reading/have the measurable literacy skills needed to succeed in college. They have been trained in HS that they don’t need to read because the professor will just simply tell them what they need to know for the test in class the next day. But she also encouraged us, the professors and instructors, not to give up and “let the students drive the bus” on reading and their reading load. We then discussed strategies to make reading more meaningful and useful for the students, working to get their reading/literacy skills where they need to be.

    We know why we want them to read, we know how we want them to read, and we know that they are not doing either (at least not well). Unfortunately, as much as we all need to become more focused on writing no matter what we teach, we also need to focus on reading.

  6. learnmore says:

    Great article. I am a new instructor and I really gained some great insight from Mike and Mary regarding critical reading, how to motivate students to read, and faculty‘s critical selection of reading materials. I also found a wealth of great information and professional insight from the comments posted.

  7. lothlorien says:

    How about good old fashioned accountability? “Chas, what did Marx believe about the proletariat? No idea? You did not do the reading. Ah, I see. It’s okay, we will wait for your answer. You did not bring your book? I am sure Frank next to you would be happy to share. Go ahead. No Francis, I know you know the answer, but this is Chas’s turn.” You have to be willing to allow for up to five minutes of silence. When I have utilized that, reading increased rather quickly. Plus, I make sure that I integrate reading (or assumptions from the reading) into class sessions and tests.