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.