We seem to have reached the point in the summer when the emails start to come in from students asking for the reading lists for their fall classes. At first glance, such requests might seem welcome—after all, who wouldn’t welcome such signs of enthusiasm and eagerness? The desire to read ahead is supposed to signal ambition and achievement. The early bird catches the worm; the first to the buzzer wins the round; the first to the table gets the bacon, etc., etc., etc.
And yet, I find myself deeply ambivalent about such requests not because I think that my students should bow to my every whim or because I refuse to acknowledge that they have other responsibilities and obligations, but rather because the act of reading ahead is often exceptionally damaging to our work together in the classroom.
Such a claim probably seems counter-intuitive. How can trying to get a head start be a bad thing? Why would any educator be resistant to a student’s desire to learn? Shouldn’t I be pleased that these students will come to class having done the reading? What difference does it make whether they have read in July or October?
The answers to most of those questions are as you might expect: Getting ahead is a good thing; I want to foster such a desire to learn, and having a group of students who have done the reading is obviously infinitely preferable to having a group who haven’t. But the final question, the “what difference does it make when they read?” question, is much more difficult to answer.
On the one hand, as I have mentioned, I want my students to read. In fact, the more they read, the better. But on the other hand, it seems to me that one of the essential components of studying literature in a brick and mortar class setting is the act of communal reading: reading texts together at the same time in the same place. Reading ahead is fundamentally incompatible with reading communally, at least it is in the way that comes across in the student emails I mentioned above. These students, it seems, want to read ahead so that they can get it out of the way and devote their time to other responsibilities (and possibly other courses) in the fall. Put another way, if they read now, they don’t have to read later.
The problem here is that by reading now instead of later, or by reading ahead instead of reading communally, these students are quite likely to miss something that matters in the books. In fact, in many cases, they are likely to miss a great deal more than just “something.” Hopefully, they’ll get the plot, and they will likely be able to remember basic details about the whos, whats, and wheres. They may even be able to remember important passages and quotations. All of these elements are important, and they are obviously critical pieces to acknowledge and remember.
But the study of literature is more than just the sum of these parts. It’s not only reading a certain selection of texts in a particular order. Instead, a good class takes the book list as a foundation and collaboratively generates an extended conversation through discussion and debate, analysis and critique. The themes and issues which emerge from our collective experience and conversation are not always (or even often) ones that can be predicted ahead of time. In fact, the best of these are ones that cannot be anticipated precisely because they arise organically from the confluence of time, place and participants.
In essence, by reading ahead, these students deprive themselves of the absolute most important aspect of the class: the insights generated by our discussions over the course of the semester. Put another way, the student who thinks she is giving herself an advantage by reading ahead can actually be doing the exact opposite.
Ultimately, my point here is not to condemn those who want to read ahead. Obviously, there are only so many hours in a day, and we all have to make choices about how to spend our time in accordance to our many obligations and responsibilities, academic and otherwise. If the choice is between reading ahead and not reading at all, I think most faculty would agree that reading ahead is the better option.
At the same time, if students do decide to read ahead, they should do so with the awareness that that might not be getting ahead as much as they might think. In fact, they may well be setting themselves at a disadvantage rather than an advantage. There is one exception: if the student reads ahead but then reads again with the rest of the class, and by “read again” I mean close careful reading rather than skimming through to remember the basic plot points.
What do you tell students who want to get a head start of their reading for the semester? Do you encourage them or caution them or take some other approach? Please share in the comments section.