Monday, November 26, 2012

Bend, Don’t Break

Jonathan Rees

Fred Watson, "Bookstack," 1992, Northumbria
University, Newcastle, UK. Photo by Randall Stephens.
“Students WILL NOT, and absolutely refuse, to read anything. Give the assignment, and they just ignore it, even if there's a quiz on the reading.”
- David Bordwell, film historian, University of Wisconsin Madison (via Roger Ebert)

Anyone who has taught in a college classroom over the last five or ten years can feel Professor Bordwell’s pain.  While I imagine the English professors must have it the worst (how can you teach novels if nobody has read the novel?), practically all the historians I know fret constantly about student reading because their discipline is also a literary art.  While it is possible to teach historical facts through lecturing or even just showing films, there is simply no other way for students to learn how to do history themselves except by reading book-length works by great historians.

So what is to be done?  I’ve already suggested that killing the traditional history textbook and replacing it with a smaller number of primary sources on this very blog.  That decision was, in part, a concession to the new realities of student life.  However, I don’t want to leave the impression that I support dumbing down the history curriculum in order prevent mass failure.  I’m of the school that professors should bend, but not break when it comes to reading because no matter what some commission in Tallahassee might think, the liberal arts really are very useful in life.  On the most basic level, graduates will never be able to work in any world of ideas if they can’t read well because that’s how ideas are conveyed.  Therefore, humanities professors faced with non-reading students have to teach their recalcitrant readers the kinds of reading skills that they’ve never learned.

No, I don’t mean re-learning their ABCs.  I’m talking about different kinds of reading.  In their classic How to Read a Book Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren speak of Elementary Reading, Inspectional Reading, and Analytical Reading.  To get students to that third level, you have to read with them.  Open the book during class.  Make them read aloud to the class.  Discuss the implications of those ideas.  You don’t have to quiz them to make sure they’re learning from their reading if you make sure that the reading you assign them is central to your class.

Also, and this may sound like a given but it’s not in academia, you have to make an effort to assign interesting books.  I am not ashamed to say that I think David McCullough is great.  The best reaction I’ve ever gotten in any class was from freshmen non-majors when I assigned David Remnick’s biography of Muhammad Ali.  Certainly, spending time teaching reading skills takes away from the coverage of historical facts, but students will make much better use of those reading skills after they graduate than they ever will of most specific factual details. 

So while times are certainly tough in the history business, all is not lost.  Professors can’t expect all their students to care as much about history as they do, but it is more than reasonable to make them meet you half way.

Jonathan Rees is Professor of History at Colorado State University – Pueblo.  He blogs mostly about technological and academic labor matters at More or Less Bunk. He's the author of Industrialization and the Transformation of American Life.


Randall said...

I'm preparing to face this problem of the non-reading student in a whole new way. In the UK students cannot be required to purchase texts because it's considered a hidden fee. So, the libraries at a number of universities are well-stocked with course texts.

From what I understand it's also harder or even impossible to build regular reading quizzes into the course. Will see how I can keep the students honest.

Unknown said...

A strategy that worked fairly well for me (granted, it was with an honors class) was to tell the students I didn't agree with a lot of what was in the textbook (which was true, at least in terms of emphasis), and read it against the grain. The students got to engage their critical skills in a way that felt natural to them (hatin' on the text), but they had to read it to do that.

Lisa Clark Diller said...

I don't have to teach really huge sections (80 used to be our survey maximum and now it is down to 40). I have found that quizzes each class period really help--and so does explaining pedantically at the beginning of each semester HOW the reading works. I say "I'm assigning about 70 pages per week. You are expected to spend 6 hours outside of class preparing for this class. That's about 11-12 pages in an hour. If you can't read that many pages per hour with any level of understanding, then you should consider getting some help." I go over the manner in which I'm reading--and acknowledge that there are different ways to read. I encourage them to talk about their reading with each other, and I explain that there aren't really any "reading" classes as such on campus the way we have math and "writing" classes, but that their general ed program requires them to read and that's why they are taking history classes. I also acknowledge that it is probably boring to them and nothing like reading magazine or online articles.

I think "saying stuff out loud" helps and even though students complain every semester, in fact, most of them are reading most of the time. Even if what I'm saying doesn't help their situation or make them like it more, it tends to pre-empt complaints and "justifies" how we do things in history classes.

But I really really acknowledge that I'm teaching in an unusual setting.

I've tried using just primary texts before and students freaked out because they honestly either didn't trust me to fill in the context or maybe I just didn't do a good enough job of it. But they like narrative history enough to demand it regularly.

hcr said...

Boy, this is really depressing. Sadly, I think you all are right. I noticed when students first started using the internet I was blown away by how differently they thought. While I looked at things linearly, based on my practice at reading books, they could make great leaps and tended to look at things as a web, based on all the windows they held open. That seemed to me to hold great promise for the production of new ideas. What I did not foresee was the loss of reading skills and linear thinking altogether. But I'm with you all-- I can see it, too.

My own pet peeve is 6-12 grade English courses, which are often so concerned with issues of social consciousness that curriculum coordinators forget to choose engrossing books. The reading list for my kids was a long litany of racism, rape, violence, and so on, with few of the books showing much literary merit. The kids loathed them, although they were good readers at home. If a student has no desire to pick up the reading skills we all learned reading novels in high school, they won't be able to read history, either.

OK, rant over!

Steven Cromack said...

Things are certainly not any different in the high school classroom. Teachers have to use tricks to get students to read. Scaffolded, or edited, primary sources should be 16 font and half inch margins. This way, they look easier to read.

Many students in the high school classroom do not read the primary sources when assigned. I find what works really well is to tell them the day the reading is assigned why they care. You should read this speech because in it, James Henry Hammond is making the case that society is built on the mudsill, or lowest classes of people. Connect it to current thinking or things they can understand. This makes the reading look intriguing. Perhaps it is how this generation thinks, but if you tell the students why they care, they then do the reading.

Not sure whether that would work in the college classroom.

Lisa Clark Diller said...

Steven, I am a big believer in spelling it out so I totally second your observation. In surveys, when many students aren't very advanced yet in their critical thinking this is really helpful. It seems heavy handed, but it seems to be part of good teaching for me. After that, after they are told the "so what?", they are able to move on to do their own critical analysis....

hcr said...

This is really good for me to hear. I find as I get older, I often assume students know things that they absolutely don't. This is a good reminder to be very precise about skills, as well as expectations.

Joseph Yannielli said...

Great piece. I can't resist linking to this recent article on digital scholarship as a means to reinvigorate the classroom. In my experience, students tend to step up their game when their work is visible to their peers and/or a larger public audience.

Max Weismann said...

We are a not-for-profit educational organization, founded by Mortimer Adler and we have recently made an exciting discovery--three years after writing the wonderfully expanded third edition of How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren made a series of thirteen 14-minute videos--lively discussing the art of reading. The videos were produced by Encyclopaedia Britannica. For reasons unknown, sometime after their original publication, these videos were lost.

Three hours with Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, lively discussing the art of reading, on one DVD. A must for libraries and classroom teaching the art of reading.

I cannot exaggerate how instructive these programs are--we are so sure that you will agree, if you are not completely satisfied, we will refund your donation.

Please go here to see a clip and learn more:

ISBN: 978-1-61535-311-8

Thank you,

Max Weismann