In my Effective Reading Strategies class, we focus on managing the heavy and varied assigned reading loads college students often face. We consider the purpose for reading (discussion, papers, exams), the type of reading, and the best ways to approach each text. By the end of the semester, we’re ready for a change of pace.
All along, I’ve been stressing the importance of recreational reading that will increase students’ background knowledge. For example, our Science Library’s “Speaking of Science” blog contains links to The New York Times and Washington Post science sections, as well as local science-related news. Beyond that, I’ve been encouraging students to consider all types of pleasure reading, anything that might improve their reading fluency and stamina: books, magazines, websites, graphic novels, movie and book connections, and audio books. The Oberlin College Library has some great resources, including a recreational reading collection, and I’ve made students aware of this.
At the end of the semester, I’m mindful of the fact that students are heading off for a break, and I like to think they will make some extra time for pleasure reading. But they write reading autobiographies for me, so I know that some of them have never really enjoyed recreational reading and others have gotten out of the habit, often because of heavy assigned reading loads.
I’m not giving up, though. On the last day of class, I ask students to share the titles of their favorite books, in the hope that they’ll all leave with a list that contains at least a few titles of potential interest. The first time I did this, the list was replete with Great Books and modern classics. Few students seemed very enthusiastic about their choices.
After that, I made it clear that I wanted students to be honest. I encouraged them to think about a book they’d reread, or a recent favorite, rather than worrying about the import of the label “favorite.” To prove my point, I brought in my well-worn copies of Miss Rumphius and Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day and talked about why I like them so much. The lists became more eclectic. Standards like To Kill a Mockingbird and The Great Gatsby now mix with Harry Potter and the Twilight series. In addition, we get a sampling of some current fiction and nonfiction titles that represent a wide range of interests.
While it seems laughably obvious, I tell students that pleasure reading should be pleasant. Not that they should never challenge themselves, but that the books they choose should be ones they’ll embrace, not avoid. To set the right tone, we discuss The Reader’s Bill of Rights. Now we’re ready to share titles, authors and thumbnail sketches of our choices.
Sometimes students are diffident: “It’s just a young adult book,” they’ll begin, only to have their choices spontaneously affirmed with “oohs” and “aahs” or “I loved that book, too.” Invariably, when we’ve gone around the room once, someone asks if it’s O.K. to mention another title, and other students jump in. Usually we run out of time before we run out of titles. One of the students, by prior arrangement, has typed the list into her laptop. She e-mails it to me and I send it to the entire class.
I have been pleasantly surprised that nearly everyone enters into these discussions enthusiastically. Even students who admit that they seldom, or never, read for pleasure, seem excited to have a list of approachable books to consider. I remind them that individual tastes vary widely and these are only suggestions.
It always feels like a successful way to end the class, and the semester. Recently, I received an e-mail from a student who took my class nine years ago. As always, his message included these two lines: “I’ve been reading ____ " and “What are you reading?”
Melissa Ballard is a study and reading strategies instructor at Oberlin College.
Sophia, an online learning platform recently acquired by Capella Education Co., on Wednesday released 25,000 free tutorials aimed at college and high school students. The for-profit Capella plans this summer to introduce "Sophia Pathways for College Credit," a souped-up version through which students' competency in subject areas, beginning with college algebra, will be assessed for the granting of Capella credits, company officials said. "It's a low-cost path to getting college credit," said Steve Anastasi, Sophia's interim CEO.
Anastasi describes the open platform as a "social teaching and learning environment" in which teachers, most of them not affiliated with Sophia or Capella, create online tutorials on a variety of subjects that will soon be organized by the learning preferences of students. The crowdsourced content is ranked and given an "academic seal" by self-identified academic experts, who themselves are rated by students. A Capella spokesman said Sophia would be a "sandbox" for experiments on open course content, as well as a resource for Capella students and professors.
What comes to many of our students’ mind when they hear the word "rhetoric"? Specious arguments that are all glamor and little substance? Or perhaps stodgy old professors lecturing on and on about Cicero this and Quintilian that?
As a teacher of writing, and as a proponent of active learning, I have always disdained the traditional lecture. Yet, each term, for each course that I teach — from freshman "basic writing" courses, to graduate courses in teaching (and learning) college writing — I have always included a somewhat traditional introductory lecture on rhetoric. Sure, I give it all I’ve got in order to not only provide students the information I want them to use in their analytical work (content), but also to enact a living model of delivery (form) — what the greatest of the Greek orators, Demosthenes, declared the most important part of any speech. But this term I decided to shake things up a bit. I wondered what would happen if I turned over the reins of my prized rhetoric-lecture thoroughbred over to the hands and minds of the students to ride (deliver).
Like Mike Garver, I wanted to explode the way the lecture typically works rather than, like some of our colleagues in math, attempt to do away with lectures altogether. But I also wanted the students to have a much more active role in the actual generation and delivery of the lecture — a form of instruction I do believe can have merit. Would this experiment result in witnessing my tame lecture turn into a wild stampede? Or would (as I hoped) the students buck up, plant their feet firmly in her stirrups and, like Alexander with Bucephalus, make this beast their own?
The Game Plan
I began my plans by dividing the lecture into parts, depending on how many students were in each of my three classes: for my basic writing course of 10, I had them work in pairs; for my intermediate composition course of 21, teams of three; and for my graduate course of 14, also pairs. Each group was responsible for delivering their section of the lecture in about 10-15 minutes. I told them they had the choice of how they wanted to deliver it. As they buzzed, frenetically strategizing and planning together in class, I fielded their many questions, but tried not to give too much direction. I explained that I wanted them to work on this "problem-situation" with their partners as much as possible. I encouraged them to try not to make too much out of this, that this was a low-stakes assignment designed mostly to prepare them for later work.
The day of the presentation I began by explaining to students that the ancient Roman classroom (especially training in the carefully scaffolded progymnasmataas detailed by Quintilian) was a very interactive place where peer critique was the name of the game. So I let them know that the audience was going to actually be the most important part of the presentations. As an audience we would be critiquing the presenters. We decided that since I had provided most of the content, the assessment criteria would all hinge upon elements of delivery. We agreed upon three broad and interpretive categories: creativity, clarity, and energy. Each category would be scored on a scale of 0-to-5, 5 being the highest, for a possible total of 15 points overall.
I must say, I was beyond pleasantly surprised by what followed. The first class to go was my intermediate-level class in groups of three. The first group made a valiant effort to get our momentum off to a good start. They were strong in creativity but fumbled many of their lines, and overall stuck pretty close to the lecture script I had provided. Two of the presenters also delivered in somewhat monotone voices with relatively low energy. The second group, however, came ready to deliver. Michelle DelGuidice and Adam Aluise, as well as Alyssa Barnhart (all students' names used with permission) who was not in class this day but did contribute her ideas, creatively took Kenneth Burke’s concept of the five dramatistic terms — act, scene, agent, agency, and purpose — and applied them to a real-life event. The act: "O.J. Simpson (allegedly, as Michelle would dark-comically interject) kills two people." The scene: "O.J. and Nicole Simpson’s home." The agent: "O.J. Simpson (allegedly)." The agency: "He stabs them both to death." The purpose: "Jealousy." Each term came complete with an actual picture from the trial. All other groups fell somewhere on a continuum of these two types of presentations. Some really filtered the assignment and lecture notes through what Burke called their interpretive "termistic screens." Others stuck pretty close to the script, perhaps adding some sort of visual element via the projector or the dry-erase board.
The basic writing students also surprised me. The first group, made up of Jahnea Farquharson and Ashley Tremblay, delivered what I often call a "you had me at hello" presentation ("Jerry Maguire"). They had a PowerPoint wherein they delivered their section with significant visual addendums, they projected their voices loud and clear, and they spoke with passion and emphases. This first group even added some additional information involving Aristotle’s three types of rhetorical arguments: deliberative, forensic, and epideictic. Of course, the rest of the class knew that this first group had set the bar extremely high. I played the role of good facilitator and assured them that they would all do just fine and to have confidence. Like the intermediate-level students, the rest of the groups fell along the same sort of oratory-continuum, from low-talkers, to folks who pretty much just read off the paper, to students fumbling with audio-visual buttons and screens.
I had high hopes for my graduate students. And, just like my undergraduates, they didn’t disappoint. The entire class and I sat enrapt and entertained as group after group delivered presentations abounding with thoughtfulness and overflowing with great energy and humor (and this is an evening class, from 7:35 to 10:05 pm). One of the key differences in the performances of the graduate students was how much they drew on the power of acting.
Several groups created characters as the conduits for their delivery. For example, the first group introduced us to the characters of Logos, Pathos, and Ethos. Logos (played by Charles Hamlin) was very matter-of-fact in his speech as he talked of some ways he deploys himself in the service of argumentation. Pathos (played by Jake Goldman) was an energetic and emotional speaker who talked of the significance of the sentimental value of a dinner plate heirloom from his grandmother that he brought in to show and tell us about. Ethos (also played by Jake Goldman) presented an authoritative figure who was actually an expert in the arts of persuasion. He had written many books on the subject and had an impressive way of linking his argumentation to his previous partners’ talks comparatively. After watching my graduate students perform so excellently, I was left to ponder the ancient rhetorical admonishment from the most renowned of Roman orators, Cicero: "The habits of actors must be studied if we wish to perfect our delivery."
For each class, I let them know that each group, at least from me, had received a full score of five on creativity. I let them all know that they all did a good job of making the lecture their own. I told them that if they think they are not "creative" then they had better guess again. (I have had many students say that they are "not creative.") I explained that I believe all humans, and most animals, are creative. I said I have three dogs and I have watched them all solve problems and try to figure things out … creatively. I praised them all heavily, telling all students that they did a much better job overall than I had ever done. And that everyone had some strengths and weaknesses — some groups that may not have been as “energetic” were good with "clarity" for example. By the time I had experienced all three classes, I could report back the results to all my students comparatively.
Sure, maybe I could have been more critical of the students’ performances. Yes, perhaps more critical scrutiny would have been more edifying for the low-talkers, or the underprepared, or the obviously nervous. But what is most important for young, or older, active minds to hear? Since, as a class, we assessed and critiqued each group, everyone knew how they had performed in the eyes of their peers; from our interaction, they knew/learned what they might have done better, more, less. I don’t think they needed me spurring them on any more than that.
Most of my in-class lesson plans do involve collaborative interactivity. And, along with other essays I have written for Inside Higher Ed, this essay has attempted to respond to an argument I recently made regarding teachers of writing holding themselves up to the same rigorous performance expectations and standards (habits of mind) as their students. So when I foresee the chance, I will try to make all of my activities in class reach for the stars like this one. I will consider my students as colleagues more carefully, and I will try to imagine what might happen if I let them ride a wild-horse activity out of the gates from time to time. Maybe they will do their part to put the word “rhetoric” back in the proper intellectual tradition (albeit with an energetic modern twist) that it deserves. (For a lively introduction to the study of rhetoric, created by Clemson grad students, see the YouTube video "In Defense of Rhetoric: Not Just for Liars.")
Steven J. Corbett is assistant professor of English and director of the composition program at Southern Connecticut State University.
Complete College America today released a report that diagnoses the failure of the current national approach to remedial education. The study, which includes self-reported data from 31 states, found that students who place into remediation are unlikely to eventually earn a degree or even complete associated college-level courses. Across all sectors, the report found that 30 percent of students who complete remediation don't even attempt credit-bearing "gateway" courses within two years.
Among the fixes proposed by the group, which is at the forefront of the college completion movement, is the report's recommendation that states and colleges end traditional remediation and instead use "co-requisite models." Under this approach, colleges place remedial students into "redesigned first-year, full-credit courses with co-requisite built-in support, just-in-time tutoring, self-paced computer labs with required attendance and the like."
Decades ago, two colleges in Virginia decided all students would need to pass essay exam to graduate. Old Dominion just dropped the unusual requirement, while Hampden-Sydney has no intention of doing so.
We do not have a system of public education in this country. As a nation, we have yet to connect the dots between early childhood programming, kindergarten learning, elementary and secondary education coursework, and college curriculums. Until we do, the issue of remediation – and the excessive costs associated with it in every state – will carry on.
Forty to fifty percent of children nationwide are underprepared for kindergarten, lacking the basic vocabulary and sensitivities that the work demands. These same students are pushed through the system, and in third and fourth grade cannot comprehend early math and English instruction. By the time they reach college – if they make it that far – they are saddled with remedial coursework that costs taxpayers money and whittles away at the students’ financial aid. At the State University of New York alone, we spend more than $70 million per year on remediation, and 20 percent — or $93 million — of financial aid awarded to our community college students goes toward remedial classes.
I applaud Connecticut’s intent to abolish remediation, but this is not a legislative issue. It’s a community issue that can only be effectively addressed by an agreement on behalf of everyone who has a stake in a child’s education — parents, educators, civic groups, employers, and government leaders — to break out of our boxes and accept a shared responsibility for maintaining the education pipeline.
To eliminate the need for remediation, the disconnects among us must first be collaboratively addressed. Teachers can better communicate with parents about what is expected of their children in class and what can be done at home to ensure their preparation. School districts and colleges can work together to develop curriculums that will prepare students for the next stage of their education, from kindergarten to higher ed. Finally, stronger partnerships between colleges and employers will result in job-ready graduates who have been trained for in-demand careers.
Together with our K-12 partners, we will use the results of this study to evaluate proficiency and address weaknesses in the pipeline by expanding effective resources, such as educational opportunity programs, and introducing new ones, like "summer boot camp." Once students are enrolled in college and truly in need of remediation, we will work toward better results by improving student advisement services and carrying out best practices that are proven to equip students with the skills they need. By also re-evaluating existing student aid programs, we will ensure that remedial courses are delivered in a cost-effective manner until they are no longer needed.
In New York, Connecticut, and across the country, too many of our children are underperforming in school. By not collaborating to put effective education reforms in place that address every child’s need from cradle to career, we are letting it happen. Any legislation that addresses our reliance on remedial education must be fully informed and carried out by all involved.
Nancy L. Zimpher is chancellor of the State University of New York.