I had a bad class observation not too long ago. It was near the end of the semester, because the colleague who was doing the observing and I kept having scheduling conflicts. All I had planned was for my classes to work on different sections of their final research papers, as their drafts were due in two days. I figured that I should stay true to what I thought my students needed at that point instead of changing things for the sake of the observation.
As I guided the students from one section to the other, like paraphrasing and responding to their sources or close reading their primary text, the class followed along half-heartedly. It was a quieter class than my other ones, although at least a few of the students asked for help. Some, however, just sat there. It wasn’t clear who was doing what. My only consolation was that they’re be handing in the whole project in a couple days, so I assumed most would work if they had the time in class -- which is something they always say they like.
The only time we really talked as a class was when we close read lines on the board together from the essays that they were reviewing. I wrote out a couple quotations on the board that people were using in their papers, and we talked through different ways to analyze the specific language in terms of pronoun usage, tone and style. That went well, but it was the only truly engaging moment of the class period for the entire group. From there on, certain students worked, while others I’m sure did not.
I felt terrible for the rest of the day. I hated that was what my colleague thought my classes were like every day. I hated that I didn’t think on my feet fast enough to fix what I felt wrong as I was doing it.
But if I hadn’t been observed at an awkward time of the semester, I would have never stopped to notice that something big was missing from my classes, especially those near the end of the semester: casual reading. For me, causal readings are assigned texts that are meant for class discussions, not for a writing assignment. They help reinforce themes in class, and they might even help shape student’s reading habits outside class.
My syllabus used to have assigned readings for every single day we met, no matter what we were doing. Taking out a few readings near the end of the semester started gradually for me as an instructor. I would cancel a reading so students could do another peer-review session or something like that. Or I’d cancel one with the hopes that students would focus more on their papers in that time. Sometimes it felt like they were wondering why we were reading stuff we weren’t using.
But what I wasn’t considering was that reading only takes a few minutes, and it should be something that all writers do. Not asking the students to read regularly is like telling them it’s OK not to explore. Even if it’s the week that their papers are due, they should still be reading things that they don’t have to be quizzed on or that don’t have to be analyzed in their papers. Why? Because that’s part of the writing process.
Recently, someone asked me what I do in my classes or how I learned how to teach college courses. I told them right away that I just copied things that I liked as a student in college. I was modeling after my professors. In my classes with them, we weren’t necessarily writing about each book or play we read. But each one earned an earnest discussion in the class. And the professor not only asked probing questions but also contextualized points made by students. Those were the classes where I read a book on my own and was OK with it, but I left class loving it. That was also the time when I fostered my love of talking about books, even if I didn’t like some of the ones I read.
After graduation, I remember being excited about the idea of no more assigned readings. I could finally, really, focus on the books I personally wanted to read. While I was studying for my master's degree, I still selected a lot of books that I just felt like reading, but now they were the only things I had to read ever. It was all about my choices. I happened to also have a baby right after graduation, so I had a lot of time to read while I breastfed that summer.
Eventually, though, a friend from graduate school and I shared the longing to actually talk about books in real life. So we started a small book club with a few people we graduated with who were still in the area. It eventually turned into a dinner party where we happened to have read the same book and could talk about it, but talking about Gabriel García Márquez, Octavia Butler and Haruki Murakami together felt great. There were days when I would have to rush through the book right before we met up, fumbling around trying to get ready for the discussion. (That really felt like grad school.)
Now that I’m working on my syllabus for next semester, I’m making sure that I require more casual reading. Students sometimes complain about assigned readings, but those assignments are mostly about getting the group together to discuss something everyone has had a chance to think about on their own. And if any of my students leave feeling more inclined to read on their own, then it’s worth it.