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A colleague recently tipped me off to a tweet by a fellow professor at the University of Liverpool, who wondered, “I’ve been thinking about one-text modules and how they work. If you could base a whole class around a single text, what would it be? Is this a good pedagogy? Have you done it, and how did it go?”

I have done that -- three times, in fact, with three different books. I loved it each time, and each time was different. So I thought I should write about how it worked and why I’ll most likely do it again, with another new book.

All three times I taught this way were for an undergraduate course that’s an introduction to the discipline for our first-year English majors. But I imagine other programs -- such as philosophy, history and different humanities fields -- could adapt this approach, and social sciences and natural science courses could probably modify and use it, too, with a little pedagogical imagination. The rationale and takeaways would remain the same. The basic goal is to spend an entire term lingering on only one single book.

For my introductory English major course, it’s usually a novel. I first did this with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. This is such a short novel (47,000 words) that it meant that we read and discussed no more than a few pages each day. This novel is commonly taught in high schools, but in my experience, students had read the book far too quickly, and all they’d retained were some fuzzy themes and bland symbols.

When we slow down and allow students to savor each bizarre paragraph, this overassigned book becomes new again. In my class, students would often remark that they didn’t think they even read the same book in high school. The truth is that Gatsby is a convoluted text, almost a shapeless narrative at times, with imagery ranging from caricature to the grotesque. It’s a real Modernist work of art, experimenting with language while trying to think through the complex lives of characters traumatized by World War I and caught in the churning vortex of global capitalism. But it takes slowing down to appreciate it as such: as not only a story but also a wild experiment with words.

In subsequent years I did this again with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (75,000 words) and another time with Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (80,000). We read these novels slowly, making ourselves piece together the stories at an excruciatingly drawn-out pace. When we do this, we don’t apply theory to our one text, or read the book in different "ways" -- we merely read it gradually and methodically, often reading passages aloud, looking up words and internal references, and puzzling over syntax. The lessons we take away are granular and spontaneous. Along the way, I am drawing my students into the conversations, traditions and trends that make up my discipline. But not in a contrived manner -- rather, our slow reading directs the course we take.

7 Reasons Why

Why decide to read just one book for a whole term? Isn’t this a lowering of standards and expectations that gives in to the deadening of intellectual rigor and critical inquiry across contemporary culture? Isn’t this just admitting defeat in the face of shortening attention spans?

No, I don’t think so, and I can outline just why to do this, and what is gained from this streamlined approach to a college class. Here are seven reasons you should try this approach.

  1. Focus. Part of my job is to teach students how to focus on formal details: structure, tone, style, patterns and so on. Reading well is about being able to see and explain the nuances of a text, and that requires focus. It is much easier to focus -- and to model focus -- when dealing with a smaller chunk of words, sentences and paragraphs each day.
  2. Deceleration. I have found that students appreciate a chance to slow down around an object of study. My students are often being pushed and pulled in so many directions by different people in their lives and urged to complete myriad tasks as quickly as possible. Reading just one book throughout a term forces -- or invites -- students to simply slow down around what they are learning. It takes them time to get used to this; their knee-jerk reaction is often to speed through the short readings. But after a couple weeks, I see them become relieved at the low-pressure, slower pace of our classes.
  3. Close reading. Close reading has been codified as a certain (sometimes myopic) tradition of interpreting texts with an eye to internal contradictions and tensions. But we don’t necessarily need to reproduce or reify a narrow, academic definition of close reading. Taking a book a few pages at a time allows us to learn close reading as a practice, as opposed to a blunt tool or formulaic hermeneutic strategy.
  4. Boredom. One of the risks of reading just one book is that students -- and maybe the instructor -- will become bored with the text. But pushing through the boredom and finding what hides on the other side … that is part of the thrill and the lesson of reading just one book slowly over the course of the term. It’s a chance to really get inside an author’s mind or fully inhabit the world of the text. Anyway, boredom is a real thing in the world, and so maybe students might learn to work with it, not just clobber it out of existence as they -- and we -- are often wont to do.
  5. Novelty. It can be intimidating to assign a new book or a text that you’ve never taught before, as this adds further prep to an instructor’s usually already jam-packed workload. But if you adopt a single new book, and commit to reading it with your students, this becomes not only manageable but also revitalizing. Tackling a new book with your students can refresh a class you’ve taught many times, especially if it is a required course for a major. In short, it keeps teaching vibrant.
  6. Practicality. I’ll admit that when I first did this, it was because my life was becoming more complicated. Children had entered my life at home, I was on more committees at my university and I was trying to finish writing a book. Stripping my first-year majors’ class down to one book was a practical time-saving measure, first and foremost. It streamlined and simplified my coursework. But it quickly became more than a self-serving pragmatic decision. I realized that the students benefited from this practicality, as well. They were automatically more engaged, because we’d narrowed our scope together.
  7. Pleasure. Just reading one book was also enjoyable. I would look forward to savoring the few pages I’d assigned the night before class. I could easily keep in mind the two or three sentences or phrases I wanted to focus on the next day. I would relish the prose and recall lessons from my own education that I would pass on to my students. I could do this because I wasn’t hurrying to reread a whole book, or slogging through an unnecessarily dense article that I already regretted assigning to my students. I found myself enjoying reading again. And my students seemed to do so, as well.

So if you find yourself facing an upcoming term scheduled to teach a class you’ve taught many times and are dreading it, or if you are thinking of designing a new class, I highly recommend adopting a single-text model -- preferably with a new book you’ve been wanting to read but haven’t had the time for. Your students will pick up on the energy and excitement of doing something different, more slowly -- and creating knowledge together with you. The risks are few, and the rewards many, for everyone involved.

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