Over the years I’ve often taught Edward Bellamy’s classic 19th century utopian novel Looking Backward. It’s a blistering critique of Gilded Age America and a creative imagining of a future in which work, social class, gender relations, and the political economy have been radically reconfigured. The novel is provocative and rich in ideas, and its premises spark great debate. What it’s not is a page-turner. Most of the book is an extended lecture interspersed with occasional questions and a contrived (and mawkish) romance. Students sometimes complain that the book is “boring.” I’ll take that — they have to have read it to render such a judgment.
Any book we assign is useful only insofar as students actually crack the cover and consume its contents. One of the biggest complaints one hears in the hallways and faculty lounges of American colleges concerns literary dieting. The professorial mantra of the 21st century is: “They just don’t read.” All manner of villains emerge to explain students’ repulsion toward reading: Internet surfing, video games, cell phone obsession, campus partying, over-caffeination, lack of intellectual curiosity…. When all else fails, professors whet their knives to slaughter tried-and-true scapegoats: television and inadequate high school preparation. Here’s a tip about why they don’t read: they never did! In previous articles I’ve noted that instructors often mistakenly assume that all students share their zest for learning. Alas, often we are but credit-accumulation obstacles that students must dodge.
There’s been no Golden Age of student reading in my lifetime — not when I was a student, a high school teacher, a community college instructor, a lecturer at an elite institution, or a prof at a state university. Move on. Think like Edward Bellamy; he was a utopian, but he was no fool. His ideal world did not rely upon people’s good natures; it was structured to remove choice from the equation. Everyone had to work — not a bad way to approach reading in your classrooms. If you want students to read, make it hard (or impossible) to avoid.
Step one is to assign appropriate material. Just because you found an 800-page specialty tome to be spellbinding doesn’t mean your students will. Don’t expect undergrads to get excited about most journal articles either; you’ll need to teach them how to approach such dense reading. Seek material that is appropriate for what students need to know — the more engagingly written and short, the better. When you can, feed them small doses of the stuff they’re used to seeing, such as Web sites, blogs and graphic novels.
Writing assignments help ensure reading (and kill two skill birds with one stone). These need not be elaborate. In reasonably-sized classes I require periodic two- to three-page papers for most reading assignments. Four or five questions appear on the course Web site and students must write about one of them. The list has the added benefit of providing discussion fodder on the day the assignment is due. It also allows me to monitor student writing and gives me clues about what I must address before a major assignment comes along.
I’m hearing virtual protests — “That’s all well and good for a small class, but what if I have a lecture hall filled with 150 students?” If you have teaching assistants, that helps, but even if you don’t there are ways to assign writing without spending each week reading 450 pages times the number of classes you teach.
One way is to read papers carefully only a few times during the semester. Do it early on and send papers back to students with a grade and lots of red circles. This sends the message that you expect the assignments to be completed and done well. This allows you to skim papers and make random remarks throughout the semester. Sometime before midterm and finals do another close read. Develop a grading or points system and don’t accept late work if you have a big class. This drives home the lesson that deadlines are deadlines. (“Sorry Charley, but you just forfeited five points.”)
A more devious way to accomplish the same thing is to give weekly writing assignments and tell students you will collect them randomly during the semester. Make it really random, as in collecting several weeks in a row and then neglecting to do so in non-discernible patterns. I’m personally not comfortable with a controlled-terror approach to teaching but I’ve seen it work. One panic button I do push is to walk into class and announce a two-minute paper in which students must write what they learned from the reading assignment.
When I have multiple large classes in a semester I sometimes opt for a milder variant of the “gotcha” approach — I collect and keep track of who hasn’t handed in work, but I don’t grade every assignment. (A word of caution: Students tend not to like systems in which professors merely "check off" their work, so you ought to grade a few.) Another variant is to grade different students’ papers each batch. Choose from the pile until you’ve read each student’s work at least twice during a semester.
Another way to reinforce the need to read is to construct lectures and discussions in such a way that reading is a prerequisite for comprehension. One should allude to materials in the reading — if you don’t, expect complaints that you made students buy things you never used — but don’t waste class time with a point-by-point rehash of the assignment. I often clue students about what they need to pay close attention to in order to understand an upcoming lesson. In that lesson I entertain questions about the reading, but I seldom walk through it.
In like fashion, write lectures around reading concepts and content, or spin them in a new direction, but don’t repeat what the readings say. This works in many disciplines. Engineering professors can build demonstrations, labs, and lectures around concepts and formulae that students must first master from their texts; legal scholars can assign case law that must be read in order to follow the logic of their lectures; management professors can sprinkle their lectures with terms whose meanings are explained in their readings; and so on.
If you give exams, make certain that parts of those exams are based on material that could only have been gotten from the reading. (I warn students that I will do this, lest I have to field “We didn’t go over this in class” complaints, and I don’t have to deliver a “This isn’t high school” retort.) I don’t recommend basing an entire exam on out-of-class reading — that’s a correspondence course. Nor should one base questions on obscure, arcane, or hopelessly complex material, but the basics are fair game.
Research and reflection papers should definitely require student writers to grapple with assigned readings. This can be done simply by inserting a line in the instructions such as: “Your paper must draw upon assigned readings (specify which ones) in a substantial manner that demonstrates your mastery of them and your ability to synthesize these with outside sources. Papers that fail to reference these works will be marked down accordingly.”
There are scads of other ways to encourage reading. Discussion leaders can give quizzes, assign student presenters for each reading, or hand out advance questions in the form of a single sheet with blank spaces for really short responses. You can design tasks no more demanding than generating a list, applying one equation, or explaining a solitary concept. I’ve asked students to read material until they understand several identified ideas and can explain how they apply to examples that do not come from the reading. It really doesn’t matter what you devise so as that you do apply a stick to go with the reading carrot.
I'm sure some of you are thinking “But what if students don’t know how to read critically? Isn’t all of this wasted on them?” Perhaps; and perhaps this is a way to separate learners from the halt and lame. Two quick thoughts — first, we should stop moaning about what students don’t know and teach them where they are. Thinking, reading, and writing critically should be a basic component of 100-level classes. Second, the right to an education isn’t the same as a guarantee of success. More on such matters in a future article. For now, let’s think like Edward Bellamy and remove non-reading as an option.