Higher Education

If Not Now, When?: Students and Difficult Reading

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Many professors bemoan the failure to do the assigned reading on the part of their students. But is that a reason to shy away from giving students challenging texts?

After regaling readers with the common experience of encountering students in the classroom who have not done the reading, Theresa MacPhail offers a solution in a recent piece for The Chronicle of Higher Education. She suggests assigning less reading: “Long story short: Don’t assign too much reading–and don’t assume you know how much reading is too much for your students.” Why? Because students are pressed for time and, “read only if they have time and if the readings are relatively easy to digest.” Moreover, she suggests that professors avoid long texts:  “It may be the biggest reason students are no longer reading the things we assign. They have complained over and over again that a lot of assigned texts are just too boring or too long or–the deadliest of combinations–both at once.”

In her own classroom, MacPhail incorporates other kinds of material, including documentaries and podcasts. She only has students read a few scholarly texts during the course. The result: “My student are getting the information–but in formats with which they are most comfortable. Instead of reading more, they are doing more research and writing.”

There are two things that struck me. One is the idea that learning should be easy and comfortable.  Whereas learning shouldn’t be torture, it also shouldn’t be without discomfort. I’m a proponent of meeting students where they are. At the same time, the goal is also to move the student forward, even if it’s just a little bit, and that often means taking the student out of a comfort zone to a new place that is unfamiliar and sometimes scary. But that’s ok! The unfamiliar then becomes familiar; then we move on to more unfamiliar things.  What we should be doing is making students comfortable with being uncomfortable, with ambiguity, with not knowing and confident enough to charge ahead and grapple with difficult texts or challenging readings.

The other idea that struck me was placing reading in opposition to research and writing.  As a person who designs and implements research programs for undergraduates and trains them to work on my own research, I know the value of reading for research. I know some academics who look down on basic bibliographic research, but that research is the foundation for any subsequent research. An inability to read well at this stage does not bode well later down the road.  I have seen students who have never been asked to grapple with a “difficult’ text that challenged them. As a result, they lack the confidence and ability to do so. If a student never has to grapple with a dense text, then a student will never learn how to grapple with a dense text. But it’s about more than grappling with jargon or a boring text. It’s about developing critical reading skills that they can use anywhere.

Rather than denigrating difficult texts, perhaps what we should teach students is how to read smarter, which would really make the best use of their time and engage them with the material.   Miriam E. Sweeney offers some great insights in her post, “How to Read for Grad School.” Instead of a cursory review of the material, these suggestions offer a reading strategy to ensure the reader understands the material at a sufficient depth to be able to engage its ideas. There are probably others who have written similarly.

In the 1970s, I remember seeing public service advertisements for the Reading is Fundamental program, which was designed to increase literacy rates. Reading is still fundamental. The way to address student reading is not to encourage students to avoid difficult reading, but to teach them how to engage it.

Sources

MacPhail, Theresa. “Are You Assigning Too Much REading? Or Just Too Much Boring Reading?” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 27 Jan 2019, https://www.chronicle.com/article/Are-You-Assigning-Too-Much/245531 (21 Mar 2019).

Miriam. “How to Read for Grad School.” Miriam E. Sweeney. 20 Jun 2012, https://miriamsweeney.net/2012/06/20/readforgradschool/ (21 Mar 2019).

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