Do I need to Teach Critical Reading?


This is a topic that has been nagging at me for several weeks now. It’s also a great example of how things can flash on and off one’s radar. Even if you are extremely conscientious about something one year, you might completely forget about dealing with it the next.

When faced with the task of teaching a full-year, 200-level seminar at Queen’s in 2009, I intuitively knew that reading scholarly texts would be a problem. Students were provided with an explanation of what they should look for in any reading they might encounter, as well as some guiding questions that were specific to the articles that we read each week. They received this assistance for the entire first semester and then, in winter term, I set them free to learn how to decipher texts on their own. It worked remarkably well, and by the end of the year my students could break down anything that I threw at them – they could also identify value, alongside flaws, which is often much more difficult.

And yet, for some reason, I stopped doing this for a long time. I think it happened because I haven’t taught seminar-style courses since that year in 2009 – I’ve been teaching large-lectures that sometimes have seminar components (sometimes the don’t). This means that the texts which students read are usually shorter; there are less questions to ask and less time to ask them in. When I was leading 3-hour discussions of roughly 80 pages worth of material, I could give more guidance without tipping my hand. But then, with roughly 1 hour and only 20-40 pages of text, was harder to find the balance between helping them out and doing all the work for them.

This isn’t an excuse, and I am fairly convinced that I’ve done my students a disservice by walking away from my attempts to teach critical reading for a few years. It’s an explanation of how this happened. I think that sometimes, we just get so wrapped up in other pedagogical concerns that we lose site of the basics. And there is always that temptation to just crankily grumble that, “this is something they should have taught in high school,” and wash our hands of the whole mess because it’s someone else’s fault and, ultimately, it’ll be someone else’s problem.

But now that I’m teaching at the CEGEP level, that old instinct came back, and I remembered with embarrassment that I needed to teach critical reading, not just assume that students could figure the process out on their own. We all know that students – even those who are already blogging, or writing for the school paper – need training when it comes to writing an academic essay. There are certain quirks regarding the way that intellectuals construct and present an argument, and students need time to process that. This is why all of us spend so much time assigning and correcting essays, even if we do occasionally still bemoan the failings of high school education, and complain that they should already know this.

So why, if we concede that students need to be taught how to write scholarly papers, do we not also concede that they need to be taught how to read scholarly articles? As I said, these things are constructed in a very particular way. They deal with higher-order and abstract concepts, and they do so with subtlety, sometimes burying meaning under layers of jargon. Just because a person can read, doesn’t mean they can read that, and the inaccessibility of scholarly prose has been under attack for decades, if not longer. Scholars are specialists, and they write for other specialists; it is hard for outsiders to gain entrance to our special world – even when those outsiders desperately want to learn.

And so, before my students read their first really difficult reading, I spent some time in class talking about the need to identify the author’s thesis. If you can’t do this, I said, then the rest will be of no use to you. Scholarly texts – at least in the humanities – are argumentative texts, and you’re using them wrong if you’re just trying to mine them for data. From there, I explained that different scholars use different methods, and told them that they needed to identify how the argument was being constructed. We avoided deep methodological discussions, but I did ask them to try to figure out if the argument was quantitative or qualitative. If it was the latter, was the material being presented through a certain lens? Was the author employing a particular strategy (like compare and contrast), or a particular theory (such as feminism)?  Finally, I asked them to identify what types of proof the author brought to bear in order to prove his or her thesis.

Everyone went away confidant, and then they came back the next day more confused then ever. Since then, I’ve done unofficial evaluations of the course, and students were still concerned about the readings. They were still struggling, and not just with what I would call the really hard, scholarly material. They were also having trouble with the news articles and blogs that I had assigned.

It turns out that those of us who deal in abstraction and complexity tend to write roughly the same way whether we’re writing a scholarly article, an op-ed, or a blog. The only difference is that we include fewer citations and examples for op-eds and blogs. This doesn’t make our thesis, methodology, or even the organization of our data any more obvious to the untrained eye, and I think that – in general – we are going to need to change our communications strategies if we really do want to reach that mythical member of the “general public.” When writing, we have to make assumptions about what people already know, and what skills they already possess, and sometimes we’re guessing wrong.

It may seem like I’m all over the map today, but I swear I have a point, and that is this: critical reading isn’t any easier than analytic writing, and it needs to be taught. And whether or not we want to teach it, we do a disservice if we don’t, because then we end up with a populace who – even if they want to be responsible, engaged citizens of the world, who energetically want to know what the experts are saying – simply cannot access the knowledge that scholars produce. Alongside this, we need to think about changing our writing practices, at least for certain venues.

People learn the basics of engineering by taking things apart and putting them back together again from a very young age. I would argue that they learn critical reading by doing the same thing. Let’s come up with better strategies to help expose the complexity of the written word, and to teach people to tear and text apart so that they better understand how to fit it all together again. Below are just a few resources I’ve found, but I’d love for you to leave others in the comments. Such resources would definitely be helpful to me, and they might help others who stumble onto this site as well.

Youtube video on how to read a scholarly article

Info on David Bartholomea and Anthony Petrosky’s, Ways of Reading (2010)

A colleague just sent me this. It’s designed for history students, but is accessible to most disciplines that might assign a monograph.
How to Read for History Blog


Dealing with Student Feedback

So the results of my unofficial survey are in. For the most part, students seem to be enjoying my Media Ethics course, which has been designed to introduce them to the concept of ethics and the myriad ethical debates that swirl around the modern media.  Thus far, we have talked about some abstract philosophical approaches to ethics (ethical rationalism, ethical relativism, and utilitarianism featured prominently), and discussed race, gender, and violence in the media as case studies. From here, we will move to advertising and then onto topics related first to globalization, and finally to democracy and surveillance.

While I’m glad that students are engaging with the course material, it is hardly surprising that they still had critiques and suggestions. Therefore, what I want to do today is talk a little bit about what I’m not willing to change, where I’ll make concessions, and why.


Stubborn like a goat!

Stubborn like a goat!


1. Anything that is Predetermined by the Syllabus
As we all know, the syllabus functions as a contract between teachers and our students. Once it has been distributed, it’s pretty much set in stone and many institutions technically required the signed consent of every student in the class in order to alter it. I want my students to be able to trust the material that is there, and to trust that I put time into designing the course in a way that makes sense. Just as I can’t go back in time and alter what we’ve already done, I won’t jump into the future and assume that topics or readings which I have listed simply won’t work as a lesson plan before we’ve tried them out.

2. What is Permissible in Class Discussion
This was a much more difficult decision for me because, on occasion, students can express opinions which I too find troubling. After all, it’s an ethics class. This means that above and beyond the usual difficulty of coaxing students into seeing the world from different points of view, everyone in the room is always asking: what is the right thing to do? At times, someone will share an opinion that gives the rest of us pause – to say the least – and at least once, that opinion has caused offense to someone else. I was therefore expecting more students to mention this in their reviews, but there was only one brave soul who went there. Said individual felt it absolutely necessary to bring it to my attention that I had a duty as the authority figure in the room to tell people when the opinion which they had expressed was inappropriate.

I sympathize, I really do. And yet I simply cannot bring myself to alter the dynamics of our discussion periods, and here’s why. For starters, the room has to remain a safe space wherein people feel they can express their true opinions. If they are later convinced that their preconceived ideas need to be altered, that’s great; but they fundamentally need to be able to tell us what they think and not feel forced into silence for fear of being ostracized. Furthermore, even if a student says something that veers into truly questionable territory, it is far more effective if their peers attempt to convince them and to change their mind than if I try to do so. As an authority figure, my voice can actually be counter-productive in these moments, and trying to outlaw certain perspectives simple stifles the discussion, fosters resentment, and doesn’t change anyone’s mind.

Playing nice - even if it's awkward.

Playing nice – even if it’s awkward.


1. PowerPoints
Regular readers will know that my PowerPoint slides are minimalist, to say the least. They serve only as a rough guideline, providing headers that students can use organize their notes as well as a sense of scale that helps them study for tests. How much information a teacher does or does not put on their PowerPoints is always a source of contention, at any level, and so most of the time I stick to my guns when it comes to slide design and go with my gut. If you can’t ever please people, you might as well go with what feels right to you, right? And besides, I do have my reasons for doing what I do. As I keep telling my students, not everything in life comes with ready-made slides that tell you everything you were supposed to take from a conversation and in what form. If we want to be critical thinkers and active citizens of the world, we need to learn how to organize the information we receive – to categorize, prioritize, and generally make sense of it.

So why I am giving in? Well, first of all, I’m not entirely giving in and I have decided to compromise instead of cave. This means I will put slightly more information on my slides – mostly, full definitions of key terms – but not absolutely everything that I say. I’m still not sure this is the right thing to do, but these students are still learning to deal with the lecture format, so they require a little more help than university students. And if I’m still careful not to put everything on the slides, they will still have to learn the art of note-taking, just with some of the anxiety removed. I remain highly ambivalent about doing this, but I am willing to give it a try.

2. Readings
As expected, many people commented that the readings are either too hard, or too long. That said, I do have to give credit where credit is due and thank the kindly student who, after complaining about the readings, conceded that things always make more sense after we talk about them in class.

Since the readings are part of the syllabus, I’m not going to change them now. I also don’t think it is unreasonable to make students have to do some very short, if difficult, reading. What I am willing to do – and what I have already started doing – is emailing out guiding questions after each class. These questions will then help students engage with the reading that is due for the next class.  This should help students who are still developing their critical reading skills to identify what is important, and get them thinking about some of the questions that we might discuss in class. I have done this in the past, and it has worked well, and I really don’t know why I stopped. I’m therefore very hopeful that this will pan out.

3. Audio-Visual Materials
Many students requested more video clips, advertisements, and other non-print media. It just so happens that it’s their lucky day, and these materials have already been integrated into several upcoming lectures. I am just as eager to talk about this material as they are; however, some subjects lend themselves better to this phenomenon than others. Materials have to actually add something to the learning experience – I refuse to insert fluffy, useless material into my class, just to make people happy. Therefore, while there will be lots of this type of content for the upcoming lectures on advertising, or social media, it will be harder to incorporate them when talking about the theoretical relationship between journalism and democracy. It remains to be seen if they feel like I’m doing enough, but I feel like they understand the balancing act, even if they don’t always like the outcome.

Overall, I’ve been astounded by the kind-spirited and thoughtful feedback I received. I’ve been teaching large, impersonal classes for too long, and I forgot what it felt like to have a truly reciprocal relationship with my students. The only other critique I consistently received had to do with speed, and as I said last week, that’s to be expected. And so I close with a note to any of my student’s who’ve stumbled upon this blog: I’m trying, I really am – bear with me, and eventually I’ll get there.

Informal (Early) Evaluations

This week, I’ll be giving my students the chance to assess my teaching early. They will each receive a printed questionnaire and time to fill it out in class. The questionnaires will be anonymous and voluntary, and they are composed of only 4 questions:

  1. Do you find group work useful?
  2. What do you like about this class?
  3. What do you dislike about this class?
  4. If you could change one thing, what would it be?

If the course were a seminar, I would also have added questions about the best and worst readings, but as I’m currently teaching 3 sections of a lecture-based class, I’m sticking to the basics.

Why am I surveying my classes when I’m already terrifyingly behind, you ask? I mean – really – who has time to read an extra 105 hand-written sheets of paper this time of year? Well, this is an old trick I used to use when I was a new teacher. I did it with every class, and then used the feedback to get a sense of what I was doing right, and what was a huge flop. You know, back in the days before the universities started giving me 150-seaters. These informal surveys gave me information before the course was over, when I still had time to do something about it, and to make the course more pleasurable for the students and for myself. They also had the handy side-effect of giving me cold, hard data that proved that someone’s love affair was another person’s nightmare  – by which I mean that the most popular items on the “what do you like” and the “what do you hate” lists are always the same damn thing.

I’m resorting to my old ways again for several reasons. First and foremost, my classes are much smaller and so I feel like I can – and should – start doing this again. When I only have 35 opinions to consider for each section, I feel like I have a responsibility to see how things are going from their perspective and to try to adapt my lectures and small-group activities to their needs. End-of-term evaluations might be important to my career, but early evaluations are important to my classroom, and it’s this kind of informal document that lets me best serve my students in the moment.

If I’m being entirely honest though, I’m also unusually concerned about my performance because I’ve switched levels. I’m thoroughly accustomed to teaching at the university level, so teaching for a pre-university CEGEP program for the first time means that I’m anxious and that I live in fear of pitching the class either too high or too low. Knowing me, it’s the former that’s the danger and not the latter, but you never know. From my perspective, my students seem to be keeping up, making breakthroughs, and being generally awesome (yeah, ok, so I have particularly good classes right now). That having been said, I still want to know what it feels like to them.

As with end-of-term evaluations, you need to have a thick skin for these things, and I’m sure I’ll get my share of painfully blunt statements. But at least I’ll know where I stand, and I can add or reduce the amount of group work as the term progresses. I can also change up how I format my lectures, if not the topics themselves. Maybe a few more case studies? Maybe less quotes but more definitions? And almost invariably, I will be asked to slow down. Speed is my Achilles heel, and I can’t imagine that my weakness has magically healed itself since last semester.

I’ll report back and let you know how I’m feeling about this next week, after I’ve digested the usual mix of thoughtful feedback and pure vitriol. Hopefully, this semester, no one complains about the sound of my voice…

Surprise! Feminism!

This week I’m going to be screening Miss Representation for my Media Ethics course. Ethics is the third and final mandatory humanities course for all students in Anglophone pre-university CEGEP programs. Students enrolled in my class are therefore destined for STEM fields as well as humanities, social science and music. They may or may not have ever thought about gender issues before, and they certainly didn’t sign up for a class on feminism. Despite this, they are being asked to watch a feminist film about the portrayal of women in the media and to write a response paper about it.

The first time I saw the film – which, though very good, does have its flaws – I was doing a post-doc at McGill. One of the on-campus associations had arranged a screening and a colleague and I went to check it out. Much to my dismay, there were only two men in the otherwise impressive audience.  Once again, feminism was preaching to the choir, and as is too often the case with gender studies courses, the room was packed with women. This bothered me for two reasons. Most importantly, the efficacy of the film is greatly diminished if men don’t see it. What’s the point of speaking truth to power, if those who inhabit positions of power – or who will one day inhabit them – aren’t listening? Second, the film does have its flaws and should be critiqued, and a more diverse audience would help with that project.

Unsurprisingly, then, I jumped at the chance to screen the film in a class that included men, and I put it on my syllabus almost without thinking. Since then, I have had time to reflect, and I am increasingly anxious as the day approaches. Some of my colleagues who have screened the film in their classrooms have noted that male students can react badly since they feel like the film is attacking them for crimes that they haven’t committed. This is a common response to projects which rightly point out our society’s systemic prejudice against women and which unintentionally make it sound like all men are perpetrators and all women are victims. Systemic problems are hard to explain in a nuanced way and things can appear too black and white in a documentary-style survey. This is especially true if the audience lacks sufficient background in gender studies.

And then there’s the issue of privilege. Ambitious youth brought up to believe that working hard will get them ahead – whether male or female – don’t want to hear that the system is not actually meritocratic and that some people are privileged while others aren’t. Men want to be able to take full credit for their achievements, and women want to believe they have equal opportunities. Gender inequality was supposed to be the fight of an earlier generation and it’s hard to hear that the battle is still ongoing. And so I find it entirely understandable that there’s a certain level of knee-jerk rejection that goes on.

Finally, none of us wants to admit that we’re that influenced by the media. Sure, role models are important, and portrayals of women on TV and in magazines aren’t great. But we all know the line between TV and real life, so what does it matter? Right? Studies linking what we watch to what we do have only been able to prove correlation, never causation, so it’s entirely possible that some people can consume hours upon hours of media content that marginalizes women and not take it personally and/or find that it simply mirrors a depressing reality that they’ve already come to terms with. Bleak as this picture may be, at least it allows for autonomy. And again, my students – like me – want desperately to believe that they have agency.

None of this is reason enough to avoid screening the film, but these potential reactions have given me pause when it comes to my decision to let the film speak for itself. The film is our first foray into the realm of applied ethics – we have hitherto been talking about abstract systems of morality – and I won’t be talking about the ethical issues related to the media’s portrayal of gender until the next day. This is because I wanted students to respond to the material without the filter of what I have to say. However, I am increasingly full of self-doubt about this particular decision because I don’t want to turn people off of the subject matter either. Basically, I’ve started to wonder if they would have gotten more out of it if I had decided to give the lecture first, and then screened the film.

At this point, the syllabus is set and there’s not much I can do. I will ask that people keep an open mind and that the men in the room remember that I will be talking about the media’s portrayal of masculinity as well. And then I will hit play. Hopefully, my students will find it interesting and engaging, but I won’t know if they’ve been drawn in by the film or if they’ve blocked its message out until I get those response papers.  I still think it’s really important for men to engage with these issues, but I also think that I need to do a little more work when it comes to introducing them to feminist critiques in general and of the media in particular.

My own relationship with feminism has always been complicated, so I bow to the wisdom of my peers and invite suggestions about how best to introduce this type of material. How do you talk about feminism in your class without “turning off” the men or depressing the women? Let me know in the comments below.