Some of you will recall my piece on the need to teach critical reading alongside analytic writing. There is a difference between reading something literally and reading that same piece critically. It often takes students a very long time to understand what the difference is and how to become a critical reader. Although critical reading is a hard skill to teach, there is a general sense that practice is a must. That having been said, we all know that getting students to actually do their readings is a hard, even at the best of times. So how do you make sure they’re getting the practice they need, especially when it comes to the really dense or difficult texts? You know the readings I mean. Anything post-colonial is a good example.
It’s true, giving students a reason to do the readings is a great way to ensure that they do their work. I have colleagues at the CEGEP level who give pop quizzes on reading material for this reason. My personal strategy is to choose my readings carefully – that is to try to pick enough material that is written in an engaging and accessible manner and place it alongside the things which are really hard. I also vary my approach to discussing those readings when it comes time for class, and my students do all sorts of different group work, engineering questions about the readings which they can then ask their peers, doing think-pair-share exercises, and sometimes even having a formal debate.
But I’m a realist, and even my most heroic efforts to make the learning process exciting and genuinely appealing sometimes just aren’t enough. This is particularly true at the start of the semester – when students are still deciding whether I’m good crazy or bad crazy – and at the end of term – when they are flat-out exhausted and over-burdened with other work. And so, I’ve started doing more in-class reading.
In-class reading has several advantages. First of all, if you want to introduce students to a really difficult text and make sure that they actually try to get all the way through it – instead of just giving up and waiting for the “answer” to come in class – this is pretty much the only way to ensure the work gets done. By setting aside time in class, you remove the temptation to give up and watch TV. Moreover, you create a built-in support system. Students see that everyone is struggling, and they are given the space and time to commiserate with their peers. But after some initial venting, they are also able to work with their fellow students to try to put things together and recreate the argument in laymen’s terms. In most cases, different students will be able to decipher different bits of the text, and they can then work together to recreate the argument in the same way that a group of friends might assemble a jigsaw puzzle together.
Even though everyone reads at a different pace, students who finish early can begin to speak quietly while their peers finish the text. As more and more people complete the reading, groups of 5-8 students can be formed. This brings me to the second advantage of in-class reading: it makes each student’s initial reaction to the text useful, and builds on gut reactions instead of letting those first impressions fizzle and die, breeding complacency and disinterest. Conversation about in-class readings usually starts with students asking one another what they thought about the text. The result is that different opinions about the same text can then be used as an entry point to discuss things like significance or methodology, which might otherwise seem too difficult or abstract. The process encourages the students to think about how the texts work and not just what they say.
Finally, even if your class ends up universally hating the reading in question, they will likely resent the process less than if they had been asked to do the reading at home. At least this way, the offending literature hasn’t taken up any of their flex time. At the same time, doing a reading in the classroom – no matter how hard the text might be – allows you to break away from a lecture format, and vary the presentation of course material. The change of pace is often welcome to both teacher and students alike.
I have tried projecting smaller excerpts on my PowerPoint and reading them aloud (or having a student volunteer do so). In these scenarios, I usually follow the excerpt with a brief think-pair-share exercise, wherein students have a moment to think on their own and then discuss with their neighbor. When that is done, we discuss the excerpt in greater detail as a class. This has been successful, especially in the really big classes; however, it is very limited in terms of what it can accomplish. Thus, I tend only to take this approach when trying to illustrate the mood of a historical period, or a single concept.
If you want to actually get into critical reading, you have to give them photocopies, although it is important to stick to relatively short excerpts here as well. Remember, your students have not been to grad school, and they haven’t yet mastered the art of either speed reading or skimming. And many of them aren’t accustomed to reading anything longer than your average blog. Even a lengthy op-ed can be too much for them, and I never give more than 1-2 pages at a time. Even then, students still need roughly 15 minutes to be able to do it, and some of them will really struggle to make it to the end.
Regardless of what reading you choose, students will need some guiding questions. When I’ve done this in history courses, I’ve assigned things like Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History, and asked students what Fukuyama thinks the end of history looks like. From there, we move into bigger questions, such as “is it possible for history to end,” and “what types of categories should we use to think about how history progresses?” In this particular case, I was using the reading to introduce 150 students to the content of my modern European History course – and we circled back to the same material at the very end of the course – but I have also used in-class readings in my ethics classes, which are much smaller.
In ethics, we read Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill on two separate occasions. Ultimately, the goal was to compare their moral philosophies. Later in the course, we also read about Ubuntuism, which I’m pleased to report was shockingly successful. In each case, students were asked what defines right versus wrong – according to the author in question – and then how the reading compared to other thinkers that we had examined. They were also asked whether or not they felt like the text in question was useful when discussing the modern media, since ultimately the course is an applied ethics course that focusses on the media and the public sphere.
I won’t lie, the first few minutes the first time I do this exercise in any given class tends to result in palpable annoyance and some very loud grumbling. But as students ease into it, on the whole, they seem to enjoy the exercise. What’s even better, their ability to dissect a text is notably improved by the second time we go through the process. And while they might still all complain about the difficulty of some of the readings when we get to the end of the course, I feel like they understand things like Fukuyama or Kant in a way that they wouldn’t have if I had simply lectured on the topic or told them to read it at home.
That’s it for now, but next week I want to continue this discussion by writing about one of my favourite ways of adapting this exercise. Until next time!