How We Can Equip and Induce Students to Do the Readings
Let us accept the fact that most students approach the assigned readings with a somewhat cavalier and pragmatic attitude, combined with varying degrees of anxiety and dread. To address this negative posture, we have to see the issue from their point of view given their life circumstances. In particular, we have to avoid projecting our identities and values onto them. When we were in college, most of us ranked among the best students, or we wouldn’t have made it into and through graduate school and into the academy. We exceeded the average in our reading abilities and persistence, our enjoyment of the activity, the importance we attach to it, the learning benefits we derive from it, our interest in at least some subjects, and our raw intelligence. At the same time, we probably weren’t perfect students ourselves. No doubt we cut some corners, skipped some readings, spent some nights cramming, and prioritized certain extracurricular activities over some of our courses. And we were gifted enough to get away with it.
Here we are years later, happily wedded to our fields and expert readers in them, selecting the readings that we value for our novice students. We may not have noticed that we have internalized a large disciplinary vocabulary that is a foreign language to them. We have also learned a variety of cognitive shortcuts that make our reading easy. For us, a single term may recall an entire mental structure of concepts, principles, assumptions, and implications that enriches our understanding of the sentence and foreshadows the next sentence. The unending flow of meaning allows us to move through the text quickly with unwavering focus. Even our brightest students stumble over technical vocabulary and bring shallow, if any, associations to their academic readings. And they can’t possibly appreciate their value or our reasons for selecting them.
Moreover, from our students’ standpoint, some of us don’t seem very serious about our course readings. We assign them but make little or no effort to sell the students on them. This might not be so odd if everyone else weren’t trying to sell them something. Many of us lecture the readings in class, as if we don’t expect our students to do them either. In addition, few of us have incentive or sanction mechanisms to hold our students accountable for doing the readings when they are due. A big test is too distant a concern. So why should they do the readings?