Saturday, December 30, 2006

How Much Reading Can We Expect Our Students to Do?

Here is a vexing topic, at least for this instructor of cultural foundations of education. What can you expect students to read in a typical semester? In a 500 (master’s level, but open to advanced undergraduates) course that I teach on higher education in film and fiction, I am assigning 6 novels with a total number of pages around 2200.

So, over 16 weeks we are talking about 140 pages per week. I have been advised both ways, that this is too much for some of our students, especially those who work, while some of my professorial colleagues say this is not too much. After all, we are talking about current literary fiction such as Don DeLillo’s White Noise and Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons, not dense theoretical or philosophical texts.

Part of the problem is that students, even graduate students, generally do not do reading these days. This commonly known fact was not the case when I went to college, or at least not for me. But today, as Rebekah Nathan points out in her book My Freshman Year, students cut corners when they can, and if reading is not tested upon or part of one’s grade, very few do it.

So, I ask you dear readers, what is the appropriate amount of reading that we can expect of students at various levels? Are 150 pages of fiction per week too much even for graduate students (for comparison, for an undergraduate course in modern literature where I went to college the professor assigned Proust, Mann, Joyce, and other large texts, one per week)? Should we give students “reading quizzes” to assure that the reading is done?

One strategy regarding readings that a friend of mine suggests is this, and I quote him: “Talk about this problem frankly with them at the beginning of term, and say 'okay, you are graduate students in the philosophy of education. Here's an educational-philosophy issue par excellence. How do you get students to do all the readings assigned? I am sympathetic to the fact that many of you have full-time jobs *outside* Purdue. But, that said, this class is a serious responsibility that you have shouldered voluntarily for the time being. After all, I only have you for a VERY SHORT TIME. I may never get to educate you again after this term. So for these 16 short weeks, I am going to require that you really do ‘shuffle this course up to the top of the heap,' as it were, and make these readings a priority in your life while you're enrolled in it."

My friend goes on to talk of another strategy he uses: “What I do sometimes in my undergrad courses, if I suspect [know] that they are slacking, is to give a POP quiz, very early in the term, and let them crash & burn. I go so far as to collect the papers. I let them baste in their own juices for a few moments. Then I tear up the quizzes and say, ‘that was an educational moment all its own. You get a free pass THIS TIME. Next time, though, it *will* count. So be sure you do the reading.' Invariably on the next quiz they all get almost 100%."

Let me hear your reading expectations and strategies for getting students to do the readings.

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