Is it preposterous to claim that you will teach a university student “how to read”? At one level, absolutely. Students have been reading for quite a while and are skilled at digesting and summarizing information. But, reading for information (and its close analogue, reading for comprehension) is only one way of reading, and one that serves foundational, but also minimal, purpose for classes I teach.
Yet, not all readings are equal. Some texts are seemingly impenetrable even for scholars, and reading to simply comprehend a text might be challenging enough for students. Thus, selecting appropriate readings and instructing students how to read them are important steps in the pedagogical “decision tree.”
For survey classes like the one I’m designing currently, introductory textbooks are a clear option. They are effective at delivering a broad range of ideas and terms in easily comprehensible language, and sometimes they are outfitted with convenient illustrations, maps, and charts. Yet, there are limitations to textbooks. Oftentimes, they do not include sufficient primary sources or documents (important if you are taking a historical approach) and due to their style, they tend to be pretty boring reads. Related, and often overlooked, the genre of textbooks are written as broad summaries, and as such do not function a good rhetorical models for student writing. They frequently present data as neutral facts, overlooking the (more interesting!) scholarly debates that breathe life into the field. Consequently textbook authors do not write in an argumentative style that builds to a thesis derived from evidence.
Admittedly, this may not be a concern for many, but I’d prefer to have students engage the genre of writing I’m hoping they will practice writing. I’ve come to think of textbooks as reference handbooks that function in a very similar fashion to good encyclopedia articles – informative, but uninspiring.
Other options include more formal scholarship, such as journal articles, chapters from anthologies, chapters from monographs, or even entire scholarly books. These will typically be analytically focused (and I’d argue, more interesting) and generally model good argumentative writing. Of course, these texts are not written for novice scholars like our students, and at times will assume knowledge our students simply do not have. But I think we should recognize some authors and topics are more welcoming than others, and I do not think this concern should eliminate readings such as these out of hand. In many cases, a good introduction to the text could greatly assist in comprehension and encourage students to do any other necessary background research (Wikipedia will often suffice). Providing guiding questions cna also help. I would suggenst that instead of asking questions that are merely fact based (“What does author X say about Y?”), one could make eplicit (the often implicit) research question the scholar is trying to answer.This will frame the work in the context of the discipline, and suggest where holes in knowledge exist(ed).
Regardless of selected readings, I would be remiss to not discuss on open secret – students do not read, and at best they skim for what they need to know, when they need to know it (like right before a test). Research has shown that 80% of students read the reading assignments in 1981, but that number was down to 20% in 1997. Honestly, I am not sure what to do with this hard reality. One easy way to coerce students to read is to have regular (or surprise) tests on the readings or have them write or summarize the contents. I tend to do the latter, but it is relatively easy to “game” either of these scenarios in one way or another. Another solution is to assign more assessible and interesting assignments such as documentaries, podcasts, and journalistic articles, interspersed with more difficult academic texts.
We should remember, that whatever we assign should be in alignment with our course outcomes and – most importantly – our means of assessment. This matters because students will read in a manner that best prepares them for the type of assessment they receive. If we provide multiple choice exams and “list-the-facts” essays (which, ahem, does not engage higher-order thinking), then students will only read for content. They will, understandably, takes notes on facts, figures, dates, and so forth. While this is valuable, it does not develop any critical reading skills. I would argue that in addition to reading for content, a student should also read more critically.
In fact, scholars read in several ways simultaneously, gathering facts and data, forming opinions, challenging old idea, critiquing argument, and so forth. This is something I want students to cultivate as well. One strategy to help student read more critically is to instruct them to take notes differently and keep a dialectical notebook or a double entry-journal. In terms of the latter, students take notes in one column and in the parallel column they write down their response to that information. This is often “connections” or relational knowledge – how did that fact make you think about something you already knew, about something you see in your life or in the world, about something you are learning in another class, or about something you saw in another reading (text to text, text to self, text to world, etc.). It is foremost about making a network of meanings and ideas connected to one another.
Grist for the Mill: Choosing an good reading is only part of the puzzle, students also need to know how to read that text. It is important to be clear in what purpose the reading serves for your course. Why do you want students to read it? Ask them questions along those lines, instead of questions that simply cover content. Instructing them on double entry notebooks can facilitate a move away from simply skimming for facts. I have found that assigning a large writing project due at the end of the term can function as a lens for reflection throughout the term. If you assign students daily reflective writings on the readings, a portion of that reflection can be oriented towards thinking about how that text may help build part of an argument for that final paper.
*This is part of a series where I discuss my evolving thought process on designing a new university course in Religious Studies. In practice, this process will result in a syllabus on Japanese Religions. These posts will remain informal and mostly reflective.