Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Nobody Said This Job Was Easy

As we opened our discussion of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone in my celebrity-themed writing class today, I asked for students' general responses to the novel. At one point, somebody piped up that he hated reading. There were nods of understanding around the room. I then (because I am a masochist) asked for a show of hands for how many students hate reading. Approximately 80% of the class responded that they hate the reading. Not just that reading isn't really their thing but that they actively hate it. I then (because I'm really a danger to myself) asked for reasons why they hate reading. The reasons included the following:
  • It's boring.
  • It takes a long time.
  • It makes them fall asleep.
  • It's hard.

Remember: they were assigned the first four chapters of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, a children's book, which is actually pretty engaging, if I do say so myself.

I then took a few minutes to talk about why reading is essential to becoming a good writer, to explain that I am not stupid enough to think that I can make them love reading to the extent that they stay awake reading War and Peace into the wee hours but that I do hope that they will approach reading with an open mind, and I then suggested that every time they think of the word "read," which they view as meaning the passive consumption of a boring text, that they supplant it with either "interpret" or "investigate."

So yes. This is today's view from the trenches. I'm certainly hoping that things improve.


csdorotoc said...

As part of national delurking week, this reminds me of a comment of Chris Evert the tennis player when she retired. She said that after playing with people who knew how to play, in retirement she would be playing with people who don't know how to play. Remember, you can still call of delurking week. It's not too late.

Robert Talbert said...

I wonder what students think "reading" actually is. People who have been through a long educational process have come to see the act of reading as something highly active and highly *inter*-active, where you soak in the words and then make margin notes or think about what you've read or ask questions, then start again. It's like having a conversation with the author, and it's engaging even when it's difficult. But for novices, they may dislike "reading" because "reading" to them means a static visual intake of words on a page. And yeah, that's boring and puts just about anybody to sleep.

I think in general we teachers do a very poor job of teaching students how to read -- not in the sense of basic literacy, but in teaching students to engage in reading as a dynamic activity. In fact think we rarely really even come to terms with our students on what reading *is*, but rather just assume that since we're using the same word ("reading") then we have the same concept in mind.

(You should try getting students to read a *math* book! Now there's the worst of both worlds for you.)

Dr. Lisa said...

Ok, but I am going on record as saying War and Peace is well worth staying up for.

I feel for you, Doc.

Michael said...

Wow. Just, wow.

Wasn't the whole virtue of Harry Potter that it was supposed to reignite reading passion among the world's youth?

Maybe Robert's on to something. Maybe you should make writing in the margins into an assignment? I'm just throwing things out here...

chutry said...

I have to admit that I'm very surprsied. I don't think I've ever seen such open resistance to *reading*, much less reading something as accessible as Harry Potter.

Like Robert, I wonder to what extent the students view reading as a passive (rather than interactive) activity. Or hwether reading is always associated with *work* for them (since I teach film, for example, the last thing I want to do sometimes is watch a movie).

But, yeah, that's a little surprising. Also surprising that they would cop to that so early in the semester.

Dr. Crazy said...

1. I totally agree that War and Peace is worth staying up for. my point in saying that to them is more of a "you have permission not to be as enthusiastic as I am and I won't be offended" sort of a thing. I've noticed that my students students seem to respond much better if they don't feel like I'm trying to force them into engagement. (In other words, I deceive them into engagement, mwahahaha!)

2. Well, it may reignite reading passion yet - they only had to read to chapter four for today. I decided to post this mainly to give a sense of the kind of students I teach regularly. The thing that is astonishing to me is not so much that they hate reading but the level of comfort that they have in expressing that to a professor. I think that's where my students at this institution really differ from the students I taught at my grad institution. They may have felt the same way, but they were more adept at masking how they felt because they were more familiar with the discourse of higher ed. Thus, what was kind of demoralizing in this context today is actually one of the things I really appreciate about the students I teach at this institution - they really don't pull any punches.

3. I should note that this course tends to attract a student population that does not want to take it. A. it fulfills a general studies requirement but yet is not required of all students (as one semester of freshman comp is); B. It is required by SOME majors, generally those that tend to attract students for whom writing has never been a strong point. With these being the case, one tends to start out the course with a hostile audience and to have to hope for at least a few conversions. I'm luckier in the first section of the day that I teach - I've got a few students who have had me in other courses and who are enthusiastic about me if not writing and who are setting the tone in there, which really helps. It's the second section in which I know none of the students, and they seem to be attempting to test me a bit. They also gave me the Grand Inquisition about where I'm from originally, why I'm teaching here, etc. And I can tell that they're trying to figure out what my personal life deal is, as well, but they're too polite to ask.

Dr. Crazy said...

Oh, and to respond to the reading-as-passive thing. Yes. That's entirely how they see reading. When we discussed their attitude toward reading, it became clear that many if not all of them had had some really bad formative experiences with reading (teacher who expects one to spit back all of the stuff he/she lectures about; being assigned reading that one does not have an interest in or that one does not identify with, etc.) and that was why I told them to replace that word with interpret or investigate. They seemed to respond well to that idea, if the looks on their faces were any indication. Also, one student did pipe up that she feels like it helps that they will not be tested over the reading in the class but that instead she can really "get into" the book without worrying about knowing the answers on a test.

Jason said...

It's especially awesome to get "I hate reading" from senior English majors, and double-especially when your class meets once a week for three hours.

I always have the same three questions:
Why, again, did you pick this as your major? And why did you register for a Victorian novel course? If you didn't know what "Victorian novels" implied, why didn't you drop after visiting the bookstore?

(Comment brought to you courtesy of national de-lurking week.)

Anonymous said...

I must say you seem quite calm. That would make me want to kick their heads in... Are they first years? Surely they are.
I love this: "It takes a long time" !! Tell them so does sex if they do it right.

Axis of Peter said...

I have two reactions: first, I for one, am not surprised at all. I WAS surprised when I was a TA at the best state university in our state to encounter just this attitude. In our writing about lit course, one or two students invariably thought it wildly comic when I asked them to say something about themselves, to respond, "I hate reading." Oh, how outre, how cutting edge," other students thought while sniggering. They obviously don't realize quite how that comes across to a well read person. I would pass off such a comment with "Oh, I'm so sorry for you. Perhaps by the end of this class you will learn to enjoy it more." (I also learned not to begin classes by asking for a rection to a short story or play..widely anthologized..."boring," "stupid.")

Second, share with students this recent data: only 13% of Amercians are "proficient" in terms of literacy (doing "complex" tasks such as comparing views in an editorial). The difference in annual income between a proficient reader and one who lacked basic skills was $50,700 in 2003.

Kristiface said...

It's not surprising to me. But while it doesn't surprise me, I'm really perplexed by it.

As someone who loves to read and has always loved to read (since I was three thank-you-very-much) I have a really hard time understanding why people wouldn't like reading -- okay, perhaps not a scholarly monograph, which I don't always like reading either-- but a novel?

And what's frustrating beyond that simple point is how do you get someone to like it? It seems so impossible to me to make a 20 year old student come to, not necessarily LOVE reading, but at least not hate it actively, when it is so obvious to me why every single human being should LOVE to read. I'm baffled by the problem.