What Are College Students Used to Reading?

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As I read through another essay in Deep Reading, I was struck by the author’s commentary on her early years of learning. Meredith Ross (“The Unschooled Writer”), struggled with the “flat” or simplistic wording of tests: “I had grown up in a world of context and complexity, and the trivia questions and the flat answers in boxes just weren’t cutting it.” Granted this was referring to a test she took to be able to participate in a television show about “child geniuses,” still, these questions were not much different from many standardized tests. I should know, I used to write items for such tests! We had to avoid religion, emotion, controversial subjects, birthdays, anything too representative of wealth (an inner-city child might be offended if we used the word “yacht” instead of boat), etc. Basically, anything interesting or well-rounded in nature. Apparently students should not be distracted by variety or anything requiring imagination.

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What I am getting at here is her emphasis on “content and complexity.” It seems that fewer and fewer students enter college with an expectation of anything more than flat, generic questions based on hyper-edited-for-easy-content passages and photo-dense pages—this goes for course reading and textbooks–not just tests. They seem to be more shocked by challenge than bored by blandness.

She bucked at the idea of having to be right the first time: “Almost every mistake I made as a child, small or large, was . . . understandable [and] easily correctable . . . rather than an insurmountable failure or something that needed to be addressed seriously.” Trial and error were part of her process. Especially her writing process. So why do so many freshmen sit silently and afraid to risk mistakes these days? I used to have students who would at least try to guess. Even light sarcasm is better than silence in most instances. But silence is more and more common.

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Perhaps inserting a sense of humor into the mix might help: “I don’t know if there’s a better lesson for a writer to learn: do your best, and if it comes out wrong, just laugh and know better next time.” I do try but it seems that they aren’t sure they should laugh either!

Overall, I’d like to see more students these days react like Ross and abhor the tedium, expect the complex and the engaging, and take the risk.

Deep Reading vs. Casual Review

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I’ve been addressing, here, students’ preparedness for their first-year composition course. No longer taking for granted that they have been reading regularly for school or personal interest and that they at least have some experience in questioning–analyzing–their materials, I have actively asked them to question their relationship with the course essays and assignments. Ordinarily, I would get right to work on assigning their writing projects and the planning and brainstorming for their essays, but this cannot be the starting point anymore. I need to find out what they truly understand or find of interest in the text before they can even begin to formulate their own work.

For the most part, very few are aware that they have prior personal experience or knowledge that they could apply to understanding their materials. They see each essay as a separate entity that stands alone from all other assignments in other classes. They often don’t relate the subject matter to experiences and choices from their everyday lives. It’s hard to fathom for me because I’ve always been asked to relate the now to the past and to future possibilities. I assume everyone has done the same.

That does not make for effective teaching. This is not to say that I am leaning in the direction of trigger warnings and the like. I still feel that adults must be able to face multiple and possibly uncomfortable subjects without filters. It’s up to them to decide what they can handle–not up to me to shield them. But, positive or negative, they still need to be clearly engaged.

Very few have been interested in reading with true depth rather than reviewing for class time. Some come to me having struggled with understanding the writers’ overall viewpoint and even the vocabulary level. Personal essays are simply narratives without perspective to some. Overt argument is distilled into basic summary. Class time has become about how to read in general rather than how to write at this level. But, if that is what I have in hand, that is what I work with. And, coming to this with empathy makes me more effective and creates a particular safety zone that I am ok with providing. Some call it remedial work, some call it developmental, some call it refresh and review. Regardless, I call is a necessity for students from community college to private universities these days. I can’t reform K-12 education but I can accept what that produces  and do my best with what I inherit.

Literature and the Writing Process

orwellAs I continue to look through the essays in Deep Reading, it has become more apparent that the choice of using fiction or nonfiction for the classroom is a topic that many professors remain obsessed over and still debate on a regular basis. I’ve often argued this topic with colleagues and find that many composition professors are absolutely against bringing any form of fiction into their classroom. They feel that students need to be exposed to particular formats that they can follow and apply for themselves for their assignments. How could a work of fiction assist them in their own expository writing?

Yes, they should read works of nonfiction for examples of the modes of writing (e.g., argument, definition, process analysis), organization, research, citations/references, etc. But what about students’ interests? What about being engaged creatively? Not that nonfiction is boring, but sitting with an anthology of (sometimes outdated) essays by writers who may be unfamiliar to them is not a promising recipe for enthusiastic class discussion or original essay theses.

There is much to find in many novels that will engage a student and encourage complex analysis of important topics. One of the scholars whose work was most interesting to me is Sheridan Blau of Teachers College. He makes a succinct and logical argument in favor of (some) fiction as a catalyst for writing: “[M]ost serious novels . . . are interlaced throughout with passages that are themselves not narrative, but that are important to the experience of the novel as a structure of meaning and drawn from the discourses of philosophy, theology, ethics, and the various social and natural sciences.” In other words, students can get more than entertainment when they read fiction—if they are guided properly. Why not focus more on the overall topics students would like to investigate and argue rather than obsessing over the genre from which these topics are derived?

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Always Learning, Always Improving

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The fall semester, for me, is one of the busiest of the year. I tend to have the most classes to teach, multiple writing and editing projects, and added travels on the weekends. It’s all a good dilemma of time allotment, but it does make me have to reprioritize and I must move some interests, obligations, and enjoyments to the background for a bit. As you have noticed, updating my posts has been one of the enjoyments/interests that has had to gather a bit of dust.

Still, does this mean I’ve stopped writing? No. Have I forgotten about this page and this amazing community? No. In fact, I often imagine having a moment to write to you and share thoughts and observations. It’s a bit like keeping a friend in mind even though you can’t see them often. You plan what you will say or write when you have the next chance. And this is what has been happening while I’ve been “away.”

Over the fall, I joined a Faculty Interest Group (FIG) at Raritan Valley Community College (RVCC) where I teach composition. Some of our questions: If students have weak reading comprehension skills and remain passive recipients rather than active participants in the content that they must engage with, how can we expect them to formulate their own writing with any coherence or authority? But, if we assume students have weak reading skills, we do risk denying stronger students the chance to step right in to active discussion and emulation, leading to independent writing style. So, for our winter-break we chose the text Deep Reading: Teaching Reading in the Writing Classroom edited by Patrick Sullivan, Howard Tinberg, and Sheridan Blau.

As I begin this book, I think that it would be important to share my findings with you as well as the FIG. So, over the next weeks, I’ll be posting my observations here. Please feel free to correct or question me during this process. I’d love to know your thoughts.

Horse Gone Silent: An Author Gives Voice to an Animal’s Experience

About one year ago, I met a man named Shane Ledyard. He was judging the Hunters at the local horse show where I am an announcer. As we chatted, we were pleased to find out that we were kindred spirits beyond the horse world. He is a writer and the author of Horse Gone Silent, a book about the life and experiences of a horse named Calebo. While I am sheepish to admit it has taken me this long to be able to write about this YA story, I am very happy to share it with a larger audience.

I was immediately impressed by the attention and thought he had given not just to the content but the design and presentation. The cover is a clean, bold design with a close-up of a horse’s eye. This reminded me of a wonderful print I have by my fireplace at home that is quite similar in conception. You find yourself staring back at it, trying to see into the horse’s thoughts, and, perhaps, gain a glimpse of yourself.

This tale definitely would appeal to both the YA crowd it is meant for and adults interested in a story focused on horses. Now, horse stories are nothing new, and the drama of their lives has been addressed in both fiction and nonfiction, but what I find interesting here is that we have the horse’s voice rather than a human’s perspective. Many of us do wonder what they are thinking, right? What of their early experiences stay with them into their later years and changes in owners and training? Ledyard’s experience as a horseperson—rider, trainer, judge—lends a credibility to the projections and assumption of thought and emotion on the animal’s part.

Now we do need to remember that this is fiction and not science or research so, no, horses are not human and, therefore, not inclined to human thoughts, feelings, and actions as far as we can prove. But this is not intended to be a guide for communicating with or training animals. It is a story that imagines how one animal might experience life from his first moments of consciousness, shares his varied experiences in different living conditions with various owners, and, ultimately, unveils what I believe to be Ledyards’ notion of the ideal home for Caleb and perhaps many horses.

 

My critique would be that he tells a bit more than showing at times. I’d like the narrative  to unfold without the interruption of explanations. For instance, at one point, he explains what “weaning” is. It’s a moving passage about separation and trauma, but would hold more emotion if it offered more action and less definition. As well, later in the book, Ledyard explains to the reader what a Grand Prix is and I found myself pulled from the action. My preference is to add a glossary for those unfamiliar with horses so that the horse people reading it are not distracted by what is already known to them. And, like many of us, he seems to be trying to reach too many audiences with too many messages in one text. Is this about Calebo? Is it about horse care and ethics? Is it about faith and destiny? One focus per book would suffice. He could then do a series (if he is not already) in which he can address the evils inherent in the financial aspect horse business, good breeding and training practices, and the joy and success that a well-matched rider and mount experience.

Still his insight and compassion create very plausible imaginings of what an animal may well think and feel. He does have a gift for creating atmosphere. In Chapter 9 “The Killer Pen,” a barn has “paint chipping from the walls, mixed in with years of dust and grime.” The lack of pride, respect, or care in the facility is visceral. The simplicity of the description does not hide the hopelessness of life in this facility. It is always clear that he wants the reader to be extremely conscious of how actions and environment affect an animal’s quality of life.

I would be interested to read more reactions to this story. Ledyard himself is quite a benevolent spirit and open to discussion and commentary in way that many authors I have met should be. Perhaps he can influence writers as well as riders in both his actions and words.

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No Effort is Ever a Waste of Time: Even Slow Starts Become Fully Formed Realities if We Let Them.

 

images-14For quite some time I have been working on keeping the Community Story project going. The idea was to offer a single paragraph as a basis for a story and ask others to contribute util the initial prompt had formed into a story that I edited for consistency, etc. I did this in a similar form with my students but had them complete the story in small groups working together in person. I had tried offering it through Facebook and there were some wonderful submissions from friends; but, unfortunately, because the ideas were so diverse in focus, I could not quite combine their work into one story as I had hoped.

I tried resurrecting it in person with my friend and YA author Stacey Wilk, but while we had a blast with our group, we tended to have more beginning writers join us who were not quite yet ready for formal submissions. I do have to emphasize though that offering a single sentence or paragraph for a prompt for a group to work from–in person–is a wonderful practice tool that not only offers a cohesive focus to center on but it also allows each writer to understand how varied the same subject can become in the hands and imagination of each individual.

I refused to give up on it entirely but stopped making it a primary focus for a while, leaving it up in the air to see what might transpire to reinvigorate my interest. The solution presented itself as I visited my husband’s studio during a busy Saturday class session. As our dog, Smokey, proceeded, yet again, to steal a towel from someone to play keep away, our friend Deb suggested that he would make a great subject for a story. Next thing I knew, many voices joined in and ideas for themes and plots were being volleyed around the space, with someone being assigned the job of illustrating the first book. Here I was in a matter of moments, the chief editor, so to speak, of a series of books—not just one story. One manuscript has already been compiled, reviewed by contributors, and returned for changes and additions. The illustrator, Kimberly, has already brought some sketches in. The momentum is building. Now, this is a community story and it formed in a way I had not envisioned: spontaneity.

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Shall I bother pointing out the obvious: You can’t make things work; you can only keep moving forward and sharing ideas until something forms from the chaos or vagueness of an idea.