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.

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Heron Moon Press

I am an adjunct assistant professor of English at Pace University in NY, adjunct faculty in English at Raritan Valley Community College in NJ, an online member of the adjunct faculty at SNHU College of Online and Continuing Education, as well as a freelance editor and writer. For many years, I've taught, guided, and tutored many individuals from those as young as kindergarten age to Grad-school students. I've worked on fiction, nonfiction, and memoirs. What has given me the greatest pleasure, is when I have students get together in a group, and create a story together. I offer the theme (e.g., Create a version of Red Riding Hood) and they run with it. I hope to offer this community collaboration to many more people. The goal is to prove that you don't have to be alone to write, you don't have to offer yourself up alone to the group, you can collaborate and offer the world (yes, the world is the community) a chance to create a narrative together. The results have been amazing.

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