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.

What is the Value of the Written Word: Part II

images-8Part I was the response to the literal question. When we make a living writing and editing, we have to put an objective, concrete value on our words in order to survive and thrive. But that should be just a necessary evil. Today, we will visit the figurative or philosophical aspect of the query. So, business aside, what about the value of words gauged by other means? Do they have a measurable effect on us and our quality of life just as a paycheck related to these words might?

Words themselves are priceless and enduring. The carefully chosen ones produce life-changing insight, poetry, beauty, and enlightenment. The wrong ones may cause personal harm and wreak havoc on our souls, create unnecessary confusion, or set off  a chain of miscommunication and permanent damage. So, there is power in how we use our language, but so many people don’t consider this. Nor do they consider that learning how to structure our verbal interactions is of vital importance.

College students taking required composition classes most often treat their writing assignments as a burden and as something to be gotten past. They don’t realize the power they have when they wield their language artfully and strategically. There is grace in touching someone with words of significance. This is part of the overall struggle we in the humanities have when fighting to maintain respect and funding for Liberal Studies.

The “value” in communicating clearly is immeasurable. If you are still stuck on the financial side of “value,” then understand that poorly written missives don’t even get you onto the ladder of success, much less up any rungs. You’d better hope you are so brilliant otherwise and that you will be in so much demand that you can afford a personal assistant to mask your failings in this arena.

The real value, I think, is in what your words will do for others as well as for yourself.

Begin Again

images-6Begin Again is the title of a movie that my husband turned me on to. The main character, a producer in the music business has many reversals in his life like a failed marriage and stagnating career. As the movie evolves, we see him pushing forward and drawing from his past success to bolster his future. There is reinvention regeneration of spirit. He begins again and againIt was a good flick. So, what’s this got to do with writing or even yoga? Begin and Again. In both your writing ambitions and your yoga practice, each day is a beginning.

Aristotle stated that ” . . . the beginning is thought to be more than half of the whole, and many of the questions we ask are cleared up by it.” Basically, the best most focused start is the most promising for desired outcomes. If something goes awry, look to the pattern of events that led up to the road block. How did you begin? How did you set up or clear your space? Maybe you did not have everything you needed, including the focus, so your pages are not so inspired or your poses were a struggle to maintain. We all have to begin each day when we wake up up even if the projects or poses are part of an ongoing ambition or enjoyable habit.

images-5The “again” part is a bit more complicated. Each day can be an “again” in a positive light or an “again” as in “ugh.” Returning and beginning again can be synonymous but quite a big difference also. In writing, the starting over can be so frustrating. You may have scrapped something that was not working out and are feeling zapped of the will to try again. But, like the character in the movie, if you love what you do and want to stay in the business/genre that you chose, you’ll unload or shelve what you have to and bulldoze past any naysayers to see your vision become a reality.

My yoga practice and my riding both create a focus for me that I don’t find coming from anything else. For both of these my beginning has to include being fully present or there is no flow or forward movement literally or figuratively. My poses are stiffer. If the horse lacks clear communication and relies on himself to decide how to respond to my aids, any effort is lost energy and potential. It only makes sense that if I sit down to write, I need to have a plan. Even a plan to free write so that I can let the words come out. I can edit and adjust later but I need to begin, and begin with purpose.

images-7Thus we begin again and again. But and it needs to be in the spirit of learning and endeavor, not frustration. So beginings are new, they are do overs ,they are retracing of steps ,they are clean slates. They are framed by your past behavior and generate results based on your focus or lack thereof. There are “agains” in everything so let the again be a revisiing of an effort you’d like to see more sucess from. Don’t let it become a state of repetition and stagnation.