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.

Keep Reading, Keep Learning, Keep Growing

Some ideas and observations are worth a revisit. This entry was originally posted about 3 years ago and I find that it has relevance still today. I’ve  changed the title and did a bit of editing but the essence remains:

Perfection is an inaccurate term to use for a human being, I believe. There is a positive force to embody in our lives regardless of the term we apply to it. As I continue to savor random moments alone with How Yoga Works by Geshe Michael Roach, I find myself kind of floating emotionally in a soft cocoon. My head hums a bit, my chest alternates between tightness and the most clear and weightless expanse of breath I can ever remember having. Realizations and fear, regrets and hope all ebb and flow. It’s like having a misty aura pulsing around me. Very spiritual. Very new. Very different from the reactions to the texts I usually read and write about.

A current passage that has insinuated itself into my thoughts contains references to the dilemma of pride. Pride is especially troublesome when it has installed itself within a student and the master or teacher must find a way to refocus it. One of the pending titles for my blogging is Teaching People How to Learn. I still may use it later on, but for the moment it serves as a better example of the trajectory of this post rather than a guide for a separate entry. As the narrator tells us, pride must be hit or beaten with a figurative stick until it becomes “a healthy kind of confidence” ( 135). One holds onto pride jealously but confidence is flexible. It can be shaken, it can be restored, and it does not begrudge change.

Confidence is what many of us lack when we endeavor to write. Pride is what stops us from learning. Those of us that have allowed rejection letters or the disinterest of influential people or difficulty with insecure bosses  to define our worth have allowed a perception to dominate our overall sense of ability and worth. That is not to say that there is a ceiling to learning and that writing is a static medium. The negative must be analyzed closely to find the realities within that collapse of hope or momentum.

This leads me back to teaching people how to learn. I have students who go into throws of anxiety and confrontation when they get a C rather than the expected A (Read: grade earned for simply producing the work). I see them as people with potential to evolve if I can assist them in realizing that earlier grades came at earlier periods in their education. Perhaps the standards were lower as well–let’s be frank about that. Many do not know how to evolve from the platform they have rested upon and refuse to find that there is more work ahead. Their pride is blocking the growth of their knowledge base. I am the wall they hit or the stick that beats the barriers down if I can.

What overcomes the obstacles? Reading of course. The text is life. Each text is a portal into a new perspective on life as it was or is if you see it for its potential rather than only its concrete form. How Yoga Works teaches us that things are not “themselves” or, rather, don’t have an unyielding unchangeable identity. Our engagement with the world creates or molds the nature of what we behold and that nature “itself” is not static. Roach offers us an example when the narrator engages her jailor in a discussion about a bamboo pen on his desk. Is it a pen? To him, yes, but is it only a pen? He comes to realize that it is also  a tiny piece of nourishment: “I mean that impression, that sense of division is so strong . . . I simply never realized that I make the pen itself ; my mind takes the pen a pen, just as the cow’s mind draws the same green stick as something good to eat” (118).

Now, I don’t  believe that our perceptions are an illusion or that people do not create texts, art, or even meals in an unconscious state that only others can give concrete form to as they engage with them. We are not passive vessels nor are our accomplishments eradicated by lack of witnesses or missing accolades. What this text brings to me and what I take from my interaction with it is that we can change our perception so that pain and discomfort do not concretely define an experience. If someone is cruel, the unhappiness is real, but the root cause of our pain may be suppressed or veiled by the surface actions. What is truly cruel in the moment?  The actions or the causes of these?

For a non-spiritual on non-philosophical example, think of the “kick the dog” syndrome. Someone is raked across the coals by his unhappy boss who is looking for someone to abuse because his wife made nasty comments that morning. The employee, feeling victimized and powerless, then spits profanity at someone who accidentally bumps his arm causing hot coffee to burn his hand. The person soundly abused for an honest mistake cuts someone off at a turn feeling the need to assert her authority and presence. The person who narrowly misses hitting that car comes home shaking and, as the dog trips him in his glee at finally having someone to play with, kicks the animal for also being in the way.

These examples and questions are not meant to confuse your sense of order or make you doubt your eyes or heart. Doubt is not the goal. Doubt is real at the moment you feel it, but it should not be a  manipulative tool for preventing the emergence of self-assertion and confidence. The key here is that self assertion must be based in awareness and tempered by acceptance of the changeable nature of what Roach calls “universal powers” and of perception.

The text I am reading is life. What you are reading is life. As it should be? As you agree? Does it matter? We are experiencing the opportunity to learn and grow from the nourishment that is found in the narrative.

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Do You Hold on to Your Drafts Like Other People Collect Books?

imagesI was just reading a post from a wonderful blog I follow and they were asking for feedback about how people “manage” their libraries (Here is the link to the post: Live to Write-Write to Live).What do people keep or part with? How do they keep track of or arrange their books? Many of the posts I read came from people like me who have a large-to-enormous collection and are often trying to purge or rearrange to their satisfaction. It was refreshing to know that I’m not the only one who can’t seem to let go of books that I may never reread or get to reading. Even as I reduce my library slowly, I am often restocking from behind so to speak. New stuff always makes it in! It is, after all, part of our interests or passion. Collecting and disseminating is part of the process.

imagesBut what about drafts or ideas? Regardless of how you write and store your info, do you hang on to ideas or started projects thinking you’ll turn them into something someday–when you have more time? Are you so tired of trying to get past a point with the story or poem or essay that you can’t bear to find new energy for it but can’t give it up since it’s taken so much of your time? Some projects are like books in your collection–they just don’t quite take precedence. In other words, yes, there may be a time in the future that this idea or project finally germinates. But there might not be. Drafts may not be as bulky as books, physically, but they do also take up mental space you might want to free for future ideas.

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Don’t jump to hit the delete button or use these languishing pages for kindling to free yourself from them right away. You should really ask yourself if you have simply given up and actually do need to get back to work or if you honestly don’t have a real interest in them anymore. Be as brutally honest with yourself as you can be. And, don’t forget, you can always share these projects and drafts like you would a good book: Give the idea to someone who might be able to do it justice. Creating and disseminating is part of this process. How you spread the word is entirely up to you!