April 22, 2005

Students shirk course work, read for pleasure

Spring coursework has been piling up of late, and students have been rebelling by doing a great deal of reading—for pleasure instead of class.

"I really enjoy reading, it's just like watching a movie or something similar," said Bourrée Lam, a second-year in the College. "I also think that lots of people read to keep up with their friends," added Lam. "It's just that we U of C kids really enjoy reading."

But the book titles spotted on the quads and park benches are not on any professor's reading list for class discussion, nor are they supplemental readings for any research paper.

Janis Vint, assistant director of the Barnes and Noble Campus Bookstore, said she has recently noticed a boost in interest for outside-the-classroom reading. "The numbers don't lie," Vint said, who reported a significant increase in sales of "trade books," or books that are not designated as course materials. "The beginning of the quarter is always consumed with students buying textbooks," she said, "but around third week, a lot of students are returning these textbooks and so they think, ‘While I'm here, I might as well pick up a good read for fun or leisure.'"

Vint added that there are no surprises in terms of students' tastes. "It's always the more famous authors and new releases," she said, noting a constant shortage of the latest Harry Potter book and the hugelypopular Da Vinci Code. Vint particularly emphasized an overwhelming response to Freakonomics, the new bestseller by Steven Levitt, professor of economics at the University.

"We're having a really hard time keeping it on the shelves," Vint said. "We don't even know when the next stock will arrive, it's just that popular."

With the surge in pleasure reading, some students may be putting off coursework and assigned readings for class, generating slight frustration on the part of professors and discussion-leading teaching assistants in particular.

"I think the goal of a great University like ours is to produce students who can think for themselves about whatever issue comes their way," said Levitt, whose Freakonomics is currently the second best-selling book on "If reading Da Vinci Code, Harry Potter, or even Freakonomics helps accomplish that goal, I'm all for it."

Other professors have shared Levitt's attitude towards extracurricular leisure reading, even when it takes precedence over coursework. Anne Henly, professor of psychology at the University, recalled her own interests as an avid reader in college. "My pleasure reading came to a virtual halt when I first became a grad student, but then I adjusted and it picked up again," she said. "Now it doesn't interfere with my academic reading but it sure interferes with my sleep!"

Levitt, responding to claims that pleasure reading is detrimental to study habits, pointed to a variety of possible explanations for poor student performance at this time of year. "At least for some students, something is getting in the way of assigned reading," he said. "This year in my Economics of Crime class, I had a final exam question that gave 10 points for an intelligent discussion of anything on the reading list we hadn't talked about in lecture. I would say at least a third of the students in the class drew a blank," noted Levitt. "My guess is that outside reading is not the culprit, however."

While many are already in the midst of their spring leisure reading, some students are enthusiastic but consistently fall short of their reading plans. "Honestly, I wish I were doing some leisure reading," said Deborah Ummunabuike, a second-year in the College. "I have The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Myth of Sisyphus strategically placed by my bed in the hope that magically some fun, non-essential reading will get done. But so far, no good," she added. Many students like Ummunabuike have forgone pleasure reading for ongoing commitments to student activities, jobs, and most importantly, coursework.

In spite of approaching midterms, some students continue to indulge their pleasure-reading crave. "I have read Atonement by Ian McEwan and am currently reading Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee for my book club," said Lam, adding that she had many more titles in mind for the remaining part of the quarter. "It's like I can't get enough of it or something!"