April 14, 2009

Reading incomprehension

Large amounts of reading encourage students to skim and miss deeper messages

[img id="77595" align="alignleft"] While many don’t realize it, the most important part of the quarter occurs before the quarter officially starts: during course request.

Over spring break, a certain political science class caught my eye, as it satisfied all of my selection criteria: no gratuitous discussion sections, a professor evaluation devoid of the word “fascist,” a post-noon start time, and, least importantly, a chance to feign a slight interest in the topic. And with that, I added the course to my shopping cart, one of eight or so prospective classes for the upcoming quarter.

But when I showed up to Cobb for the first class, I was dismayed at the packets being passed around. On them were listed 11 books, a litany of PDFs, and substantial “recommended reading.” Weekly response papers and pop quizzes implied that my usual strategy of not reading would be wildly ineffective under the rule of this over-assigning graduate student.

Listen, I know that the U of C is supposed to be “rigorous”—but 11 books in 10 weeks is absurd. I’m sorry, but I don’t read that quickly, or that often, for that matter. Accordingly, I don’t plan on chain-smoking the extended discourse of a gang of tweed-wearing professors with regards to contemporary issues in political science.

Some people apparently do, though, and I commend them. It is truly an accomplishment to have the discipline to start a book on Monday, finish it on Sunday, and pick up another one the next day—and what’s more, to repeat this process for 10 weeks straight. This is ostensibly what professors expect out of all of us, which begs the question: Professors, are you aware that we take multiple classes?

We do, incidentally. And those other professors dump every book they read in grad school on their students, just like you. Once the threshold is reached (well before finishing the 300 pages you assigned me over the weekend), I’m just giving up on reading anything. What’s the point of pulling an all-nighter in some depressing corner of Crerar only to complete a third of the reading due for the next day?

Instead, I’ll opt to skim it. Now, had you assigned me reasonable page counts, I might have read, and even absorbed the material—something impossible when trying to race through dictionary-sized books on sociological histories of foreign countries.

What ever happened to assigning some background reading and teaching?

The goal of class should not be to provide a setting for a de facto book club; it should instead be a venue where learning occurs amidst the shepherding of the most qualified person in the room: the professor. When class dialogue is solely composed of, “So what does [long-winded author] say about [vaguely relevant abstraction]?” the “discussion” is redundant for those who have actually done the reading.

The fact of the matter, though, is that those recapping conversations are necessary, in order to fill in the half of the class that didn’t succumb to the unreasonable demands of the ambitious instructor. This reality is in direct opposition to the University’s mantra of close reading that the Core Curriculum exemplifies. The U of C is not about spreading academically thin or producing vapid discussion, but this is the fruit that many professors’ approaches bear.

Our school is about depth and circumvention of a single issue, be it Lolita, military strategy, or pirates. This is exactly what unique majors like Fundamentals and interdisciplinary programs like Big Problems represent, and exactly what many intermediate-level classes in the college depart from.

Rather than drowning—or steadfastly trying to drown—students with text in between meetings, an ideal world with a real iteration of the University’s mission would have the entire class prepared with the professor presenting key points, giving his or her own views on the topic, and leading an altogether deeper conversation as a result.

But this requires teachers to be well prepared, something that is not always the case. Loading the syllabus, on the other hand, is a safe play—the poor undergrads are guaranteed to learn something independent of the quality of instruction.

For our tirelessly inflating price of tuition, we deserve the closely structured, insightful, and engaged discussions that we were promised by that thick envelope touting the Socratic method and a wholly unique learning experience. Quite simply, this university is too good for its professors to cop out and hide under the guise of rigor—and it is a shame that it goes on at all.

Steve Saltarelli is a third-year in the College majoring in law, letters, and society.