Getting Students to Read . . .

Randall Stephens

Over at Times Higher Education Tara Brabazon wonders how to get underaduates to care about reading ("Bringing Them to Books," March 9, 2011). I enjoy Brabazon's snarky reports from across the Atlantic. This one is particularly witty and relevant.

"One short sentence chills the expectations of teachers," Brabazon begins. "A student, in reply to a tutorial question or query about an assignment, shrilly replies: 'I don’t like reading.' This is an ice pick through scholarly culture. It is naive. It is short-sighted. It is foolish. It is ignorant. Without reading, a student is trapped within the limitations of their own life, confusing personal experience with researched expertise. Reading builds a productive network of authors, approaches, theories and evidence." For Brabazon, "Reading is not meant to be liked or disliked: it is a way to understand the views of others." How should professors "support the act of reading," she asks. Brabazon describes her use of GoodReads, a social media site where readers across the world post reviews and comments about their books. "GoodReads enables students to comment on books, meet authors who are registered on the site and commence a dialogue with an array of interested groups." Sounds like a great idea.

In my classes I use other, rudimentary strategies. I usually give a very basic quiz on the day that a book is due in class. (Sounds awful, I admit, but it works.) The quiz is elementary, asking the most simple questions to ensure that students are at least reading the book that we will be discussing in class. In my experience students need to know that reading is not optional and the quiz tends to help.

Still, how can a professor "make" a student care about reading? I occasional begin my classes by describing a recent book--by a historian, sociologist, religious studies scholar--and then using that as a hook for the lecture of that day. I also start off classes by pointing out a history book or a newspaper article that connects the topic we are covering in the class with a current event or a larger historical theme. Maybe, just maybe, that will make students think about how reading and being informed makes their lives richer and more interesting.

We know that reading widely helps individuals develop as writers. So, I tell my students that if they want to fine tune their writing and become better writers, they should read opinion journals, newspapers, serious nonfiction, and the like. William Zinsser puts it well: "writing is learned by imitation." He suggests that students find a writer whose style they like. "Study their articles clinically. Try to figure out how they put their words and sentences together. That’s how I learned to write, not from a writing course."

I'd be curious to know what carrots others use to attract students to the practice of reading.