Bend, Don’t Break

Jonathan Rees

Fred Watson, "Bookstack," 1992, Northumbria
University, Newcastle, UK. Photo by Randall Stephens.
“Students WILL NOT, and absolutely refuse, to read anything. Give the assignment, and they just ignore it, even if there's a quiz on the reading.”
- David Bordwell, film historian, University of Wisconsin Madison (via Roger Ebert)

Anyone who has taught in a college classroom over the last five or ten years can feel Professor Bordwell’s pain.  While I imagine the English professors must have it the worst (how can you teach novels if nobody has read the novel?), practically all the historians I know fret constantly about student reading because their discipline is also a literary art.  While it is possible to teach historical facts through lecturing or even just showing films, there is simply no other way for students to learn how to do history themselves except by reading book-length works by great historians.

So what is to be done?  I’ve already suggested that killing the traditional history textbook and replacing it with a smaller number of primary sources on this very blog.  That decision was, in part, a concession to the new realities of student life.  However, I don’t want to leave the impression that I support dumbing down the history curriculum in order prevent mass failure.  I’m of the school that professors should bend, but not break when it comes to reading because no matter what some commission in Tallahassee might think, the liberal arts really are very useful in life.  On the most basic level, graduates will never be able to work in any world of ideas if they can’t read well because that’s how ideas are conveyed.  Therefore, humanities professors faced with non-reading students have to teach their recalcitrant readers the kinds of reading skills that they’ve never learned.

No, I don’t mean re-learning their ABCs.  I’m talking about different kinds of reading.  In their classic How to Read a Book Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren speak of Elementary Reading, Inspectional Reading, and Analytical Reading.  To get students to that third level, you have to read with them.  Open the book during class.  Make them read aloud to the class.  Discuss the implications of those ideas.  You don’t have to quiz them to make sure they’re learning from their reading if you make sure that the reading you assign them is central to your class.

Also, and this may sound like a given but it’s not in academia, you have to make an effort to assign interesting books.  I am not ashamed to say that I think David McCullough is great.  The best reaction I’ve ever gotten in any class was from freshmen non-majors when I assigned David Remnick’s biography of Muhammad Ali.  Certainly, spending time teaching reading skills takes away from the coverage of historical facts, but students will make much better use of those reading skills after they graduate than they ever will of most specific factual details. 

So while times are certainly tough in the history business, all is not lost.  Professors can’t expect all their students to care as much about history as they do, but it is more than reasonable to make them meet you half way.

Jonathan Rees is Professor of History at Colorado State University – Pueblo.  He blogs mostly about technological and academic labor matters at More or Less Bunk. He's the author of Industrialization and the Transformation of American Life.