Willing to Read and Write

Yesterday, I told my college students that they need to read the next 150 pages of the novel we are studying, Life of Pi, over the next seven days.  This is not news – they got a reading schedule on the first day of class, and were told to read ahead.  Nevertheless, there was a collective gasp and more than a little laughter.  A few moments later, during a close reading exercise, I asked them to talk about a passage with a group and come up with a point that they might focus on “if you had to write a couple hundred words about this piece.”  Around the room, students looked at each other with horrified amusement.  A couple hundred words?  About this?  What does she think we are, writing machines?  There were quiet snorts and groans, subtly and not-so-subtly rolled eyes.

It’s early in the semester, and I still have reserves of patience that I won’t have in a few weeks’ time.  By October, I may break down and say something like:

“If you’re not sure you can read one hundred fifty pages of clear, simple prose in a week, or if you’re not sure you can write two hundred words about a two-page passage, that’s ok.  It’s not a problem if you don’t know how to do it – you can learn.  However, if you don’t want to learn how to do these things – if you don’t want to practice and get feedback and meet that challenge, and if you resent me for asking you to – then college is not the place for you.”

The previous class, I’d asked students to interview each other about their reading habits, and write a paragraph about their partners’ reading lives.  A predictable number of students said that they don’t like to read, never read for enjoyment, and last read a novel in the ninth grade, because it was required.  (The number was predictable to me, that is – anyone who doesn’t teach college might be astonished by the number of college students who have absolutely no interest in reading.)

I would like at some point to ask similar questions about writing, but they seem redundant – surely people who don’t read also don’t write?  However, “writing” has become a much more complicated phenomenon in the age of digital communication, and many would argue that our students “write” all the time, although a middle-aged fuddy-duddy like me might be reluctant to call much of the texting, messaging and Facebook posting they do “writing,” any more than I’d call a to-do list “writing.”  Maybe what I’m talking about is long-form writing: long emails in the spirit of “letters,” diary entries that go on for pages and pages, poems and stories and even stabs at novels, blog posts.

A few weeks ago, an article appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education called “We Can’t Teach Students to Love Reading.”  In it, Alan Jacobs explains that

“‘deep attention’ reading has always been and will always be a minority pursuit, a fact that has been obscured in the past half-century, especially in the United States, by the dramatic increase in the percentage of the population attending college, and by the idea (only about 150 years old) that modern literature in vernacular languages should be taught at the university level.”

Jacobs points to the American GI bill, and the influx of soldiers into American universities after WWII.  From then until now,

“far more people than ever before in human history were expected to read, understand, appreciate, and even enjoy books.”

 Once, only a tiny minority of people were expected to get a post-secondary education; now almost everybody is.  However, it is still unreasonable to expect everyone to enjoy reading, even though a university education – at least a traditional one – is difficult to pursue if you don’t.

Jacobs divides people into those who love reading, those who like reading, and those who don’t.  Universities, he says, are full of

“…often really smart people for whom the prospect of several hours attending to words on pages (pages of a single text) is not attractive. For lovers of books and reading, and especially for those of us who become teachers, this fact can be painful and frustrating.”

Jacobs says this is genetic – such people are “mostly born and only a little made.”  A furor has arisen around this assertion – here’s one post that takes it on – but I think he may in part be right.  But if readers and writers are at least “a little made,” what can teachers do to help make them?

According to Jacobs, maybe nothing.

“[The] idea that many teachers hold today, that one of the purposes of education is to teach students to love reading—or at least to appreciate and enjoy whole books—is largely alien to the history of education.”

Now, I’m ok with the fact that a lot of people don’t like reading and writing.  I think they’d be better off if they did, but I also think I’d be better off if I liked playing team sports, going to parties full of strangers, and drinking wheatgrass.  And I’ve written before about the wisdom or lack thereof of pushing your children to love writing.  If it’s possible for me to help my students like reading and writing more than they do, I’d love that – and I dedicate a lot of thought and time to this end.  But if not – if many students will never like to read or write no matter what I do – I can accept this reality.

I do, however, want and expect my students to be willing to read and write.  I want and expect them to see college as an opportunity to practice these activities, and to even be open to enjoying them.  I know that teenagers are not usually “open” by any measure.  Much of their energy goes into defining themselves as “this not that” – athlete, not reader; gamer, not writer.  However, I’m irritated at the prospect of another semester of complaints about being expected to read a lot and write a lot in English class.

Are there things we can do to make our students willing, if not eager, to read and write?  We can try to give them “books that interest them,” but in an extremely diverse class of 42 students, coming up with books that will please everyone is not possible.  We can give them choices about what they’ll read and what they’ll write about, but if reading and writing are themselves the problem, even making such choices can be difficult and frustrating.  By the time they get to college, is it too late?  Do I just have to grit my teeth and say, “I know you don’t like it, but you’re in college”?  Or is it time to start asking less of them?

Jacob believes that we should ask, if not less, then at least different.

“Education is and should be primarily about intellectual navigation, about…skimming well, and reading carefully for information in order to upload content. Slow and patient reading, by contrast, properly belongs to our leisure hours.”

If this is true, then there is no place for the study of literature at college, at least not as core curriculum for readers and non-readers alike.  Can we extrapolate from this that there is no need for “deep writing” either?  That asking students to write longer pieces – which is not to say two hundred words, which they would call long, but perhaps one-thousand-word essays – is asking too much of most, that the ability to do such a thing can only “arise from within,” as Jacobs puts it, and cannot be explicitly taught to anyone?

I would argue that the skills of deep reading and deep writing can be taught to anyone.  The caveat is that students must be, not necessarily enamoured of these activities, but simply willing to engage in them.  They must open to the possibility that they may enjoy them more than they expect, but also to the possibility that they may not.  They need to be prepared to keep stabbing away at them even if they find them difficult, boring or even infuriating, in the hope that they will get better, and with the faith that they will learn something.

Is this skill – openness, or gameness, even in the face of obstacles and possible failure – something that can be taught?  Because if we can teach our students (and ourselves, for that matter) how to be willing, how to relish trying, then we will all truly be learners.

Image by Peter Galbraith

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31 responses

  1. Great post. In a day of internet, blackberries, and i-phones, it does seem as though basic reading & writing skills are being forgotten. Not to say they are not needed, however. As educators, parents, and mentors, we owe it to students to push the adoption of these skills and support students as needed.

    By the way, fantastic line: “Because if we can teach our students (and ourselves, for that matter) how to be willing, how to relish trying, then we will all truly be learners.”

    • Thanks Gerald. I don’t think the resistance to reading and writing is new. As Jacobs explains, throughout history, reading and writing have been activities that only a small minority have enjoyed and pursued; the difference was that that small minority was the only group of people who went to university. Things are different now, so we have to teach differently. Thanks for your comment!

  2. I enjoyed this post too. The sad thing is many of those students will just read chapter summaries. Your point about willingness is so important: and I think it’s good to remind them of that expectation. I do find lots of students, non-readers as well as readers, are more open and willing than they seem, but that mask of indifference they wear is discouraging.

    • Susan:
      You make a good point about the mask: some of them are performing for their friends. This is another difficulty – for a lot of students, APPEARING to be willing to do the work (or even to like it!) is a social liability. God, being a teenager was hard – so glad I’m not there any more.

      • Teaching middle school (the beginning and most treacherous time of teen-hood), I find that “mask of indifference” towards reading and writing is widely shared and and even worn as a badge of honor, a way to belong to the group. In middle school, I have to constantly battle the notion of what’s “cool.” I, too, love the quote about teaching a willingness to learn, of nurturing the ability and willingness to try. How does one do that, though? For me, I have to assume that my efforts will catch one more reader or writer . . . and I must constantly be willing to immerse my class in my own enthusiasm for language arts.

  3. I loved that book. So much in it. There’s a fantastic writing prompt- p. 56- where he writes about fear. I’ve had students brainstorm abstract nouns and then write an imitation of that first paragraph. The results have been amazing. Courage, confidence, happiness, grief, anger, etc. Even the least able students had success with this. If you want I’ll send you student examples to use.
    I’m in the midst of a mini- survey: below–

    I was about to wear a white skirt today and thought about how my mother always says you can’t wear white after Labor Day. I thought, oh, I can still wear it, it’s still August.
    It got me thinking about other fashion advice- like be sure to wear clean underwear and don’t use safety pins to fix your bra (sew it!), etc. and I thought about asking women if they have one or two quips they remember from their mothers and maybe fathers- of course this is fodder for a future blogpost! No names will be used if you don’t want or at least only first names.

    Love to have your input!

    LW

  4. CG: What an interesting exercise! I will keep that idea in mind – I’ve often thought of having students “imitate” passages but have never found an example that really spoke to me, but this one might work. Thank you! As for your survey, I will give it some thought…

    • Just checked back.. there are some great books for sentence and paragraph imitation- I guess you’d want “sentence composing for college” by don killgallon but there’s one for high school and middle school too- I loved these exercises and then started finding my own sentences from my reading to imitate w/ students. Did a post on the fashion- check it out.

  5. Yikes! I skipped out of intro English classes in college; in the classes I started in, 150 pages of reading was often the expectation for the 2 nights between class sessions. With multiple humanities classes in a semester, I was often reading that in a night. (But I loved it–I could hole up in an armchair in Starbucks with my cup of chai and just do it.)

    I think there’s a real expectation gap happening wherein kids aren’t being told in middle and high school that college is intrinsically reading and writing-intensive, and that if they’re not willing and able to do a lot of it–on the order of hundreds of pages per week–then college probably isn’t for them. But now we’re so conditioned to believe that college is THE path to success, what teacher is going to dare suggest that college maybe shouldn’t be the end educational goal for everyone?

    I think solving this issue is going to involve heavy-duty relearning on the part of society that there are valid and worthy paths to success other than high-level academics.

  6. I find this an interesting post, because I just started a Theory and Practicum in Teaching Composition course in grad school. Yesterday, we had a riotous discussion on what it meant to be literate, and we came to the conclusion that literacy is more than just the ability to read and write well. It also entails comprehension of technology, visual literacy, symbols, etc. How, then, does this translate to your discussion on willingness to read and write? What if their were ways to incorporate both?
    I have been pondering a way to use Twitter in a literature class. The idea is this: as students are reading their assigned passages, they must tweet 2-3 times their impressions (character analysis, page number, theme, what have you). They may also comment on other’s tweets. Then, when the dreaded 200 word analysis (or dare I assign a single page, single spaced paper?) is due, they have already compiled a “marginalia” on Twitter to help guide them.
    Could this help? Or do they just need to grow up, and accept the fact that adult life entails doing things you don’t necessarily like, but you do them anyway?

    • Mike: In fact, last class, we did an exercise almost identical to the one you describe, except we didn’t use Twitter. I had students read their assigned passage and take notes on their impressions, then meet with a group who had read the same passage and discuss and take more notes, and then pair with one person from another group who had ALSO read the same passage and share what their group had discussed. It was very lively! They will use those notes today to write their commentary. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on how using Twitter adds to the exercise – it’s certainly an interesting idea.

  7. It’s funny because I gave my 9th graders their first short story assignment today. The story is about 20 pages and there were kids who were literally in shock. “We have to read that?!”, was said several times while I was explaining the homework. Reading in English class. What a crazy concept, right? Anyway, I am still shocked that they were shocked and I have been teaching 5 years. I use blogging with my students much in the way that Mike Lemon plans on using Twitter. Students respond informally on our class discussion blog and then they use those informal responses to write more formal pieces later on. Either way, reading and writing are an integral part of any learning process and not going away any time soon. Students must learn to at least do their readings, even if they don’t like them.

    • TG: I find that when I use blogs in the class, there are some students who say they are enjoying writing more than they ever have before, but there are still plenty who hate the blogs because they have to write so much. And of course getting students to do the readings is always a challenge…see my next post for more on this!

  8. OMG it is very disheartening to encounter this much resistance to reading and writing at the college level. Writing 200 words is hardly a big deal. As an employer I cringe contemplating the day when I might be faced with hiring (or not if I can avoid it) individuals such as these students.

    • Stephanie: I think there will always be students who LOVE these activities, so I don’t think you’ll ever be forced to hire people who hate them! Nevertheless, they are out there – and sometimes, as Jacobs says, they are very smart people…

  9. Good article and thanks very much for the cross-link. I agree wholeheartedly that “the skills of deep reading and deep writing can be taught to anyone” – of course it’s easier at primary school than at university level, but even then, what can be taught, as you so beautifully put it, is that the effort, not always easy or pleasant, has a reward at the end, which is deep understanding and deep communication. I recall taking a “slow, deep reading and writing” class in Joyce which left me exhausted, but also excited (maybe it even changed my life in a way), because at the end of the hard work was a kind of discovery that never would have happened with “skimming well for content” . .

    • Magdalena: That class sounds amazing. It would be interesting to know, however, how many of your classmates came out at the end going “What the…? Why did I spend a whole semester doing THAT?” We do our best, and we hope that there are students who will be left “exhausted but excited,” but there are always some students who will miss the point.

  10. Of course there will always be students who miss the point, but generally speaking those students won’t be taking a graduate level English class (we each had to teach a chapter of the book to the class and write a ‘publishable’ journal style article on the chapter of some 3000 words, as I recall – it was a long time ago!). I think that most people who major in English have to love the whole idea of exploring words deeply, otherwise it’s the wrong major. For Eng 101 (or equivalent), encouraging students to go for that reward is harder, and perhaps the idea of a ‘core’ which only (I think) happens in the US, is something that should be revisited in favour of stronger high school general academics and earlier specialisation. That way, by college, everyone is studying only what they’ve chosen to study and should come with the expectation of being pushed, challenged, and to grow. As teachers, I think all we can do is to hope to inspire those that are rewarded by the process (as no doubt we, as readers, writers, and teachers, are). The rest will find something else to inspire them hopefully.

  11. I’m shocked at these students. I was a history major and had to read at least that, sometimes double that, in a day (some days I didn’t make it, but I tried).

    I read The Life of Pi (about ten years ago) and did not find it a difficult book to read. It also had an engaging story line. I’m still not sure I understand the book 100%, but if I were in your class, I would love to discuss whatever it was that confused me at the time.

    I think what you told your students was extremely reasonable and very appropriate.

    • Lynne: I have to say that, although I am still irritated by these kind of student reactions, I’m no longer shocked. I have to say, too, that for some students, there are extenuating circumstances: English may be their third or fourth language, or they may have learning disabilities or simple literacy problems. So in some cases, there are good reasons that they have real trouble with this work, but what bothers me is the incredulity – you may not like it, students, but are you really surprised that you have to read and write in English class?

  12. “Are there things we can do to make our students willing, if not eager, to read and write?”

    I read a fabulous book, The Book Whisperer, by Donalyn Miller about how she did just that in her 8th grade classroom. Providing the right type of motivation is such an important factor in getting students reading. Offering a menu of choices of assignments and readings is one way I’ve found to help motivate students to read and write based on their interests.

  13. “Is this skill – openness, or gameness, even in the face of obstacles and possible failure – something that can be taught? Because if we can teach our students (and ourselves, for that matter) how to be willing, how to relish trying, then we will all truly be learners.”

    This comment puts the whole problem in perspective. It’s not that our expectations are wrong; it’s that perseverance and the personal ability to generate interest in what we must do are both skills that must be learned and practiced–and these skills are the ones that will follow them all through their lives! We see the same kind of complaining in people looking for jobs that will not require them to work. You are right–it IS frustrating and shocking to hear such sentiments from students (no matter how many times we hear them–I teach high schoolers =). But our message needs to stay the same for them as it was for us–that reading truly is important and enjoyable, that writing really is important and enjoyable. That these things are worthwhile. And it’s always exciting when we hit on something that makes our job easier in that way! =)

    Personally, I was encouraged last night to hear one of my high schoolers telling his younger brother that writing wasn’t as scary as it seemed, that writing a simple journal of 150 words was not really a big deal, that he could do it. And it was encouraging to see them both writing, even though writing does not come easily for either of them. That moment was truly a moment to treasure . . . and a really big answer to many persistent prayers =)

  14. Yes this post was written a long time ago but I really enjoy your blog as a highschool senior because sometimes some teachers don’t feel like they give enough thought into their teaching. In fact I’ve never heard of a teacher to such an extent talk about teaching that much in a long time–do you ever talk about teaching while teaching college? Anyways I had to read life of pi and I understand though that the first 100 pages might throw some people off. But the rest if not all of it is a gem and I’m surprised peope don’t read required reading in college! I thought that was only highschool! Haha :)

    • Sumshi: Thanks! Yes, I talk about teaching all the time, with my colleagues and with my students too. I’m glad you enjoyed Life of Pi. And yes, people keep avoiding their reading right through graduate school!

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