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Writing Across the Curriculum

 

Holloway Hall

Active Reading
Itir Gunes
Philosophy Department


It’s Monday morning. I am ready to go to my Introduction to Philosophy class. I am excited to teach one of my favorite pieces, Plato’s “Apology,” which is an enjoyable read with an interesting story: here we have Socrates, Plato’s teacher, sued by his nemeses for “corrupting the youth” and “disrespecting the gods” of the ancient city of Athens through his philosophical inquiries. The reading consists of his defense speech in front of the jury, in which he attempts to clear himself from these despicable charges. I think that the piece is quite thought-provoking and raises so many interesting questions worth a good discussion. But I step into the classroom only to find out that most of the students have not done the assigned reading. I start by scene-setting and then invite them to pin down the specific reasons Socrates suggests to defend himself against his accusations. Some of them come up with bits and pieces of answer but many of them struggle. My enthusiasm wanes a bit. Not surprisingly, the quality of class discussion drops. I spend more time lecturing in order to make sure that everybody is on the same page. When I ask them why they did not do the readings, responses vary: they have a major assignment due that week for another class, the reading was too long, the reading was difficult, they had another important commitment that week.

Sure, from time to time, students may have busy weeks filled with commitments, exams, deadlines etc. This is so especially for the freshmen, who are new to college life and are taking a general education course in humanities for the first time. But the question is, even when they get the rare opportunity to read the material, do they find this experience valuable and rewarding? How often do they feel that they truly benefitted from the activity of reading? Not too often. Perhaps, for some of them, never. Most of the time, reading leaves them with confusion and discomfort. After all, thinking, reflecting, and questioning are challenging and deeply unsettling activities. Not surprisingly, reading is a task that lies at the bottom of their to-do list for many students. They mainly rely on me not only to relate all the information in the readings to them, but also to reveal the significance of the readings, which is something every learner should do for themselves by personally undertaking the adventure of reading.

To my dismay, recently I have realized that probably I am unknowingly encouraging my students not to do the reading assignment! After all, why should they do the reading if the professor is going to explain the text in class? I can imagine how the students can (not so unreasonably!) rationalize the “logic” of their “no read” policy. They attend the class meetings regularly, listen to what the professor says carefully, and take notes religiously. They use their notes while writing their term paper and check out Wikipedia and Sparknotes, if necessary. And voila, the course requirements are met! I can see how this gets us into a vicious circle: students don’t read, I help them out, they don’t read, I help them out, and so it goes.

Hoping to break the circle, from time to time I employ tried and tested strategies to ensure that everybody does the readings. I give them pop quizzes at the beginning of class sessions to keep them on their toes. Sometimes I ask them to write at least one question on the assigned reading. But even then, I feel that although I got the students do the reading, still, I didn't help them learn to read texts on their own. Perhaps the first question I and my students must address together is, what does it mean to read a text? Many students seem to think that reading a text is pretty much like reading a newspaper: quickly skimming through the titles and paragraphs, at the expense of reflecting on the meaning and beauty of the thoughts expressed in words, sentences, and paragraphs.

Is there any way I can help students develop their reading skills? AND introduce them to the pleasure of reading? Hopefully, the answer is, yes. Not that I have found the secret formula or finally solved the problem but some practices seem to be effective. The first lesson I have learned is that there will be trade-offs. As much as my idealistic side frowns upon the thought of trading-off, there is no way of avoiding the unavoidable. I understand that I may need to change goals of the course: instead of expecting students to master the subject, perhaps I should focus on getting them engaged with fundamental philosophical questions in a personal manner. As a result, there will not be as many pages of reading per week, the texts need to be on the issues that students would find interesting, and I should aim at presenting the material in such a way that it will draw them in.

Secondly, I have realized that I can encourage active reading by giving students thought-provoking reading questions that would induce them to reflect on what they read. The main goal of these assignments is not merely to get students read the text, but to allow them to think about what they read, by questioning what the author may possibly have in mind in writing this article, what motivated her to write what she wrote, on what presuppositions her ideas operate, and what the implications of her ideas could be. Coming up with such questions is no easy job; it requires considerable amount of time and energy. On the bright side, however, it is a one-time task which is—given the expected benefits and outcomes—worth such investment. And I can use the same or similar questions the next time I teach this class.

Lastly, and most importantly, helping students improve their reading skills would be most helpful. Giving them tips on how to approach difficult texts and how to analyze complex passages and arguments would probably help them more than anything else. One way of doing that would be reading difficult passages together with students and that way modeling the behavior and habits that are expected from them. Moreover, telling them about my worst reading experiences and what I do when I get stuck while reading a text can show them that I understand them, that they are not alone in encountering difficulties while reading a text, and that ultimately such difficulties can be overcome.

Realizing these points may be a step forward but certainly does not mark any accomplishment. Still, given the unique nature of each set up students, I need to figure out how to apply them precisely, see to what extent they are effective, and constantly update and enrich my methods and strategies based on experience. Once all is said and done, what is needed is some faith: hopefully, along the way, by getting into the habit of reading and writing, students will develop an appreciation of these activities. There is no guarantee, yet it is worth having faith and keeping on trying.


 

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