Wednesday, 9 March 2011

I'm not the only boring old moaner

One of the things that most depresses me about teaching English literature is the very frequent refrain 'I don't like reading' and 'I don't read for pleasure'. I hear it often now, and not from dunderheads: often it's bright, likeable students who just have this blind spot. The problem is that they're studying literature.

I did an English degree because I liked reading and wanted to spend three years talking about books and ideas. I had no plan for employment in mind. It didn't feel like I did any work at all for those years because I just read books all the time - exactly what I'd have done if I'd been on the dole, with the added bonus of conversations and a wider range of texts.

So I just don't understand the motivation of anyone doing a literature degree without being enthusiastic. Of course, some texts are boring/incomprehensible/unengaging: I struggled with plenty as a student - but you do need some curiosity. I can understand people saying that work and children and so on mean that the time to read is curtailed, but at least people should want to read. Monday's Winstanley class featured several students who hadn't bothered to do the reading. However, the diligent students also showed me their workload and asked for a variation on their assignment to enable them to use texts we'd studied in class rather than only ones we hadn't looked at. I didn't realise how much they had to do, and agreed.

Tara Brabazon (read her books) has had the same experience and writes about it much more elegantly:

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.
Reading is a selfish act. For three years, students have an opportunity to focus on themselves, discipline their minds, ponder the greatest words ever written and find ideas to anchor their lives. So many men and women would give anything to have the time to explore the world of books. 

A colleague in Creative Writing made a similar point to potential students at an open day recently. When they said they weren't readers, she told them they couldn't be writers: the only writers who apparently don't read are Jeffrey Archer and Dan Brown - you can tell because they can't write a good sentence or subvert one's expectations in any way.

What's the solution?

If a student does not wish to read, then they should not enrol at university. Give the place to someone else. During my first degree, when an academic realised that a student had not completed the required preparation, the recalcitrant undergraduate would be asked to leave the tutorial.
Years later, I asked this dedicated teacher why he so ruthlessly embarrassed the non-readers. He stated that if he had let them stay, the intellectual level would have fallen too low, making it necessary to explain ideas that should have been understood before entering the tutorial. With the non-readers gone, he could teach at the required standard.

I've never done this. I've weakly asked why people don't have their texts, or mailed people to remind them to do the reading, but never got a reply, and never thrown people out. I've a suspicion that some would refuse to go. So I get used to people staring blankly at the walls or (most often) texting/updating their Facebook pages. What a waste of their time and mine.

Brabazon knows that in this day and age, we can't just chuck people out of the room. She suggests using online activities such as, shelfari and scribd so that students can enter reading communities and even contact authors. What's slightly lacking in her account is what the students and teachers actually do on these sites. Is it swopping enthusiasms or having in-depth discussion? The (theoretical) joy of seminars is not just exchanging ideas, but examining them. Sometimes students come up with angles I haven't thought about, and (hopefully often) I propose strategies and ideas they haven't come across but can deal with. If teaching becomes the equivalent of a LIKE button, we're losing the critical aspect.

I can see advantages though: formal teaching does carry a sense of judgement about it which is often unhelpful. I kept my mouth shut during my first year at university because I'd rather be presumed stupid than open my mouth and confirm the suspicion. Then I realised that everyone else was feeling the same way, and made the effort to break through my shyness, and gained a lot from it. I'd like to teach as though it was a more searching book group: perhaps a comfortable space, cups of coffee, witty banter, but it's an ideal which I suspect would fall short for various reasons: a lack of enthusiasm on the part of some, the barely concealed power structure of the teaching experience, the cognitive dissonance of the method (which could be creative).

Despite this, I love teaching: I like the vast majority of my students and I'm enthusiastic about the subject - but it's the lost sheep I worry about. Your thoughts?

PS. It's worth having a look at the comments section - very interesting post from Ewar, and I've replied.


Ewarwoowar said...

1) I can identify with this. I chose English (along with CPW) because it was my best subject at school, and because it's seen as a "proper" university course. Reading fictional literature is a struggle for me, as I much prefer factual books as you know. I didn't choose the course because I love literature (and for this point I'm talking about fiction only when I say that) like you do.

I've tried reading "Ivanhoe", and "Catch 22" (twice) and never got beyond the first chapter. I would much rather read the new Bill Bryson book, or an autobiography about a United player. Which is more enriching, on an intellectual and cultural level? There is no argument. I know that as well as you, but it's real tough to change your reading habits. "Don't read for pleasure"? I'm the exact opposite, and perhaps that's my problem.

2) I mentioned earlier about doing English at school. Thinking back to my A-Levels, here's what we did:

The Handmaids Tale
William Blake (Songs of I+E)
World War I Literature


Twelfth Night
A Modest Proposal
Brave New World

You come to university, and suddenly you're handed the Norton Anthology of Literature and before you know it you're into Beowulf, Chaucer, Spenser, Morte D'Arthur, Utopia, Paradise Lost etc. Fuck! A student like me has gone from being spoon fed Shakespeare (where you watch the film and teacher goes over every important line with you) to being asked to read Utopia in your free time. I'm not moaning about that - higher education is what it says on the tin. But it is a bit of a shock. It doesn't surprise me in the slightest that students who have literally no experience of texts from this time look at them and go "I cant read that, I dont understand any of it."

3) Time is a big issue. You have assignments to write for 3/4 subjects. Exams to prepare for. Some students do a part-time job to fund their way through uni. There is a culture of socialising and nights out, and a culture of procrastination which afflicts me dreadfully - Facebook, Twitter etc. The internet contains everything, ever. Don't know about you, but I find that a bit distracting!

Students take short cuts, because to be honest most of the time they HAVE to. A seminar being like a book group with coffee, wit, Danish pastries and everyone having read a text in full is a lovely ideal, but it ain't happening. You read as much of the text as you need to in order to write the assignment. You write it, you hand it in, you put the book on a shelf and forget about it and move onto the next thing. Sad, in a way.


The Plashing Vole said...

Ewar, that's really interesting. I do think schooling is partly the problem. Because it's based on exam statistics, schools cram things into you rather than allow people to explore literature and their own relationship with it - guaranteeing resentment for many people.

Universities are going the same way: as you point out, students are being strategic. This afternoon, I'm teaching J. G. Farrell's Troubles. It's over 400 pages long - people won't have read it.

We really need to find better ways to manage the transition between school and university. Apart from anything else, university requires a lot more self-discipline and individual work, just as people are discovering beer, drugs, sex, protest (hopefully), new sports, freedom from being ordered around… work is a distant last in the list of exciting things to do.

I do find the internet etc. distracting and I know students have busy lives. But - if you're doing a literature course, you should be putting reading (of whatever sort) at the centre of your life as much as possible.

I know you're a non-fiction man - and that's absolutely fine. But I do think there's value in introducing people to texts and genres they're not keen on. You can still prefer your non-fiction, but you'll have a stronger reason why.

theReckoner said...

Interesting as I was just having this discussion with a housemate. I read English Literature & Politics at university, and I've found reading's become more cumbersome since I started my course. Comically, it was stressed that we should not lose our love for reading in an English introductory lecture during freshers' week. We found this strange then; not anymore.

I disagree that the central issue is that students do not like reading. It's more a question of them not liking the type of reading that's required.

From my experience, it's not the actual act of reading itself that poses the problem. It's the "how", the "what" and the "why": why do I need to read what I'm reading? (seminar or potential essay topic?); what benefits will this yield? (selective/strategic reading); how should I then go about my required reading? A cost-effective approach to reading.

This is university. It stands to reason that as a student reading is meant to be approached as work, but the fun's being sucked out of it. Naturally, some students will cut corners and endlessly procrastinate, resorting to coasting to get by. Many have other pressing commitments, even the more serious-minded ones (or sad little geeks) will be involved in societies and events, polishing up those CVs. The eventuality of entering that unwelcoming job market is one that casts its shadow on more students than you'd think. Read and text still plays a focal point in their lives, but it's all about what they do with that reading.

This ignores a problem, which is the reality that a good deal of students do not even know how to read well before they start university. By well, I mean effective and critical reading. Yet it's expected from us - knowing how to glean what's useful out of texts. It's one of those things that'll "come to you" in the course of your academic career. I don't see why some pointers aren't given in freshers' week - it would save a lot of hassle.

From my own experience, I found I've done an incredible amount of reading (more factual than fictional, I admit) when I wasn't being harassed with an endless barrage of essay deadlines and seminars where little of consequence was said. The same is true of my colleagues. A few of us have purchased Kindles, which are a Godsend.

I saw university as a place to nurture independent research and thought. My experience so far has forced me to seriously reconsider this. As one of my supervisors have said, it's a game. You just need to adjust your gameplan accordingly to do well, and either get out or make your way in the academia system. I'm still forming my final thoughts on the whole thing, but I find it troubling that very little is expected from undergraduates. We're often blamed for this move to a consumer approach that hangs sulkily in the air, but from my experience academics can be dismissive of those students who do care.

I wish I could write a more coherent and better thought out reply, but I'm in the middle of researching a point for an essay. I couldn't resist adding my two-pence :P

Dan said...

I'm a fiction man. I struggle reading most of the theory we're set because I vehemently oppose most of it. I'd much rather go off on my own and find something that isn't on the reading list and I agree with and will enjoy writing about. Plus, if I disagree with something it correlates with a bad grade usually. Anyway, that's not my point.

Last semester I did the module Teaching Writing. I'm pretty sure everyone else hated it but I loved it. I'd say it's probably the best module I've done in three years at Uni. Before the module I'd never thought of teaching as something I wanted to do - I didn't want to be that bloke with a haircut and a Spurs mug in the advert - but now I'm considering taking a year out and then jumping back in to do something about education or teaching.

What I wrote part of my poetics on was the idea you mention in the post - taking the classroom and putting it online. I think this is a good idea, as long as it doesn't replace seminars.

The biggest thing that bugs me about Uni is powerpoint presentations. Don't get me in for three hours to read off a powerpoint to me, I've no interest in that whatsoever. I imagine a large chunk of those on their phones don't have much time for it either. Put that online as part of 'virtual learning.' When I come into the classroom I want discussion and participation not autocratic teaching. I'm not accusing you of this, but it happens. I think if we can distinguish between what to do in the classroom and what to do outside of it then the two can co-exist.

As far as reading goes, as a CPW student I read a fair bit - I'm trying to read Hemingway again, it ain't happening but there we go - but I don't write enough. I can count on one hand the amount of times we've done writing activities in class, or been encouraged to write something out of class that isn't for a grade. That bugs the hell out of me too. Part of that is my own laziness (and the procrastination killers ewar mentions)but I don't feel any more of a confident or better writer than I did three years ago. If anything I've been swamped with so much reading - some my own choice, others necessary - that it's affected my written output.

The last part is a bit of a general moan, but I think there's a point in that somewhere.

The Plashing Vole said...

Hi Reckoner and Dan. Thanks for your comments - really interesting. One of my friends announced, after our last third-year exam, that he was never going to read a novel again, because the enjoyment had been ruined. In fact he did avoid fiction for a few years, but is back on it now.

I have some sympathy. When you read for pleasure, you choose exactly what you like (though how you know what you like is quite complicated). We can dress it up any way we like, but when you join a course, you're being told to read things we think are either good, important or both - and you have to lump it. It's also true (as I was just telling my students) that some dull or 'bad' texts are important. So it's a big change from reading for fun to reading for study. I still think it should be possible to do both.

The trick is to find some way to persuade people that analysing and deconstructing texts enriches their reading pleasure rather than ruins it. Someone once said to me that she didn't enjoy reading any more because now she could see how books were put together: I think she meant that for her, 'suspension of disbelief' was no longer possible. That's rather sad. For me, being able to see the structures of a text adds to my enjoyment. It may also be true that 'better' books still enable you to suspend disbelief, whereas formulaic ones don't. Quite often, people like obvious structures - hence the success of Agatha Christie: if she fiddled with the murder/detection/red herring/unmasking model, her readers would be furious.

Reckoner: I do understand the 'cost-effective' reading strategy. I just think it's sad. It's a major failing of the way we run universities. We've forced students onto this treadmill of assessments and modules and turned texts into commodities to be strip-searched for extractable meaning, then on to the next one. It's plain wrong. It's not the fault of the students.

I also think you're on to something with your point about reading. We run a 'writing for academic success' module - we should have a 'reading for academic success' one too. I know that A-level teachers are forced to take a strip-search approach too, which is a desperate shame. It shows up most with teaching poetry - the first-years aren't readers of poetry by choice, and they've been taught that texts have plots and meanings, whereas poetry is much more subjective, so they don't have the vocabulary to talk about the emotional aspect of poetry (or any other literary text) - and academic study doesn't really provide the space for recognising this. I always shock my students by asking them how a piece made them feel: it's a mean question because it's unexpected, but it's also really important.

You're completely right that the current curriculum makes students into strategic consumers. It's not your fault, and it's a total betrayal of my educational values. Rather than fostering spiky independent thinkers, we're training people to take short-cuts towards a certificate. It's a damn shame.

The Plashing Vole said...

Dan: there's a place for theory: it can reveal ways of understanding a text which might not have occurred to you. That said, you shouldn't be losing credit for independent thinking. If it's muddled independent thinking, you should - but should also receive guidance. If you're not getting it, ask for it.

Good academics don't claim they have all the answers. The best ones only claim they know the right questions.

I'm really pleased you enjoyed Teaching Writing. The question of e-learning is a thorny one. For me, it's a real benefit as long as you have a serious reason to use it. Too often, university managers insist on it because they think 'students use Facebook. Facebook's cool. Must teach on Facebook'. The problem with that is that students aren't stupid enough to believe that anything online is automatically better than anything offline: they can tell the difference between intelligently harnessing the distinctive qualities of a medium and using it just to look 'with it'. When they get it wrong, it's like my dad asking me to 'get The Google'.

I like using online forums sometimes because some students are reluctant to speak in class - much as I'd like to force them to speak, I have to recognise that there are reasons which I may know nothing about. I'd never replace classroom discussion with e-learning, but it's a useful support. It's great if you want to send people away to look at a few different things, think about them, then discuss them: people work in different times and places, so a forum keeps a conversation going over a period of time. It has disadvantages too.

The major problem with e-learning isn't the medium: it's the management. Their piggy little eyes light up whenever the possibility of selling buildings and cutting down on staff appears possible. They don't believe that being in the same room as a qualified academic, and having a conversation with her, is the point of education at all. They think it's about watching a video or reading a powerpoint slide, then churning out some text. It isn't. Education emerges from the space between the teacher and the student. No face-to-face = no debate = no education. But managers just see teachers and buildings as an unnecessary encumbrance.

I totally agree that there's nothing so sterile and pointless than an academic reading a series of assertions from a screen. I try to make my lectures a conversation: I do the majority of the talking, but definitely not all of it. In fields, there are very few facts that can be read from a screen (titles, dates, terminology) - everything else is a brilliant argument in embryo.

All this is very idealistic, of course. Most of the time, like just now, I turn up to find that 1 (!) of the 25 people there have started to read the book. I then fill in with an extra lecture and try to get them talking.

The simple answer to you not writing enough is this: write more or stop. I'm not a creative writer, so I don't try. But I gather from real writers I know that they sit down and write because they need to pour out the words. If you don't feel the compulsion, think about doing something else. Perhaps that's harsh, but I really think that you'll find out by making yourself write. It doesn't have to be any good at first. You need to read to understand how texts work and what the possibilities are, but only you can find your voice.

There is a long debate about whether creative writing can or should be taught. I think there is value in it, but in the end, you're on your own. You can be taught technique, but nobody can provide you with something to say. Hope this doesn't sound critical of you - it's definitely not meant to be.

Dan said...

Nope. Doesn't sound critical at all. I'm fairly new to writing in the format's we mainly write in now - short stories, flash fictions etc - and I don't think I'm totally rubbish so I won't give up just yet. When Uni finishes will be the big test. I'll read a lot more so hopefully I'll write a lot more. There'll probably be a bit more to write about when I go out into the 'real world' too.

Anyway, this has been one of the most interesting blogs I've read in a while so cheers for that.

The Plashing Vole said...

Thanks Dan - I've really enjoyed it too.

Benjamin. said...

Wow. Fabulous debate concerning not just the students but Vole’s fragility within the tense and occasionally despondent learning environment and admissions of literacy exile, are not too surprising to me. I can grasp the point by Ewar that when doing GCSE and A Level English to suddenly be placed in a class where constructive theory is everything- it is a whole different approach and not enough time to adapt. To see that others have the same dilemmas is comforting but also alarming.

Without reading the text and debating, our learning process is naturally in limbo where we find the same issues and resolve them in the same way, students listening along to an iPod with one headphone in or checking facebook every 10 mins isn’t enriching and immensely frustrating. As someone who has a placement in a very good school but supervising someone who hasn’t required the support she needs- it is so painfully clear that like Vole, I feel many don’t have the same interests in reading or writing as I do. Most of the students in the Year 10 class couldn’t grasp the importance of their time in school and their writing proficiency shocked me. I realized that going into my hopeful PGCE next year, I have a task on my hand as does Vole in his classes whereby people just do not read.

It’ll be a learning curve and I suggest that’s something you are experiencing Vole, you aren’t the most experience lecturer in the institution but one of the youngest I have encountered therefore I feel you are merely finding your way like your colleagues did.

You have inspired me and many others so remain in the belief you will find a solution.