Q: Do you actually expect students to do all the assigned reading?
A: Yes, I expect students to do all the readings. That is the bare minimum for a college course. In addition, they should be annotating their texts, doing secondary research, and discussing the issues outside of class with other peers. Did I do these things, when I was an undergraduate?
Ahem. Next question, please. What’s the phrase? Ah, yes: “Do as I say, not as I do.”
Maybe I do have a bit of a fascist streak, in contradiction with my earlier post, On Being in Charge. In any event, no, I did not always do the readings, and yes, this makes me a massive hypocrite. However, does that also mean that it’s wrong to expect students to do all the reading? As a freshman, I remember skipping the readings one week and going to a mind-blowing lecture on T.S. Eliot’s The Four Quartets. To this day I regret not having had the context to fully engage with what that professor was saying. I ended up going back and reading the poem after class ended, but it felt all backwards, because I was reverse-engineering my reading through the professor’s argument. I didn’t know where his thoughts ended and mine began. After that, I made it a point to have my own interaction with the assignments before going to class.
My class is discussion-based, and my syllabus works hard to pair readings that sing to each other as a way to get discussion rolling. If students don’t do the readings, they won’t understand the discussions, let alone be able to participate in them, and they will, as a result, be utterly lost when it comes time to write their essays. All my expectations are laid out in the syllabus I distribute on the first day of class, including weekly reading amounts, down to the number of pages. If students can’t fulfill this "contract," they should probably drop the course.
One caveat: If someone manages to have great discussion points and write great essays without doing the readings, I say more power to that person. Bring the goods, and I will not inquire where you procured them (this is also the agreement I have with my antique hood ornament dealer). However, these people are few and far between, and in any event, the essays I assign are generally pretty provocative, so why not just read them?
Sometimes, however, my expectations are at fault. For example, last class, I assigned two fairly complex essays that equaled about 30 pages of reading. When it came time to discuss them, I met with crippling, pin-drop silence. Eyes shifted, people squirmed in their chairs. Clearly, they had not done the reading. Some of them even told me as much, unprompted, in front of the class, which suggests either a touching level of honesty in our communications, or a complete lack of respect for me. I could have yelled at them. I could have buried my head in the sand and forgotten the whole thing. Or perhaps I could have forced them to do the readings with further, essay-specific assignments.
Instead, I ended up changing the syllabus that night. To be honest, my expectations were at fault. I assigned these essays a day before their first writing assignment was due. There were scheduling reasons for this, but I should have been more knowing about where their priorities would be at that point. In short, students should be expected to do the readings, but teachers should also keep their expectations realistic.
Mr. Jung teaches college writing in Chicago, where he lives with his fiancée and their growing collection of street maps.
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What do your teachers do when students don't do their reading?