When Students Won’t Do the Reading

Reading this story from IHE recalled my undergraduate class with Austin Quigley (then the chair of the U.Va. English department), who had us write about the newly-published Stoppard play Hapgood. This was in about 1989 or 90, so it was not possible to Google for a plot summary. Even looking up contemporary reviews would have meant a trip to the library microfilm reader. On the day we were to discuss the play — the last day the class met — he collected our papers first.

One student who didn’t have a paper said he was hoping the class discussion would give him ideas.  Professor Quigley said something very British (that is, understated but pointed) about how the purpose of the class was to discuss the papers, and the purpose of the paper was to assess how well we could analyze a script on our own… and then he paused. During the awkward silence, the student packed up his books and left.

As it turned out, about half of the class had made an interpretive mistake about the protagonist. I won’t spoil the plot for you, but Stoppard gleefully ransacked quantum physics for metaphors of duality and uncertainty; the script was written in such a way that  the reader would be misled just as the audience was misled, but after seeing the ending, the attentive, careful reader should be able see enough clues in the script to sort it all out.

Quigley didn’t first feed us the “correct” interpretation and then reward us for spitting it back; instead, he wanted to see what we could do when we faced a challenge.

Years later, very early in my teaching career, Quigley’s pedagogy came to mind when a student showed up to a literature seminar not only without having done the reading, but without a copy of the text. It was early in the term, and we were studying something I intended to be accessible — someone like Emily Dickinson or Edgar Allen Poe — short poems, all of them out of copyright. This wasn’t a case of a $130 textbook that a student couldn’t afford, it was more like a $7 paperback, one that would have cost even less used. I pointed out that he’d still be able to participate if he got a copy of the book from the library. I don’t have a memory of how he left the room; I don’t remember him apologizing, or stomping out, but I gather he was not happy, because not only did he not return to the class that day, he never came back at all — he dropped the course.

Did he feel singled out? The fact that he was sitting in a small seminar, with no book in front of him and nothing to contribute, already made him stand out. Was he overwhelmed, overstressed, and over-scheduled, and was dropping my class the best thing he could have done to keep himself happy and sane? Had I failed to emphasized how important it is in a literature class to read the literature? Had I failed to make the challenge — sharing a personal, direct encounter with a text — interesting or relevant? What would have been the consequences if I had simply ignored the student who was sitting through the seminar empty-handed and silent?

This article in Inside Higher Ed notes that students who don’t do the readings are often bored in the classroom, because they lack the context that would help them make sense of what the students and professor are talking about. I’m not the only one who wonders about what to do to help students value the out-of-class preparation. I don’t like assigning reading quizzes, especially in an online class (where I fear students will just open the quiz and Google for the answers).

I have been using student reading response blogs for years. I ask students to blog something for each assigned reading. During class, I may start a conversation by calling on a random student an asking, “Whose blog did you comment on?”

I don’t assign points for each blog post. I don’t even try to read every post that every student writes. The student who is timely but safe, the student who is brilliant but unreliable, the student who is deep but isolated, the student who is gregarious but shallow — all of these students contribute to the class blogosphere in different ways, at different times. Some do their best work blogging before class; others enrich real-time in-class discussions by referring to blogs they’ve posted or comments they’ve received; others get inspired by a class discussion that ends too soon, and keep the debate going on their blogs.  To most students, blogging is just another form of homework, but there are always a handful whose beyond-the-call-of-duty contributions benefit the whole group. (I’ve posted plenty about teaching with blogs in the past; here is the weblog portfolio assignment for my online American Lit course.)


Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 1.05.06 PMGiven the different ways we signal that the most important part of school is their grades, we shouldn’t wonder why things that are going to impact those grades get the most attention. We should also acknowledge that while many of us can plan our semester deadlines around other demands on our time, students are subject to the deadlines of five different courses, many of which are going to conflict. If your reading assignment is up against someone else’s exam, that reading isn’t getting done. Let us also remember that managing one’s deadlines is a pretty difficult skill that only comes with practice. — Just Visiting

Students who expect to earn points by regurgitating the “correct” answers they absorb from lectures or factual handouts are precisely the students who need to take literature classes, where they’ll be rewarded for demonstrating how their critical thinking skills help them to solve new problems.



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