I Don’t Know Why Everyone’s in Denial About College Students Who Can’t Do the Reading

In my lit classes, I’m definitely teaching more short stories and fewer novels that I used to.

I’ve expanded the time I spend on note-taking, synthesizing quotes from different sources, and why at the college level it’s not a good paragraph if it simply introduces “One quote that supports my position,” repeats three or four sentences, follows up with “What this quote says is…” and then ends with “This quote is important to my argument because…”

My students today aren’t dumb, and they really seem to enjoy peer review workshops. They expect a lot of feedback — not in great detail, but in great frequency. They seem to do well when I break an assignment down into multiple short steps, and when I carefully let them know when I’m leveling up my expectations, so that when the work starts getting easier, they don’t start thinking of it as busywork — it’s a sign they are actually learning.

For most of my career, I assigned around 30 pages of reading per class meeting as a baseline expectation—sometimes scaling up for purely expository readings or pulling back for more difficult texts. (No human being can read 30 pages of Hegel in one sitting, for example.) Now students are intimidated by anything over 10 pages and seem to walk away from readings of as little as 20 pages with no real understanding. Even smart and motivated students struggle to do more with written texts than extract decontextualized take-aways. Considerable class time is taken up simply establishing what happened in a story or the basic steps of an argument—skills I used to be able to take for granted.

Since this development very directly affects my ability to do my job as I understand it, I talk about it a lot. And when I talk about it with nonacademics, certain predictable responses inevitably arise, all questioning the reality of the trend I describe. Hasn’t every generation felt that the younger cohort is going to hell in a handbasket? Haven’t professors always complained that educators at earlier levels are not adequately equipping their students? And haven’t students from time immemorial skipped the readings? —Slate

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