So here’s yet another story on how students today can’t or won’t read

Theresa MacPhail is a pragmatist. In her 15 years of teaching, as the number of students who complete their reading assignments has steadily declined, she has adapted. She began assigning fewer readings, then fewer still. Less is more, she reasoned. She would focus on the readings that mattered most and were interesting to them.

For a while, that seemed to work. But then things started to take a turn for the worse. Most students still weren’t doing the reading. And when they were, more and more struggled to understand it. Some simply gave up. 

I’ve already written on this topic, here. But this gives me a chance to add something I thought I had written about already … but maybe not? If I have, my apologies.

(N.B. That Chronicle article also discusses pedagogical problems faced by professors in the sciences, but I don’t know anything about what they face, so my comments here are only about my own neck of the woods, the humanities.)  

What I would like to ask Theresa MacPhail is: Do you do anything to ensure that your students do the assigned reading? Or do you just give them the assignments and hope for the best? 

Here’s what I do, and have done for my entire teaching career: I give pop reading quizzes. I tell my students why I give such quizzes: I do it, I say, because y’all are Self-Deceived Rational Utility Maximizers.

Students have many demands on their time, and they would also like to spend at least some of that time enjoying themselves, so when they look at what they’re supposed to do in any given week, they triage: What has to be done first? That is, what will I pay a price for not doing? Whatever would cost them the most to skip is what they do first, and then they work their way down the line. If you have assigned your students some reading but they pay no price for neglecting that reading, then students will neglect that reading. It’s as simple as that. When I was in college I thought in precisely the same way. I rationally maximized my utility, according to what was utile by my lights. (That is to say, I never underestimated the utility of smoking pot and going bowling, or smoking pot and listening to music, or … just smoking pot.)  

Now, the students rarely tell themselves that they won’t do the reading at all. They declare that they’ll get caught up next week, when things are a little less harried. But here’s where the “self-deceived” part of Self-Deceived Rational Utility Maximizer comes in: next week will of course not be less harried. And if there’s still no cost to neglecting the reading … well, we all know how things will work out, don’t we? 

This is why I give reading quizzes: to move my assignments up in the queue, to force the practitioner of triage to reckon with me. And there’s another reason: We go over each quiz in class — I make them grade their own quizzes — and in the process I discover what they noticed and what they missed. That’s useful information for me, and not just when I’m making up future quizzes: I’m able in our discussion to zero in on those overlooked passages. “Why did I ask about this? Why is this passage important?” I also encourage them to tell me when they think a question is too picky — sometimes I even agree that it is, though whether I do or not it’s helpful to explain why I asked it. 

This whole process is an education in attentive reading, or that’s what I try to turn it into anyway. And one of the major reasons I think it works is that my students’ quiz grades tend to rise over the course of the term. They get better at noticing; they get better at recognizing what really matters in the texts we read. Not all of them, of course; but most of them.

(Yes, of course I know that some of them are reading SparkNotes and Wikipedia summaries and the like; but I try to take that into account when making up the quizzes, and even if they can get a few questions right based on reading such summaries, well, that’s better than not reading at all. At the very least they get a good deal more out of the classroom discussion than they would have if they had come in knowing nothing.) 

You can assign reading to students; but if you don’t develop strategies for holding them accountable, then it doesn’t really matter what you assign. They’re Self-Deceived Rational Utility Maximizers after all, and if there’s one thing you can never change about them it’s that. 

So when people say “My students can’t read any more,” I want to ask what they’re doing to hold them accountable — and what they’re doing to help them become more intelligently attentive readers. That Chronicle of Higher Education article didn’t focus on those questions, but they’re essential. (We do hear something that Adam Kotsko, whose essay in Slate kicked off this season of conversation, does to make sure his students are reading and assess how they read. It’s very different from what I do, but it’s interesting.) 

If teachers do have strategies for making their students accountable and are consciously working to teach better reading skills and the students are still not doing the necessary work, then we definitely have a big social problem. And we very well might. But some vital information is missing from these exercises in lamentation.