Don’t Assume Students Don’t Read

One day when I was grading reading responses, I thought over half the class didn’t read. We’re near the end of the term, and this seems to be a common assumption among people in instructional roles in universities anyhow. But, to avoid throwing out accusations without sufficient evidence, I acted instead on the assumption that a lot of students just didn’t understand the reading. Turns out my first assumption was wrong, and we in instructional roles need to slow down our assumptions.

The text was Kate Manne’s “Humanism: A Critique”. I think the piece is fantastic. It’s really clear, to me, and Manne’s arguments completely changed my position. In the article, she responds to the popular belief that cruel behavior can be explained by perpetrators dehumanizing their victims. She labels this view “humanism”, and then proceeds to demonstrate that it’s wrong. Dehumanization rarely, if ever, works as an explanation of cruel behavior. But this isn’t what the reading responses said she said. Instead, they said that she was defending humanism. They took a few quotes and examples to defend their reading, but the examples were those she was using to illustrate the humanist position. That is, they took her to be affirming what she was denying.

Here the laziest explanation is that the students just didn’t read. They probably skimmed the first couple of sections to get enough material to put together a response, and then forewent actually reading the piece. This is a pretty easy assumption to make given both of the following:

  1. The popularity of the assumption that students don’t read, and
  2. The common practice of academics of not reading. By this I don’t mean that we never read, but rather that with the amount of stuff we have to be acquainted with, often enough we pay some attention to the introduction and some selected passages, but seriously engaging with an entire text is often reserved for the more important texts to our own projects.

I think 1 is bad. I think 2 isn’t necessarily bad. I have over fifty books on my desk relevant to my work, and there’s no way I’m going to be able to give all of them a complete read. However, there’s a difference between myself and many of my students: I’ve been training for years in how to do that sort of thing! But moreover, I’ve also been training in how to read complex philosophical texts. It is in fact unusual how philosophers will say things we don’t believe, but rather just want to present to then argue against. So from this understanding, I came up with a second hypothesis: they did read, but the text was just not one that they were equipped to understand yet.

Assuming my second hypothesis was correct (though making sure my plan would still work out if the first were correct), I spent the next section with the text on the projector so we could take apart the structure of the piece. Before class, I highlighted the sentences that to me signposted what Manne is doing. We came up with an outline of the paper from reading the introduction, and then worked out how she started and ended each section. But the moment of revelation for me came when I put this quotation on the screen and asked the class what the first thing she’ll do in the body of the text is:

First, I try to convey the flavor of humanist thought in some of its most interesting and fruitful philosophical applications, over the course of section 1. After that, I will clarify the humanist position (in section 2), criticize it (in section 3), present an alternative, “socially situated” model for explaining the humanist’s target explananda (in section 4), and argue that these alternative explanations will often be superior to those offered by the humanist (in section 5, to close).

To me, and to most of my similarly-trained colleagues, this is obviously an outline of the article to come. To the class, figuring out what Manne would do first took a minute or so. This made it suddenly obvious to me that

  1. This is not a move most people are familiar with, and
  2. The form of the paper is also one people are not usually familiar with.

A couple of students even told me, despite my suggestions to borrow the form of the article (present opposition, then present problems with opposition, then present your own alternative), they find it hard to follow or understand. Which makes sense; what other genres use this? If you read a scientific article, almost every sentence will be in agreement with the thesis. If you read a story, unless it’s some stuff that’s hard to get into, the text of the story is what the narrator believes. We don’t often see several pages of examples the author ultimately is seeking to reject.

From this experience, I take two conclusions, one more specific, and one more general:

  1. Don’t so quickly assume students didn’t read. Designing lesson plans around that assumption when its false at best ignores important learning opportunities, and it’s also fundamentally failing to treat students with respect.
  2. Reading complex texts is hard. It’s a skill that has to be developed before it can be performed. Assigning difficult readings without spending any time teaching the class how to do those readings is just setting the class up for failure.

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