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.

Social studies

Seems like at some level (high school seems ideal, and also some kind of continuing ed) we should have classes that teach people how to navigate various social spheres and institutions.
 
I can tell a lot of people coming into college are pretty disoriented navigating academia. Plenty of us inside get disoriented with some more public places. How to interact with hospitals, banks, etc. is unintuitive, and especially given the declining social capital, people would be helped a lot by some instruction.

What a Gift

Locked inside this facility
Designed to produce clean minds
Binded in by laws to better
Imprisoned for good functioning

It's a world of suffering
Those who succeed are miserable
Those who are happy fail miserably

They claim it's a gift
A gift we need and can't refuse

It's a prison and a cult

Why we need it I don't know
Wait I do—to be a good cog

They own us—they control us
From the start they claim their power
Rules us for every hour

Fight for freedom be destroyed
Give in and be destroyed
Let your mind be destroyed
What a gift

TBT: More of people trying to replace education with gatekeeping for employers

This article is pretty good. A few comments, mostly echoing Strauss, though my own thoughts are intertwined:

1-Perhaps the most disturbing issue at play here is the profit motives driving educational reform at the moment. Yes, K-12 education could be done better. However, looking at the material associated with the Common Core as well as the people advocating it at the highest level, the companies making tests have a lot to gain. More tests means money is being spent padding their pockets rather than educating children.

2-Related to the above is the distressing tendency for learning to be quantified. A teacher reading a student’s work will know much better what needs to happen than any number can express. I wrote down my SAT scores on some college applications, but the test itself was entirely useless. Likewise, my modus operandi with ECA and ISTEP+ results was to light them on fire. (Not really. But where they are is beyond me.) Telling me I got a 654/800 or whatever other score tells me approximately nothing. Was my reasoning not solid? Was my grammar poor? Was the grader intoxicated? Did I fill up every single line and use no punctuation but still get a perfect because OMG SO MCH WRITING (yes, that happened to someone on the ISTEP+)?

I don’t know. I’ll never know. Quizzes here and there, along with chapter or unit tests with individual feedback is pretty useful; don’t get me wrong. Feedback is always critical (except apparently in MOOCs), but numbers are not feedback. Hell, Finland seems to do fine when they throw numerical grades out entirely and just focus on teachers and students communicating what’s going on. “This essay would work better if…” or “You need to use this formula here…” is a lot more useful than “4/5 B-“. What the hell does that even mean?

Of course, to, say, the profit-minded who are purely interested in who can churn out the best numerical results? Perhaps corporate employers who need a quick, easy method of whacking thousands of applications away without any work? Tests might aid them a bit. Human interaction isn’t as profitable. For those who care most for profit, anyhow. Anyone who’s looking to move up or focus on learning has an obstacle in their way.

Can’t get more money to seek more education because scores are too low.
Can’t focus on learning because the test is more important.

3-The idea of nationwide consistency is nice. Why Maryland is a year ahead of Indiana in Mathematics is beyond me. Why English curricula, as far as I know, is completely different state-to-state is also beyond me. (Well, it’s not beyond me; Jeffersonianism is entirely to blame.) CCSS is also not the solution because it doesn’t even work on the school level. Saying “9th grade students should generally learn algebra to some degree of depth based on ability” is one thing. “All 9th grade students must know how to solve two-variable systems of equations via substitution by October 18th”, or something to said effect, is an entirely different thing. While, as far as I know the latter case is not CCSS, the idea that completely uniform education is going to happen, especially with funds being siphoned to testing, is not particularly convincing.

The article notes several other issues, and I do recommend reading it. Another notable aspect is the lack of educators involved in the design of Common Core. When one K-12 teacher is involved, no professors, and no parents, but a solid 300 non-educators, primarily politicians and businesspeople, there’s probably an issue. I’m no expert in pedagogy, and thus my comments ought to come with a grain of salt, but neither are the vast majority of the people designing the educational reform. Maybe when we get the money and numbers off the table and let teachers who, you know, actually know how teaching works do their jobs, we might see better results.

Yes, there are equality problems. Solutions beyond “Seek revenge on schools that fail our standards,” exist. They’re also actually solutions. My preferred plan would be to have funding based on the national level, thus making each student able to have equal funding regardless of district, but other solutions, of course, exist. I’d also advocate for smaller classes and longer school days, but that’s, of course, getting off-topic.

More reason to decimate nonprivate evaluation

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò wrote a great piece on how he’s a teacher, not a job trainer. I commonly complain about liberal arts institutions being co-opted as job training centers. Táíwò’s article takes the individual perspective, and gets a better personal angle on why this is bad. My usual argument is primarily that life has a lot of awesome stuff to it, and making money really isn’t that much of it. That “When will I use this?” is a common question asked about ethics classes shows how deep the problem is. We have more resources than ever being poured into higher education, but we’re getting rid of most of higher education.

Conveniently, Ben Orlin wrote about math’s role as a gatekeeper around the same time. Mathematics, an allegedly more practical field of study than any humanity, is abused as a gatekeeper. Mathematicians see beauty in math. I know many who would love to instill some enjoyment for mathematics into their students. Instead they have to teach requirements to a room full of people looking to take the test. Mathematicians by and large don’t seem fond of their role as gatekeepers. I’m not sure who does. At best playing gatekeeper is a means to dragging students into classes so administrators will agree to let the department have money.

One step out of the muck would be increased, mandatory privacy on grades, and perhaps courses taken. The gatekeeper function is much harder to fill when there’s no record to look at. Employers can’t bog down the education process with their exploitation of it as a filtering mechanism. (If they have too many applications to look at applicants as individuals, perhaps they’ll see some incentive to fix the broken job market.)

I’m not denying the importance of evaluation. Feedback is a critical part of the learning process. You have to know where you’re going wrong to fix it. Sometimes you need pointing in the right direction to improve. But these can be had without letting anyone outside the educational process aware of the feedback.

Unfortunately this idea falls among those that would require universal adoption all at once. If any small group of institutions did this at once, they would likely just be shunned. If they won’t play into the wishes of HR departments, then HR departments will shun their graduates. Then they’ll struggle to find any students. But, I retain three thoughts: One, there may still be something of use in this partial idea. Two, if UBI gets rolling, universities can exist without depending on high enrollment. Three, grade inflation is leading us down this road anyway. If everyone gets an A, nobody gets an A. If anyone can get a degree, the degree doesn’t signify much. At that point, all the degree says is one came up with tuition money one way or another. At that point, one should hope at least students get an education out of the deal.