"I am a Minnesotan by birth and a traveler in wild places by vocation and compulsion." -Paul Gruchow

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Eng. 180: On the Student Need "To Relate" to "Like"

On Monday, the first day of class, I assigned "A Short History of Your Reading Life" to my Intro to Lit class, due yesterday (Wednesday).  The assignment served several purposes for myself as the teacher--diagnostic, to see if they could follow basic instructions (like MLA formatting), as well as getting insight into what they were bringing into my classroom.  I just finished reading and commenting on their histories--and the results are mostly what I expected, but a few things that shouldn't have surprised me did.

Across the board, the number of students (a great majority of them) admitted to flat-out hating reading.  Some of them used that as a springboard to talk about a parent or a teacher who then inspired them to the greatness of reading--but even as I wrote "have you told your teacher thank you?" in the margins (because I know that most of us don't thank our teachers, since we're so far gone from that atmosphere when the reality of what they did for us kicks in), I kept getting stuck at "I hated/I hate" reading.  (I got a lot of "I hate nonfiction," which was disconcerting to me as a nonfiction writer, though I'm pretty sure they have no idea that creative nonfiction exists, that they have a similar mindset to my sister K3, who once told me that "When I think of nonfiction, I think about books about sharks.")

What was clear, though, wasn't that they actually hate reading--they hate being told what to read.  And they're completely unaware of the irony of some of their favorite books (that they've identified) as coming in a class where they were required to read it...)  But I just wanted to write "tough shit" in the margins, because who says that who cares if you actually a like a book or not?  For myself, as I have said elsewhere, I loathe Norman Mailer, but that doesn't mean I didn't learn how to put a sentence together from him.  Sometimes there's a great teacher who teaches them that Shakespeare is relevant, that To Kill A Mockingbird is brilliant--but if these students can't relate to the character or the plot, then their default reaction is hate.  And this disturbs me on many levels, on a word-choice level as well as the default reaction itself.  One great observation was "I don't always enjoy assignments over lame books in class."  Sigh.  Not an isolated opinion.

When they talk about hating books and hating reading, about lame books that have no relevance to their 21st century life, the reality I am coming to understand is that that means the books should always be written to entertain them, on their terms.  The main characters should be people that my students should be easily able to slip into.  If you can't relate to Odysseus in The Odyssey (and they're reading that in high school these days???), who's fault is that?  How much responsibility do you, as the student, bear for making something relevant, important, thought-provoking?  But as their teacher, I see that as part of my great opportunity and challenge.

I suspect this mentality started in my generation and has trickled down to this Millenial generation, but I have no research to back this up--and I haven't done any research to see what we as teachers do to combat it, except teach better.  And since this is my first time teaching literature--having only taught creative writing and composition before--it's something I hope to gain more insight about as the semester goes on.

So, for those of you who are following along at home, here's your writing assignment for today:  in the comments section, write me a paragraph or two that encapsulates "A Short History of Your Reading Life."  You could choose to concentrate on a single book, a single person, a specific episode in your reading history--but really, it's wide open.  Can't wait to see what our histories look like!

1 comment:

  1. I've been a book and library addict for as long as I can remember. I had free-reign at a small rural township library near where I grew up, and after I exhausted the children's fiction section, was allowed to check out anything from the adult section I wanted. I think this was about 5th grade or so. If a book didn't interest me, I stopped reading, which was fine, because I had a stack of 10 or 12 books still waiting for me. My mother contributes all this to how vigorously she read to me before I learned to read on my own.
    First book I remember vehemently hating was assigned in 7th grade: The Red Badge of Courage. That same year, I failed a computerized comprehension test on Wuthering Heights, and was so indignant I reread the book from start to finish again and retook the test, getting a perfect score on the retake. In college, I remember making a conscious effort to find some redeeming quality in books that were assigned but not something I'd pick on my own, or even particularly liked. I learned a lot that way, but for the most part had really good literature professors.