pleasureinlearning is happy to present the next installment of R², a series focusing on reading in the college classroom. This week, Ken Casey, chair of the Liberal Arts and Social Sciences Division, shares some thoughts on reading assignments.
The pleasures of reading—to some of my students this is an oxymoron. To my own shame I as a teacher am part of the association of reading and displeasure. How so? I have boring textbooks. Nothing takes the pleasure out of reading like boredom.
To make my shame worse, in the past few years I even told students I had a boring textbook. I tried to ameliorate it with a joke. I said one book is like fiber, nutritious and healthy in its own way but on the bland side. I contrasted it with the other “spicy” book and said that one book would balance the other—potatoes and tabasco.
This was my way to get people to tolerate some kinds of reading but it is not a way to get people to love reading or to learn to love it—and that is at the heart of the educational project. This year, though, I have made a change—I threw out the boring textbook and replaced it with some livelier readings. It took a bit of effort to select and put the readings on blackboard but it meant that I now did not have to disparage what I was offering.
In another class, I kept the boring textbook but supplemented it with other readings. As part of a grant project we were encouraged to focus on new humanities texts. Amanda Sauermann and I had chosen one module of readings to include “meaning of life issues” and I had come across a text that dealt with it brilliantly and powerfully. It was a sermon by St. Bernard (no dog jokes please) written on the occasion of his brother’s death.
St Bernard has a unique title among the Doctors of the Church—he is called the Mellifluous Doctor—roughly translated mellifluous is “honey oozing.” Although the subject matter is quite painful and Bernard’s lamentations are not weak in the least—it is a joy to read. Why? Because it is a pleasure to see refreshing honesty and directness in lively writing—it oozes the pleasure of a well turned phrase that darts to the quick and opens the heart.
In response to the reading students began to talk to me and others in class—“yes, I lost a brother or I lost a grandpa.” So the pleasure of the reading became social—both in joining with St Bernard and also classmates. Did this ever happen with the boring textbook? Not a chance and it seems a pretty clear cause and effect at work. So what am I going to do? I am going to root out those old boring readings and seek ones that enliven and give pleasure in reading. Spicy reading oozing with honey is now going to dominate my reading menu. I hope it will be a more effective tactic than my old one of “eat your fiber” and force feeding students lacking an appetite.
This giving up and repenting and replacing is only the babiest of the first steps toward change. What I really need are some specific reading strategies to inculcate in my students and my assignments—I hope we can hear more about these in R²s to come.
- On the “riches and merits” of St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s theology (insightscoop.typepad.com)
- Distractions, honey and a Song (ladyphilosopher.wordpress.com)
- Reading despite school, revisited (doug-johnson.squarespace.com)