Thursday, July 10, 2008

Has reading changed?

When UC Davis faculty ask their students to read for a class, what are they asking? In most cases, the implication is, "Read all of the assigned texts, and come to class (or lab) prepared to consider or talk about them."

Any seasoned UC Davis instructor knows that students frequently interpret reading assignments differently. The student version might be "If I can't get the material elsewhere, read just enough of the course texts to pass the midterms and final exams, or to write an essay for the course." We may regale students with tales of how we read a book per week per course when we were undergraduates, but they'd never believe us--it's as if we're telling them we walked uphill, both ways, in the snow to get to and from our classes.

In the face of such an attitude toward reading, it can be tempting to dismiss (with an angry sigh) kids these days. But before we criticize their lack of intellectual curiosity and their disinclination to read, we need to take a look at what--and more importantly how--Americans read. And this includes ourselves.

Recently overheard:

UC Davis Professor #1: I'm really enjoying this book I'm reading.

UC Davis Professor #2: Really? I think I'd like to read it.

UC Davis Professor #1: You can borrow the CDs as soons as I'm done with them.

Clearly, we have some reflecting to do.

Since 2004, the National Endowment for the Arts has published two reports, Reading at Risk and To Read or Not to Read, on the practice of reading in the United States. Each includes alarming statistics and draws disheartening conclusions about Americans' interaction with literary texts:

  • Americans are spending less time reading literature and books in general.
  • Reading comprehension skills are eroding, especially among teenagers and young males.
  • These declines have serious civic, social, cultural, and economic implications.
  • 65% of college freshmen read for pleasure for less than an hour per week or not at all. The percentage of non-readers among these students has nearly doubled.
  • Reading has declined over the past 20 years among every group--including those with bachelor's and graduate degrees.
  • Literary reading strongly correlates to other forms of active civic participation, including volunteer work, museum visits, and attendance at performing arts or sporting events.
  • In 2002, only 57 percent of Americans read any book. During the same time period, 95.7% of U.S. adults watched at least one hour of TV per day on average; nearly half of American adults watched three or more hours of TV each day on average.
Can we blame the internet and digital media for this decline in time spent reading books and especially literary texts? Some have tried. In the current issue of The Atlantic Monthly, Nicolas Carr raises this possibility in his article "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" He believes his use of the Internet has rewired his brain:

I can feel it, too. Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.
Carr and others in the article postulate that not only the way we read, but more importantly the ways we think, have changed as a result of our becoming netizens. Reading online is different from reading offline. Carr argues that our use of web browsers encourages us to skim rather than to really take the time to dig into complex arguments. And as the NEA studies on reading have suggested, it is easy to get out of the practice of reading thoughtfully.

Others are less eager to villify the Internet and the intellectual habits it engenders (or fails to engender). Barbara Ganley, for example, has found the web to be an excellent medium through which students can engage with ideas. Laura Blankenship reminds us that students see the Internet as entertainment rather than learning tool, and that we need to teach students how to use the Internet in their learning--just as we need to teach them how to read as college students.

Over the next year and beyond, the UC Davis Teaching Resources Center will be looking into both student and faculty reading habits. And so we want to know: When you ask students to read, what are you asking them to do? Are your students reading in the ways you wish them to read? And where, what, and how do you read these days? Please leave your comments, if you're so inclined, in the comments below, or e-mail them to Leslie Madsen-Brooks at ljmadsen -at- ucdavis -dot- edu.

1 comment:

Mikaela said...

Hi Dr. Leslie,

In my experience as a scientist, many science teachers at UCD don't really expect their students to read the textbook. (I'm sure there's lots of variation, but that's my overall impression.) This works fine within science, because the students recognize that the instructors only really expect them to know what is discussed in class, and that they can read the book if they need more information.

A problem seems to arise when those same students then take a humanities course, for instance. The humanities instructor really does expect them to read Summer by Edith Wharton, and doesn't understand why the students show up without having read the book.

There's a lot of other stuff going on, but I think this is one cultural thing we could do a better job of addressing. In our science courses, we could make more of an effort to explain when we just want the students to use the book if it helps them study, and humanities instructors could say explicitly, "I don't know what's been expected of you in other classes, but in this class on Wednesday, I'm going to expect that you've read and contemplated the first five chapters of Don Quixote!"