On Assigning Undergraduate Reading

Student ReadingDuring my first year as a Teaching Fellow, I’ve done a number of pedagogy-related posts, covering student preparation, undergraduate writing, and lecturing. Having finished that first year, I have found myself thinking about different approaches I’ve witnessed to assigning readings. The question I have is: What is the best approach to assigning undergraduate reading?

It seems to me there are two aspects related to that question. First, what is the right split between primary and secondary sources? And, second, what is an ideal number of pages? Of course, the answers to these questions will vary according to the type of course. So, I will address them for a mid-level history lecture course (think: 200 or 300) with a corresponding discussion section.

So, what is the right split between primary and secondary sources? As historians, I think it is our natural instinct to want to expose students to as many primary sources as possible. Indeed, I have seen syllabuses that are almost all primary sources. I am, of course, not going to play the contrarian here. Primary sources are (or should be) integral to any undergraduate history course. But, in discussion sections, I have found myself with two primary goals: introduce students to the concept of historiography and the practice of history. And what I have found—in my admittedly limited experience—is that each is integral to the other.

After students have been introduced to the concept of historiography, i.e., that historians continually develop alternative interpretations of the same events and sources, and that that is totally valid, they seem much more willing and open to thinking creatively about primary sources. Once they know that they’re not looking at this document or image for the “right” answer because no such answer exists, they seem to become more willing to take what otherwise might have seemed to be an intellectual risk. Similarly, once students have looked at the same primary source and come up with different ideas about it, they become much more sympathetic in dealing with opposing historiographical interpretations.

From my own experience and syllabuses I have seen online, there does seem to be less of a propensity for foregrounding historiographical debates among the assigned reading. Of course, that may simply be a false impression, but I took a number of American Revolution courses as an undergraduate and none tried to engage the students with the historiography. Having taught the American Revolution last semester, I found that introducing students to the alternative interpretations within the historiography not only taught them the concept but also found them becoming more invested in their own positions on the course’s big questions.

The second question, again, is: what is the right amount of reading to assign? It is probably natural for junior faculty and graduate students to want to assign a large amount of reading. Or, perhaps, assign the largest amount of reading that you might plausibly expect the students would actually do, whether it be primary or secondary sources. That was my initial inclination when designing my own course syllabus back in the fall. Doing anything less might be seen as being soft or going too easy on undergraduates or, worse yet, underestimating their abilities or potential.

However, there is no denying that attention spans are contracting (and not just for students). We’ve all experienced the frustration of the post-question silence. Rather than fighting windmills because we have expectations of students that were formed from our own experience as students, I have found myself becoming more willing to think alternatively about this. Would I rather my students read a primary source of a few pages that they can definitely engage with and benefit from or would I rather assign them an entire 60-page 18th-century pamphlet because it makes me feel like a “better” teacher?

Now, of course, this is—in most real-world instances—a false dichotomy. Students should read Common Sense in its entirety. But I use this dichotomy to make a broader point about assigning reading. I think it’s worth asking ourselves when we’re creating a syllabus who the reading assignment we’ve chosen is primarily designed to benefit. I would argue that most contemporary students seem to benefit more (due to the increased likelihood of greater engagement both individually and collectively) from shorter, more targeted readings (in both primary and secondary sources).

As I said, my experience compared to many of our readers is limited. Hence, I trust you will let me know if that limited experience has led me to any suppositions, suggestions, or conclusions here that are wrong. And, as always, I am always interested to know how our readers approach these two questions.

6 comments on “On Assigning Undergraduate Reading

  1. This decision is dependent on a number of factors, including campus culture, but here’s my experience.

    When I tried to require the same level of reading (and writing) at my current institution (southern SLAC) as I did at my previous one (New England SLAC), I had a significantly higher failure rate, both in survey and in upper-level courses. Students here were used to a lecture course with one big textbook and no extra readings.*

    So, I cut back on the number of books I assigned in survey courses and began adding in articles, which students don’t find as daunting. Instead of assigning a book with one deadline for a paper or exam, I also began breaking up the reading of books into sections and assigned reading quizzes. Both of those approaches seemed to help.

    In upper-level courses, I told the students that the amount of reading they were getting was appropriate, so they needed to find time to do it. I also began using reading quizzes to “motivate” them; otherwise, we simply sat in silence during discussions. They are also required to lead discussion over articles or chapters they sign up for. That approach has worked wonders.

    *Surveys are capped at 35-40 students, upper-levels usually run between 7-15.

  2. I largely agree with Mark that, as with all things historical, context is crucial.

    In my case (a public four-year setting), most of my students work at least 25-30 hours a week in at least one job. So every page has to count. That means that in the survey courses, during the week of the Revolution I can’t assign them all of Common Sense, to borrow your example, or they would not be able to read anything else at all from the era. The pamphlet is important, to be sure, but I also want them to read other arguments both for and against the Revolution. And as much as we lecture about how Common Sense was written in a vernacular and accessible tone, it can still prove forbidding to students. [Two side notes: (1) I'm still figuring out how best to make use of a document reader, and I'm not sure I'm sold on the concept in general, but it's difficult to get a variety of viewpoints across without some sort of excerpting strategy. (2) Don't assign the version from Early American Imprints. It just adds layers of complication that will make your students hate you and not understand Paine at all.]

    As for secondary sources, articles had worked much better in my experience than books, and infinitely better than book chapters. They also are much cheaper for students, which we all know is often an issue for many students. For the same reason, I’ve also come to realize that when I use a book, it needs to be worth it, both in terms of how much we use it (the whole thing, over more than just one week), and its quality. In other words, I’m much more likely to ask my students to buy a classic work like A Midwife’s Tale than something new that hasn’t yet stood the test of time.

    • Joe, I think you’re spot on about articles working better than discrete book chapters and about your judicious choice of books. I think it’s important to expose students to the range of academic writing (books, journal articles, book reviews, etc…). As for Common Sense, I think you’re probably right that for a survey one need not assign the whole thing. As for the vernacularity of it, I had one student last semester (the whole thing was assigned in an AmRev course) who made that same point. Of course, choosing readings for the first half of the survey and choosing them for a course specifically on the Revolution are two distinct problems. Finally, as for the reader, we used the Major Problems volume on the American Revolution last semester and that experience has inclined me to seriously consider compiling my own reader (of both primary and secondary sources) for when I teach my own version of the course.

  3. Ken Owen says:

    I’m surprised by the antipathy to book chapters here. I think that the right book chapters are tremendously engaging and valuable to students, as they get across the idea of history as a developing story rather than something that is just done in discrete blobs. That requires some care; the book chapter I’ve used most effectively was Marcus Daniel’s chapter in ‘Scandal and Civility’ on William Cobbett. Clearly, the success is because it was a largely discrete topic, though with some nods to other printers writing at the time. But the right book chapter can be used as well as journal articles, I think.

    As far as the volume of reading goes; I was converted in my first year of teaching to think about setting the amount of reading students would do well, rather than setting a larger amount of reading they’d complete haphazardly. But I still set large reading loads – and indeed this is mentioned on my evaluations regularly. That said, I think that history courses do need a wide variety of reading if we are to achieve aims of understanding multi-causality. The key, I think, is to make sure students see some value in everything they’re asked to read. My experience is very much that students will work hard, as long as they understand why they’re asked to do something; the resistance is to busy work.

    • Like Joseph, I’m at a 4-year public institution. I’ve leaned toward book chapters – typically from a couple of volumes. The books are carefully chosen to try to present a couple of perspectives…or, I might balance a book chapter with a scholarly essay or journal. (Most of my students work to put themselves through school, so I try to be sensitive to cost, as well as quality.) As Ken says, it takes a lot of care. They have to be the right chapters or journal articles.

      On the primary sources, I’ve started hand-picking them, and posting the sources I want them to read to the CMS. There are some good options online, like the Fordham Sourcebook, which can present carefully selected excerpts that work particularly well for lower-level courses. Picking sources is more work than assigning a reader, but it gives me much more flexibility. The other advantage is that with so many of these sources freely available on the internet, I don’t have to ask them to buy another book.

      I also agree with Ken’s observation that most students will work hard, as long as they understand the rationale. I’ve assigned short response essays, or sometimes incorporate brief writing prompts in class.

  4. Gabriel Loiacono says:

    This is a really thoughtful post and comments. I want to write briefly in defense of whole books. At most, in an upper division course at my mid-sized public university in Wisconsin, I might assign 5 books, 1-2 of which are book-length primary sources, such as Bedford’s abbreviated Jesuit Relations or Lewis and Clark journals, but 3-4 of which are monographs which I judge to be readable and somewhat digestible for undergraduates. I am also cost-conscious, and I aim for these books to total less than $80 in an upper division class or $40 in a lower division class. I also think that Hattem is right that we have to be very careful about whether our assigned readings are actually achieving what we want. What I like about books are A) that our discipline really has a lot that are great for teaching (Anne Orthwood’s Bastard and Affairs of Honor are two of my faves) and B) books require students to contend with arguments for a long time, over the course of 2-4 weeks in my classes. I have been persuaded by a theme in popular science these days, championed by Nicholas Carr and his book The Shallows, that there is something useful in training one’s mind to read books, and follow arguments for 100 pages or more. My students seem to like it, so far. My two cents.

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