(The last term, Jan-April 2012, was incredibly busy for me…no time to blog! But now I’m on a year’s sabbatical (July 2012-July 2013), and plan to do a good deal of reading and writing about teaching!)
Some common concerns: How can we engage in good classroom discussion of one or more texts and the issues and arguments they raise if a good number of students haven’t read the texts? How can we encourage students to read the texts before coming to class?
Clearly we need to motivate students so they want to read the texts before class. If the readings were intrinsically interesting to them and they had lots of time, it wouldn’t be a problem. Unfortunately, those two things are not always true (and with philosophical texts, the first is too often not true for many students). In addition, I have in the past found myself making up for the lack of preparedness by lecturing on the main ideas in the texts myself in class. Which, of course, just makes students even less likely to read the texts: if the texts are difficult, and the professor is just going to lecture on the main points anyway, why not spend one’s precious time in one’s very busy life doing something else? For many college students are very, very busy–probably too much so; but that’s an argument for another day.
One of the courses I teach is “Arts One,” a year-long, interdisciplinary, team-taught course for first year students only. In that course we read a book a week, approximately (sometimes one book over two weeks), and most of the class time is spent in discussion of the books. It is imperative that students have read the texts before coming to discussion class, and in that particular class, I have too often relied on the thought that the students who choose Arts One are already diligent and highly motivated, and would do the work on their own. But that isn’t always the case, and often it’s because they are overworked or the texts are difficult for them to understand on their own.
Things really become problematic when I ask students to do presentations either to the whole class or to small groups, in which they raise questions for discussion and facilitate that discussion. They are understandably disappointed when their hard work results in lackluster discussion because others haven’t finished reading the books.