I did an English degree because I liked reading and wanted to spend three years talking about books and ideas. I had no plan for employment in mind. It didn't feel like I did any work at all for those years because I just read books all the time - exactly what I'd have done if I'd been on the dole, with the added bonus of conversations and a wider range of texts.
So I just don't understand the motivation of anyone doing a literature degree without being enthusiastic. Of course, some texts are boring/incomprehensible/unengaging: I struggled with plenty as a student - but you do need some curiosity. I can understand people saying that work and children and so on mean that the time to read is curtailed, but at least people should want to read. Monday's Winstanley class featured several students who hadn't bothered to do the reading. However, the diligent students also showed me their workload and asked for a variation on their assignment to enable them to use texts we'd studied in class rather than only ones we hadn't looked at. I didn't realise how much they had to do, and agreed.
Tara Brabazon (read her books) has had the same experience and writes about it much more elegantly:
A student, in reply to a tutorial question or query about an assignment, shrilly replies: “I don’t like reading.” This is an ice pick through scholarly culture. It is naive. It is short-sighted. It is foolish. It is ignorant. Without reading, a student is trapped within the limitations of their own life, confusing personal experience with researched expertise. Reading builds a productive network of authors, approaches, theories and evidence.
Reading is a selfish act. For three years, students have an opportunity to focus on themselves, discipline their minds, ponder the greatest words ever written and find ideas to anchor their lives. So many men and women would give anything to have the time to explore the world of books.
A colleague in Creative Writing made a similar point to potential students at an open day recently. When they said they weren't readers, she told them they couldn't be writers: the only writers who apparently don't read are Jeffrey Archer and Dan Brown - you can tell because they can't write a good sentence or subvert one's expectations in any way.
What's the solution?
If a student does not wish to read, then they should not enrol at university. Give the place to someone else. During my first degree, when an academic realised that a student had not completed the required preparation, the recalcitrant undergraduate would be asked to leave the tutorial.
Years later, I asked this dedicated teacher why he so ruthlessly embarrassed the non-readers. He stated that if he had let them stay, the intellectual level would have fallen too low, making it necessary to explain ideas that should have been understood before entering the tutorial. With the non-readers gone, he could teach at the required standard.
I've never done this. I've weakly asked why people don't have their texts, or mailed people to remind them to do the reading, but never got a reply, and never thrown people out. I've a suspicion that some would refuse to go. So I get used to people staring blankly at the walls or (most often) texting/updating their Facebook pages. What a waste of their time and mine.
Brabazon knows that in this day and age, we can't just chuck people out of the room. She suggests using online activities such as goodreads.com, shelfari and scribd so that students can enter reading communities and even contact authors. What's slightly lacking in her account is what the students and teachers actually do on these sites. Is it swopping enthusiasms or having in-depth discussion? The (theoretical) joy of seminars is not just exchanging ideas, but examining them. Sometimes students come up with angles I haven't thought about, and (hopefully often) I propose strategies and ideas they haven't come across but can deal with. If teaching becomes the equivalent of a LIKE button, we're losing the critical aspect.
I can see advantages though: formal teaching does carry a sense of judgement about it which is often unhelpful. I kept my mouth shut during my first year at university because I'd rather be presumed stupid than open my mouth and confirm the suspicion. Then I realised that everyone else was feeling the same way, and made the effort to break through my shyness, and gained a lot from it. I'd like to teach as though it was a more searching book group: perhaps a comfortable space, cups of coffee, witty banter, but it's an ideal which I suspect would fall short for various reasons: a lack of enthusiasm on the part of some, the barely concealed power structure of the teaching experience, the cognitive dissonance of the method (which could be creative).
Despite this, I love teaching: I like the vast majority of my students and I'm enthusiastic about the subject - but it's the lost sheep I worry about. Your thoughts?
PS. It's worth having a look at the comments section - very interesting post from Ewar, and I've replied.