Monday, October 22, 2012
Teaching students to read...
We debate "the melting pot" versus "multiculturalism," we explore Malcolm X versus MLK, we examine how things like the Great Depression and World War II and the Vietnam War transformed the way the nation thought of itself, and the way it was looked at by the world. Women, gays and lesbians, racial, ethnic, and religious minorities all make an appearance.
We read lots of articles but also a few big history books, some of the kind that were once (and read like they were once) dissertations. Which leads to a question: how do you teach students to read?
When they get the big books (remember, it is an upper-division course), I have to pick a handful of chapters, trying to be true to the narrative structure, and also to make sure the important arguments shine through. After hearing students complain about the length and density and difficulty a number of times, I decided I needed to teach them how to read a big, academic book. I've come up with a few rules:
1. pay attention to titles, both of the book and of each chapters, and even subsections. Most authors really want to be understood, and they use their titles to enhance clarity. How can we make sense of the title? If you can't answer that, you've missed something big.
2. read Introductions and Conclusions carefully, for the same reason you pay attention to titles.
3. start slowly. I tell them that, for me, it takes as long to read the first third of a book as it does the last two-thirds. I bother to hear the tone coming from the pages, try to follow the narrative arc of the story, and learn who the key characters are going to be.
4. then speed up. Here, I have to differentiate between "skimming" and reading actively, which to me is reading all topic sentences carefully, learning when to slow down and when to speed up, underlining like crazy, with tons of marginalia, and being sure you follow the narrative.
5. When you finish, see if you can tell yourself the story, and, of course, make sense of the title.
The idea is not to let the perfect get in the way of the good, and to take seriously the idea that sometimes our students get bogged down in details and miss the vital arc.
What else should I be doing? What have you done?