Doing the Reading – And How to Make it Count

Consider the most common method of teaching courses in the humanities and social sciences at most liberal arts colleges. Generally, courses such as these are built around three activities: reading, writing, and discussion. Students are supposed to do the reading to prepare for discussion, and both readings and discussions are supposed to help them master the course material and prepare to complete the writing assignments. Grading is based on the writing assignments, and to a lesser degree, class participation.

Reading is often not factored into grading at all, which (predictably) means that when students become overwhelmed with work, the reading is often the first thing they blow off. Yes, it is true that participating effectively in class requires a certain amount of reading, but not as much as you might think. In most discussions, students only have the time to make a few short comments, meaning that you really only need cursory knowledge of the reading to say something meaningful—I, unfortunately, speak from personal experience. Even in very, very small discussion classes, discussion usually ends up covering only one aspect of the reading that has been assigned.

The same goes for papers. Most papers are only related to one aspect of what students have learned in the class—again, a clever student can get by with only knowledge of the reading that relates to his or her paper topic. While final research papers often integrate much of the material from throughout the course, most of the time the students choose what they are writing on. This allows most people to continue to skip the reading that they haven’t done, especially when you consider that most final research papers require heavy use of sources from outside the class.

What I find bizarre about this state of affairs is that most of the work (and most of the learning) that takes place in these kinds of discussion classes is related to reading. It is what those students who choose to read spend the most time on, and it is where the most learning happens. The content of these courses is contained in the reading—when you take a discussion course on, say, international relations, all of the information about international relations that the course is supposed to be teaching can be found in the reading. While some courses do test students on their knowledge of the content of the course through midterm and final exams, many do not.

While I think that it is strange not to assess students on the aspect of the course that has the most to do with what is actually being taught, this practice may have some positive aspects. Students learn how to strategically ignore less important work when they are overwhelmed. Also, does every piece of work that you do for a class have to be attached to a grade? Some feel that it is appropriate that learning is self-motivated and self-directed, rather than dictated by a class.

These objections hold some water. My main concern with not assessing student knowledge of the reading in discussion courses has more to do with how I feel it causes the disciplines of the humanities and social studies to be viewed, rather than its actual educational benefits (or lack thereof). In STEM courses, particularly introductory ones, it is clear that the goal of the course is to master a particular body of knowledge. This is because if you don’t master that body of knowledge, you will not be able to perform well on exams.

In many discussion-based courses in the humanities and social sciences, it is unclear as to what the goal is because so many students in those courses can get by without actually mastering the body of knowledge that the course is supposed to teach. Often, I see conceptions of the purpose of these disciplines that do not see them as valid fields of study in themselves, but rather avenues to teach people in other disciplines certain skills—such as writing, social skills, and the ability to think critically about society. The value of going to a liberal arts school to study a technical subject, rather than going to a technical school where one can study marketable and seemingly rigorous disciplines such as engineering, math, and computer science is that there is an opportunity to learn these skills.

It may be that classes in the humanities and social sciences teach any and all of these things (though I think that the idea that they teach social skills or empathy is sentimental claptrap), but their equal status as disciplines ought not to be forgotten. Literature professors do not exist to teach computer science majors writing, although that is a valuable service. They exist to perform research and communicate a body of knowledge – and when humanities and social studies classes are assessed as if the latter purpose is unimportant, people will begin to believe that.

William Schumacher PO '18 is a philosophy major from San Jose, Calif.

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