Slice of Life: On Required Reading

slice of life

It started sometime in grad school. This aversion to assigned reading. This rebellious streak about books.

Grad school nearly derailed my reading life. So many books I was “supposed” to read. So many books I was supposed to have already read. Reading became a competition and an occasional source of shame. “What do you mean your field is Restoration and 18th century and you haven’t read Pilgrim’s Progress?” The professors were always out for blood. If they sensed an area of weakness, they went right for it. I could have talked reasonably intelligently about hundreds of texts during my oral exams, but my advisor knew religious texts were a particular area of weakness for me. I’m sure you can guess what we spent an hour talking about.

Long before my oral exams, reading had become a chore. It was bad enough to have my entire reading life usurped by school reading. But I also quickly discovered that there weren’t actually enough hours in the week for all the reading that was assigned. I am a fast reader, but even I could not get through the thousands of pages that were assigned every week.

And then I discovered that even in grad school, you don’t necessarily have to read the book to be able to discuss it in class. And so I began selectively skipping books. Never books in my field. (And yes, I did read Pilgrim’s Progress, brutally painful as it was.)

The more I skipped, the more I wanted to skip. Because the more I skipped what they wanted me to read, the more time I had to sneak in books that I wanted to read.

Still, throughout my Ph.D., I rarely read more than 2-3 books per month that I chose myself. When I finished my Ph.D., I was so relieved to be finished with school, finished with required reading. I vowed never to read another assigned text. Never again to read anything except what I wanted to. Serendipity would guide my reading life once again. There would be no rules.

Of course that didn’t last very long. Because it turns out that when you’re a teacher, you can’t quite get away from assigned texts and required reading. Even worse: you’re the one who’s doing the assigning and requiring.

It’s one thing to rebel against your college professor. It’s quite another to rebel against yourself.

I dutifully assigned texts–lots of them–in my first year of teaching because I thought that’s what I was supposed to do. And then I engaged in a battle of wills with myself because I discovered that I don’t want to read the texts that I myself assign any more than I want to read texts that someone else assigns.

Here’s a dirty little secret from my first year in the classroom: I hadn’t always read the texts I assigned. And I don’t mean I hadn’t read them before I assigned them. I mean I hadn’t always read them on the day I taught them.

Sure, I had read some of the book. Just not always all of it.

And yes, I got exactly what I deserved when students asked questions about a chapter towards the end of House on Mango Street that I hadn’t quite gotten to yet.

I quickly discovered that it’s a lot easier to cover up a rebellious refusal to read when you’re a student than it is when you’re the teacher.

The pattern is always the same when I’m trying to read an assigned book–even one that I have assigned. I start it in plenty of time to get it finished. But because there’s so much time and I’m a fast reader, I don’t feel very compelled to keep reading it. I still have plenty of time, I tell myself. I’ll just read this other book that I’ve really been wanting to read first. And that book leads me to another book that I really want to read. And not just want to read. Need to read. And another book. And another book. And somehow it seems like there’s never time or space or desire to get back to the required reading. The assigned book feels like an imposition, a roadblock on the natural path I’m pursuing in my reading life.

I don’t entirely understand the process by which I choose books–or rather, the process by which books choose me. I’m a mystic when it comes to my reading life. I firmly believe that the book I need to be reading at any given moment will somehow find me–and it does. Again and again.

Still, it’s not always possible for my reading life to develop organically, serendipitously.

And so I have developed various tricks to manage myself as a teacher and assigner of reading. I’m now a true believer in short texts. (Though clearly short texts don’t always save me from myself. House on Mango Street is pretty short, after all.) When I was in college, I dropped any literature class that required students to read excerpts rather than complete works. The excerpt, I believed, was a travesty, the lazy person’s way of reading. But as a professor, I love the anthologized excerpt.

Because I know I can get it read and be prepared to teach it.

I mind required reading a lot less when I can complete it in under an hour. Then it’s truly an assignment and not a hostile takeover of my reading life.

I also experiment with different ways of incorporating independent reading and choice. Last semester, I selected the texts for the first seven weeks of my Contemporary Literature course, and then my students selected texts for the second half of the semester. Their choices emerged from the authors and issues that had most interested all of us in the first half of the semester, and I was genuinely curious to read and discuss their selections with them. In my Adolescent Literature course, I gave the students a list of required reading but didn’t set any due dates or deadlines: as long as the books were read and blogged about by the end of the semester, they were free to read as whimsy inclined. Students read far more than I required (most read at least a dozen extra books in addition to the required reading), and they were able to pursue something like their own organic path through YA lit.

My Children’s Literature course offers the most freedom. Read children’s literature. Read for four hours a week. The End.

That’s the one reading assignment that I always complete without fail.

Slice of Life is a weekly writing event hosted at Two Writing Teachers.

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16 thoughts on “Slice of Life: On Required Reading

  1. I am sooo right there with you. I almost felt like you were describing me in my doctoral program! Even now, I have developed some bad “skimming” habits when I am not interested in the reading. Thank you for posting your thoughts!

    • Yes! Though there is so much scaffolding and structure that goes into developing students into readers who are motivated to “just read.” Only a handful do the reading assignment at first (the ones who are already readers!)

  2. My children’s lit class required us to read all the Caldecott and the Newbery winners to that time, & be tested on them. While I loved, & still love children’s lit, I still remember we had to memorize the pictures too because there were questions on the test like “what was leaning against the tree toward the denouement of the book? Ugh- I did ingest many, many facts, but I hated that professor. I love hearing about your reading life, Elisabeth, & its twists & turns for your sanity! I’d love to sit in on a class to see what goes on!

    • Oh how horrible, Linda! A forced march through the Caldecotts and Newberys would have destroyed my love for Children’s Lit before it ever developed! And that kind of low-level question that can’t even be called a comprehension question! Ugh.

    • It’s sure a struggle sometimes to keep up! I most definitely want to read what I want to read–and choosing in April (when book orders for our classes get submitted) what I want to be reading and thinking about in November makes absolutely no sense to me!

  3. An interesting piece! It’s funny, because I’m sort of the opposite when it comes to required reading: I read every word of anything required. As an undergraduate, I would occasionally skip a class, but I would never skip a word of an assigned reading. I don’t say it in a bragging way, as I suspect it is more something that satisfies my OCD inclinations. I do, though, remember feeling so excited that I could read whatever I wanted when I finished both graduate and undergraduate work. It was very freeing!

  4. Pingback: It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? #imwayr 9/22/14 | the dirigible plum

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