Each year around this time my heart sinks a little. With the start of the school year, I am pushed into the role as someone who coaxes effort and enforces consequences among students. The ubiquitous memes appear mourning and mocking students’ reluctance to read and digest syllabi. And the annual season of “why don’t students read” articles appear each with a different take on the the perennial problem of convincing students to engage material outside of the classroom. As someone who has now taught (in some capacity) for nearly 20 years, I experience the same frustration when students aren’t prepared and struggle to find ways to motivate students.
Over the last few years, however, I’ve also come to hate the role as motivator, as cajoler, and as enforcer of standards. Part of what as sucked my enthusiasm for these roles is the growing recognition that campus culture, not just at UND, but everywhere has drifted increasingly toward audit culture, assessment practices, and skill building and away from instilling a passion for engaging ideas, confronting problems, and negotiating challenges. This isn’t to say that I’ve lost my excitement and interest in teaching, but I feel like the shift in the conversation on campus has pushed me to be complicit in a scheme to make the university into an increasingly corporatized education factory. In this new arrangement, I’m compelled to make students learn stuff as part overseer and part machine operator pressing reluctant minds into assessable and monetized commodities.
In this context, every time a student complains about the structure or expectations of a class, I feel less obligated to justify my pedagogical decisions and more of a vague glow of pride as the students resist mounting pressure of the modern educational establishment.
Why don’t students read?
But there’s more than that. Our expectations of student work is increasingly couched in terms of skill acquisition which then equate to success in the post-collegiate world. It makes sense then, as students struggle with the bleak reality that they will invariably confront as they are dragged toward adulthood and responsible (corporate? economic? political?) citizenship, that they resist. The simple act of refusing to read or of confounding our expectations should not be seen simply as an act of petulance or a sign of being overwhelmed by other things, but as an act of resistance to the dominant mode of contemporary educational culture.
As faculty, we are obligated, then, not only to encourage students to read, but more importantly give them reason to read that goes beyond the language and culture of current university culture. Student resistance to reading is more than simply an act of resistance to overcome, but may well demonstrate a shared disenchantment with modern academia. In other words, students not reading might be a shared strategy that could be profitably redirected rather than subverted. When I think this way, I can almost convince myself that students are on our side as we struggle to resist the growing debasement of higher education. Almost.
(And it’s sure better than complaining!)