Teaching students to read…

I’m currently teaching an upper-division course on post-Civil War American history, on the various contestations over American national identity since 1865.  It’s called, “Who are we?”

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?

2 thoughts on “Teaching students to read…

  1. Thanks for this collection of advice. Dispelling students’ notion that all books must be read start to finish is important work.

    I think it is also helpful to get them used to the idea that most of these books, especially the monographs, represent part of a wider historical argument. That way you can ask them to keep an eye out for the argument being made so that they don’t, as you said above, get bogged down in the details.

    On a related note, I’m currently teaching the U.S. surveys with a large textbook. The advice I give my students is, in part, to take advantage of the infrastructure provided by the publisher and the author. That includes: reading the chapter introductions and conclusions first; keeping a close eye out for sub-headings; and paying close attention to highlighted ID terms.

    That said, I also encourage them to ignore the many flashy callout boxes and special features that clutter the pages of the book. Snippets of historiography, mini biographies, or even primary sources can be useful when used in the proper context, but I think it is important to keep the students from being distracted by them.

    Finally, I advise that they read once for the general story and themes and then go back again asking themselves if the remember info about the ID terms as they encounter them. If not, they should reread that section.

  2. I like this list A LOT. But, as someone who just finished my dissertation/ manuscript, I have to say that the idea that someone will read the second 2/3 of my work as fast as they did the first 1/3 really scares me!! Maybe that’s my problem as a writer, but I put my most important evidence and arguments in the second half of the piece. The first part just sets that up. So, I guess we always just need to add a caveat that there are a few prototypes for writing books. Many, many of them have their main argument in the first chapter or two and then a few chapters that echo this with evidence. Some are more like mine. Some books have one argument which they can state up front and then convince you with it later through lots of examples.

    Others tell a story, and really cannot do justice to that story in the introduction. This fact is VERY frustrating to some readers, but the fact is that these books often need to be read more carefully if the story is something the reader is interested in. The index is more helpful than the Table of Contents in these cases.

    And, different fields tend toward different prototypes of book organization, but the fact is that there aren’t that many varieties.

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