Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Oh, the ... the ... sorta sad, kinda worried, a little upset ... ya know that feeling...

Anguish. Sorrow. Even ... misery.

I apparently regularly cause these feelings in my students, though most could not name their own emotions. The reason for their torture is simple: I make them read. Nor am I talking about popular non-fiction, but scholarly books and articles written at ... wait for it ... college level. And they have not the vocabulary for it.

As of today I have seen nine Blackboard posts about how the students have to look up every word in a dictionary. Their assignment? Emerson's The American Scholar. I'll accept complaints about the article on late medieval Christian practice, as my Bible Belt students haven't encountered terms for formal liturgical preparation or practices. And I fully agree that many academics really can't write worth spit. But Emerson? Incomprehensible?

Faced with my requirement that you should be able to read anything if you are in college (even !ulp! theory) some decide that it is time to increase their vocabulary. Most of my students who complain are not snowflakes, just seriously underprepared. I teach them reading strategies, point out the differences between high- and low-context language, and in any way I can show them how to read more effectively. I get a seriously good high when a formerly poor academic reader discovers how much fun class discussion can be when s/he has learned to read academic texts and has something to contribute. Two of those former students are going on to law school, and they have already started to supplement their children's education so the kids won't have the same struggles they had.

It's the others, like the snowflakes who visited my office yesterday, that set my teeth grinding and make me wish I had a wine stash in my office. This lot came in to complain that the reading is graduate school level and that it was unfair for me to assign it. (I pointed out that two of the complainants were, in fact, in graduate school in education, taking subject courses for concentrations, and that the book in question is a standard text used in many freshling and sophomore classes.) However, I asked the students to select a particularly egregious piece of prose, and type it into Microsoft Word. I ran the reading comprehension utility on the passage in question.

Tenth-grade level.

Maybe that wasn't representative enough, I said helpfully, and asked them to try another passage.

First year of college.

The next two passages that gave the students trouble were, respectively, ninth grade and twelfth grade. I suggested that they did not really want to make a case that they could not read on a tenth-grade level when two of them were, in fact, graduate students, and advised them to get a book of Greek and Latin roots and study it. (What I wanted to say was, Since when did you NOT expect college to be effing WORK and that you will have to READ?)

Then there are the students who could not handle an academic historical article because "the author was so bland and monotone [sic]". Other students understood the same author to be "so angry, he was disagreeing with other people. In public." We will discuss them another day. I have insufficient wine in the house to handle thinking about it right now.
(Thanks to Krista Kennedy for her image!)


  1. This is why academic editions of classic literature are sprinkled with useless footnotes defining words and phrases like 'fathom', 'chimeras', 'Lloyds of London', 'terra firma', 'aurora borealis', and 'Jonah and the whale' (all from an academic edition of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea). This is not an edition targeted towards grade-school readers, but one meant to be used by college students. Are their vocabularies really that dismal that these words need to be defined in footnotes?

    Nice graphic, BTW.

  2. According to my students, there is nothing worse than using words people don't understand hand have to look up in a dictionary.

  3. A fully function moron said in my office said, "I had to look up so many words from that article you assigned us."

    "Yes, I look up words too. That's how I learn new things," I said. "Now, what do you want to ask?"

    A fuckhead UG complained, "This reading is at the graduate level. You are teaching this class like we are graduate students."

    I replied, "how many graduate classes have you taken prior to this class?

    He shook his head to signal none. I said, "I am not sure how you can make that claim. That leads to our next issue related to research, making sure the respondent has enough knowledge to answer the question."

    I had not thought about using the reading level feature in Word. That's a good idea.

  4. I like the readability trick, too, and I didn't know about it. Thanks!

    The real trick is convincing that they can in fact read and understand texts that contain words they don't know, even without a dictionary (and might even figure out, from context, what those words mean in the process). My guess is that it's not really individual words in Emerson that are giving them trouble, but the larger flow of ideas (which, yes, they should be able to figure out, too, especially if they read the text more than once -- another new idea for most of them).

  5. But where are the hyperlinks in this boring novel by Emerson? (The flakes still do call nonfiction texts "novels," eh?) Not links on difficult words like "scholar," of course, but on, say, "American," which should take you to an ad site for American Apparel.


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