Read Like You Mean It

Reblogged from Angelo State University’s Navigating Higher Ed blog:

Back when I was young and still played sports, a baseball coach told us our goal each day was to “practice like we mean it.” The idea, and it’s a cliché we’ve all heard before, is that championships might be won on the playing field but winning foundations are built in the weight room and at practice every day.

I’ve often thought we would be well-served to apply some athletic principles to academic activities.

Of course, it’s possible I just want to blow a whistle really loud during class and wear shorts to work.

The reality, though, is that hard work and intentionality transcend the activity in which you are engaged. There aren’t many jobs or hobbies where being lazy and haphazard helps you gain mastery. You might be the best athlete on the field or the smartest student in the class but if you aren’t putting forth your best efforts, you probably won’t achieve the success you want.

Hustle beats talent, every coach you’ve ever met will tell you, if talent doesn’t hustle.

We can apply the same principle to the classroom. Learning requires that we actively engage with the materials. Good grades might be earned on your exams or your essays, but the foundation for those scores is built in the daily classroom activities and at the library each night.

Learning, of course, is a complex mix of skills that often differ by discipline, but every academic subject requires that we read well. Certainly, first-year students (and anyone who has read this far into the blog) can read, but reading and reading well are two very different things. In fact, reading like a college student involves more than simply flipping the pages and getting to the end of the chapter.

Be Intentional

Reading can be fun, adventurous, wild, exciting, passionate and enlightening. We’ve all had that moment when a book, a paragraph, a sentence or even a phrase captured our attention and our imagination. Reading can also be tedious, dull and (when you have eight chapters covering material you find about as exciting as clipping your toenails) disheartening.

Let’s face it. Sometimes reading can be about like shooting 100 free throws a day. The first 10 are exciting. Number 99? Not so much.

Practice, though, makes perfect and as readers we have to remember the reason we’re reading. Before you read, I tell my students, ask what you are trying to gain. Be intentional. Read your syllabus. Review your class notes. Why are you being asked to read this chapter? How is this information important and why do you need to know it? We might not be in control of what we have to read, but we can be in control of what we want to learn from the text.

Location, Location, Location

Where you read often matters just as much as how you read. Reading well requires that you focus your attention on the goals you set forth. If I had a dollar for every student who told me he concentrated better while listening to music, I would be sitting on a beach feeling sorry for everyone still sitting at their desks putting in a full day’s work.

If, I like to ask those students, I told you to learn the material by tomorrow or I will take your cell phone, smash it into tiny little bits, and send you back to junior high gym class, would you listen to music with the TV on while your roommates sit around playing poker and telling jokes?

One of the more important lessons incoming college students have to learn is that reading at this level is a high-stakes event. We have a compressed time frame and your professors expect you to read and retain information in a relatively short period of time. Since that’s the case, reading well necessitates that we find that location that allows us to focus all our energies on the words on the page.

No One Runs a Marathon on the First Day

I had a friend who, at 38, decided he wanted to run a marathon before he turned 40. When he started training, he didn’t focus on distance. Instead, he ran for certain periods of time each day. The goal was to slowly but surely increase the length of time he could run. Doing so allowed him to also increase the distance.

Reading works the same way (and sometimes feels like a marathon). See how long you can read before you start thinking about food, your boyfriend, your roommate’s nasty habit of clipping his nose hairs each night, or what happened on “The Walking Dead” last night. When you get distracted, stop reading but try, each day, to extend the amount of time you can read while focused on the material. You’ll be amazed when the 10 minutes turn into an hour.

Look It Up

Since we haven’t smashed your cell phone yet, let that tiny little electronic brain serve you instead of enslaving you. Words have meaning and the people writing books choose words carefully. There’s no shame in not having a Brobdingnagian vocabulary, but there’s no reason to be lazy about it. Your library probably has a subscription to the Oxford English Dictionary, but Merriam Webster and usually work pretty well, too.

Listen to Your Eyes

Reading should be an activity. Involve other senses in the process. If you read a particularly thorny paragraph, read it out loud. Find a friend to read it to you. Hear the words as often as possible.

Don’t stop there, though. When we read, we can often find meaning by visualizing the text. In my literature classes, I tell students to cast the roles and film the story in their heads. My colleague has students draw their thoughts. There is no doubt that words can confuse us, and we can get lost in the language within the chapters. When that happens, switch gears. Doodle your ideas, map out your confusion, and draw or listen your way to understanding.

Learning Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry

The other day in class, a student raised his hand and said, “I hate to be rude, but I don’t understand . . .” While I can’t speak for all professors everywhere, asking for clarification isn’t rude. Never be afraid to walk into class or stop by your professor’s office confused. If you are practicing hard and hustling, we want to help. Remember that your professors love this stuff. Being confused isn’t rude, but not working hard, then asking for help might be.

Read, Rest and Repeat

I’ve never met a good hitter who takes one swing during batting practice. Reading well, like hitting a fast-pitched softball, jumping hurdles, or setting a quick ball in the middle, takes practice, repetition and time. Make sure, I tell my students each semester, you have time to read, rest and repeat.

Most of all, though, I tell my students, you have to commit yourself to read like you mean it. After all, that textbook probably cost you (or your parents) a pretty penny. Make sure you get your money’s worth out of it.


Save Some Money but Lose Some Learning: The Dilemma of the E-Text

Nothing brings home the cost of higher education more than having a child prepare for college. Various studies show the rising costs of tuition and various other studies offer a variety of explanations. Variety might be the spice of life, but it’s also the cause of confusion and consternation.

One thing that is becoming increasingly obvious as we look at tuition and housing bills is that, as a college professor, I’m clearly not getting my cut. Somehow, I’m missing out on this supposed gravy train.

I have a great deal of sympathy for universities. Like everyone else, the basic cost of doing business has increased. Faculty are more expensive, not because our salaries are going up and we are lazy, good for nothing bums, but because the university’s share of our medical costs are increasing and we do, I know it’s a crazy idea, expect a salary appropriate to our educational attainment. Last time I checked, the cost of everyone’s employees is going up. (If you think we are getting rich, the average salary is about $81,000. That’s not chump change and we have a great job, but we aren’t exactly hanging out with Mitt Romney.)

Tuition also rises when light bills increase, insurance goes up, and infrastructure has to be repaired. Enrollment is up and more and more academically challenged students are sitting in our classes. We don’t offer student services because we were lacking things to do around campus. If you want us to educate kids who can barely read, don’t know how to study, have never lived outside mom’s shadow, expect a ribbon just for showing up, and are popping six adderrall a day, we might need some non-faculty support.

It’s also not cheap to provide first class technology across campus, and, contrary to popular belief, online and distance education classes are difficult to deliver and expensive to do really well. Sure, you can scale a lecture out to 25,000 people but who is going to grade the essays or visit with the students? Faculty and students still need the tools to take and deliver the class.

Oh, and by the way, most of those large scale online programs are being funded with either start-up funds (that’s business speak for investment dollars) or public funds from universities ($50 million from U Texas). If online education was so cheap, why is the University of Phoenix tuition has high as Harvard’s? Western Governor’s tuition is the same as my university’s tuition. Online education, warts and all, can be (as Allison Morris argues, an effective way to teach and learn, but for the most part, we only cost more only if a student lives on campus.

I’ll willing admit I have no solution to reeling in high ed costs.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t create some savings for students. Most universities estimate textbook costs at around $600-$800 per semester. Considering that most of our students don’t read very many books (if any) prior to showing up, books costs are a pretty big shock.

We do, though, have the power to reduce the cost of books and, correspondingly, provide some measure of relief for our students. I stopped requiring textbooks in my freshman composition classes 5 years ago. Everything you ever needed to know about grammar is available online and, thanks to Project Gutenberg and Google Books, so are most of the greatest essays ever written. Even better–there are good examples of top notch writing and thinking available free every day on that world wide web thingy.

Even better, there are now a variety of open educational resources that exist. Notably, OpenStax, Connexions, and Lumen Learning all have systems in place that can reduce or eliminate textbook costs for students in their first two years of college. I realize that $600 a semester might not be important to everyone, but in my world that’s a nice chunk of savings.

Savings here we come!


The problem, Ferris Jabr argues in “The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens,” is that “screens may also drain more of our mental resources while we are reading and make it a little harder to remember what we read when we are done.” In essence, there is a growing body of data that e-readers create reading experiences that are less complete and actually might “inhibit reading comprehension. . . . people understand what they read on paper more thoroughly than what they read on screens.”

Now, this isn’t really an issue if you are reading Michael Connelly (no offense to Connelly or his readers. I love his novels), but if you are reading your Physics textbook, Shakespeare, or all about chemical compounds online, we might have some issues.

Fortunately, according to many higher ed critics students aren’t learning anything anyway (see Academically Adrift) so maybe we should just save the money regardless.

Contrary to what some of our critics think, though, most of my colleagues care whether the students learn. We want them to retain the information and apply their knowledge both on our tests and in their future, tax paying (remember I work at a publicly funded university supported by taxpayers), careers.

Such studies regarding comprehension of e-texts might have implications for any kind of screen reading associated with education. Perhaps, we need to begin paying more attention to comprehension in online classes and carefully crafting classes that don’t simply rely on reading text on the screen. We already know that the best online classes involve far more than passively digesting information (another reason good distance ed classes take time to build). We also know that hybrid courses, those that blend online and face to face are highly effective, blending the the virtual and the real, tactile experience of the classroom.

In the meantime, I guess I need to keep digging in the couch cushions for textbook money and hold off on buying that kindle for my son.

The Hard Work of Being Human

booksWhen I tell people I teach English, there is often a pause, followed by a palpable silence. I can see the gears at work as people try to remember junior high English, SAT vocabulary words, or the name of at least one novel they have read (or heard about). I could try to set their minds at ease by saying something grammatically mangled. “Ain’t” is a good word to just throw out in conversation. “Ain’t nothin'” is better. Mostly, I want to tell them I have no plans to judge their speech and I don’t carry a red pen around. The goal of communication is to articulate ideas and there are a variety of paths we can follow to achieve such a goal.

While I’m no grammar nazi, I do appreciate a well-turned phrase and precision in language. I teach my students that they have to master grammar first, then they can go forth and pervert it all they want. The key is control. Know you are writing that fragment. Understand the impact of the repetitive sentences. Recognize the value of pronouns and antecedents.

It doesn’t even bother me when my 15 year old tells me he hates English. I’ve seen the assignments and I’m fairly certain I would hate the class, too. They once spent 6 weeks reading Frankenstein. Shelley probably wrote it faster than that. They read Julius Caesar but didn’t finish the play. He had to find quotes (that’s good) but he had to match them with photos and pictures independent of the play (that’s not good). He’s drawn pictures, pretended to be a contemporary of the author, filled in worksheets, but they rarely discuss the work or try to understand why we might find Shakespeare worth reading in 2013. Worse yet, there were far too many questions asking my 15 year old son about his feelings (because what 15 year old boy isn’t excited about sharing in class?) and not enough questions asking him to actually look at the text.

Even more problematic to me: any writing they do is independent of discussions about, well, writing. Conversations about choosing words, manipulating sentence structure, and rhetorical strategies don’t seem to ever take place. Note that I have a great deal of sympathy for my son’s English teachers. They have too many students and too many external agencies telling them what to teach and what to test. In many ways, we have placed the burden of the arts at the feet of overworked and underpaid teachers while we simultaneously tie their hands with unwieldy mandates by legislators, teachers unions, and parent-advisory groups that are far too often politically motivated.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not someone who has unrealistic expectations regarding reading and writing. Both are time consuming and require an interest in vocabulary, historical understanding, a willingness to engage the language, and practice. I don’t, quite frankly, buy any arguments that contend we can turn all of our students into lifetime readers and lifetime writers. Communication might be an innate element of humanity, but writing and reading are not.

It is no surprise, then, as we begin another semester that many of my students tell me they don’t like to read or have never had to read. (I am always surprised they feel compelled to tell me they don’t like to read, as if somehow that will excuse their future performance. They often also tell me when they turn an essay in that “It’s probably not very good.” I like to respond, “Thanks for letting me know. The grading will go quicker. If it’s not very good, I’ll just slap a D on it and be done.”)

What does bother me is that we have,  in the name of practicality or employment, stopped fighting for the value of the humanities. Sure, we can make the case that every job a college graduate wants requires communication skills. We might argue that literature and art helps us interact with our fellow humans, thereby increasing our ability to survive office politics. Poetry can benefit the professional, they tell us.

But I’m a little tired of listening to those arguments. The value of the arts, quite simply, is that it challenges our expectations of reality by forcing us to simultaneously be introspective within the context of our daily lives while considering our larger social and historical place in the world. We read Shakespeare, I tell my students, because he has the ability to capture his moment in time while also transcending that moment. Good literature reminds us what it means to be human. It’s no accident that much of our early written literature spends an inordinate amount of time showing us mortality. We are not, the ancient texts remind us, god, nor are we meant to be.

Literature and the arts take us on an epistemological and ontological journey where we struggle with how knowledge is passed and where we exist within that transfer. This journey, one that requires both introspection and attention to detail, forces us to dedicate ourselves daily to being a human being. That is our first and most noble identity. Being a banker, teacher, journalist, or our work identity should always be secondary and subservient to our humanity. Our philosophical ideology must be realized in the concrete reality of our daily actions regardless of whether we earn a paycheck.

Being human should be hard work. When we cede our responsibility in the name of practicality or simplicity, we forfeit the very traits that separate us from the other animals on the planet. Blind allegiance, unchecked lust, ideological laziness–these are the signs of a world that stops valuing the arts. Literature isn’t about escape or visiting other worlds: literature is about digging in and getting dirty in the soul of humanity.

And, yes, this will be on the test.


Things I Read

And Things I Learned

Washington Monthly

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Joanne Jacobs

Thinking and Linking by Joanne Jacobs

Inside Higher Ed

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

NYT > Politics

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Balloon Juice

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Dilbert Daily Strip

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

The Full Feed from

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)