17 January 2014

Bookish Ways and How to Instill Them

The student in office hours pointed to the second tier of the solidly packed eight-tier bookcase that sits behind my desk.  "Mine's only that high" he said, "but I want to have one that high," and he pointed to the top.  I looked at him quizzically.  "My book shelf!" he said. "I bought one this summer before I came back to school, and instead of selling my books back to the book store I'm keeping them.  And I'm buying a few other things to read and putting them on it, too.  But it's not filled yet."

It was both heartwarming and heartbreaking.   How does a student this smart, curious, and engaged get to the second year of college without already having a book case?   This student is deliberately building a self in college and a book case is part of that self--but how had this possibility not been available to him already?  For me and most of the people I know professionally, books are an inevitability.  They cover every flat surface, fill otherwise unclaimed hours, pay the bills (albeit indirectly), and shape the life.

So yeah, newsflash: the life experiences that produce a literature instructor can differ from the life experiences that produce her students.

And another newsflash--plenty of students are smart, curious, and engaged without owning bookcases or bothering to discuss their bookcases/lack thereof with instructors.  

It's got me rethinking the way I teach the relationship of students to the books I make them buy.  If you read to the end of the post, you'll discover that I'm thinking about ways to not require book purchases, or to require them differently--which might seem like a strange way to affirm the students who see the ownership of books as the path to knowledge and self-improvement.  But requiring the temporary physical ownership of books doesn't by itself teach students the value of books.

In my Intro to Fiction (a gen. ed. that fulfills advanced composition requirements), the books are always a struggle.  I try to keep the total coast of required books under $75 for one short story anthology and three or four novels and since I run a device-free classroom, they have to use print editions.  Many students comply, and sell their books back to the bookstore at the end of the semester.

There are always a some, though, who try very hard not to acquire the books. Generally they are students from majors outside the humanities or social sciences who resist spending money on a course they see as irrelevant. My strategy in dealing with them has generally been a combination of reason, disciplinary pressure, and--as a last resort--shame.  And of course the knowledge that most students are not going to keep the books when the semester is over makes me sad, and a note of anticipatory disappointment may well inflect my teaching.

 I'm wondering if there's a better way.

In many non-humanities classes, egregiously overpriced books often supplement Powerpoint lectures and labs that contain the bulk of the course content. For students steeped in an exploitative relationship to required textbooks, one that makes the printed word tangential to the real learning in the class, the book-centric norms of a college literature class are alien.

Better ways to disrupt students' assumptions about have the relationship of books to their learning?
Instead of "buy these books, listen to me teach you what's in them, and then you can get rid of them," how can we convey "works of fiction matter to your life and here are ways to get the most out of the things you read"?

Some possibilities I'm thinking about for a future iteration of Intro to Fiction:
  • "Here are some short stories, available online from literary journals that our library subscribes to, all published within the last two years.  Let's talk about the features in them that do and don't justify the investment of your tax and tuition dollars."  
  • "A lot of the claims you all have been making about what makes a story worthwhile draw on models of ficton that have been around for a hundred years or more--let's look at one of them.  Here are three classic works of European literature.  Look up each of them online and let's talk about which one would best give us some background for better understanding what's going on in more modern fiction."
  • "How many different online editions of Great Novel X did you all find?  What kinds of differences did you find?  Which seems like the best one for us all to use?  What should be the criteria for that decision?"
  • "Authors W, X, Y, and Z are still alive and working hard, so we can't (and shouldn't) read them for free online.  Pick the author who interests you most and check one of his or her books out of the library."

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