Walking across the Cornell Campus talking with a colleague of mine about teaching, our conversation turned to the question on the minds of all faculty these days - how do we get students to read more, and to read better, than they do.
I started to think that perhaps university students today are overwhelmed by reading assignments. The Productive Bias, as I call it, is an ideology that makes professors feel like they aren't teaching unless there is a quantity of work being done that appears to be massive. This substitutes itself for quality teaching quite frequently. Long papers, endless reading assignments, and pop-up homework and tests are some of the things that create panicked students and therefore are indicators of good teaching and a quality class.
There's little time for reflection or thought. Dan Melzer's study indicates that the least common writing assignment given to students is for reflection, consideration, or inquiry. My students tell me they wish they had time to sit around and participate in a book group. Maybe the answer is that we are assigning too much reading, and not because it is reading, but because it looks like good work.
My colleague and I started talking about our favorite classes. She said one of the best courses she ever took only consisted of four books that were read and discussed throughout the term. That, plus a few writing assignments, was the course - a course that stayed with her years later.
Could I do this? Plan a course with only four books? I was thinking about my Argumentation course and came up with the following.
1. Rhetorical Argumentation by Chris Tindale
2. Arguing and Thinking by
3. Uses of Argument by Stephen Toulmin
4. The New Rhetoric by Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrects-Tyteca
It's much more than four books with Chaim and Lucie in there, but technically I have done it. I think this would be great, and we wouldn't read every bit of course.
What about our senior seminar here at St. John's? I've taught it (when I'm allowed to teach something other than public speaking) about epistemology and method. The books I would assign for that seminar would be:
1. The Order of Things by Michel Foucault
2. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn
3. Against Method by Paul Feyerabend
4. Sidewalk by Mitchell Duneier
This is a tough one, as I usually like to assign the Colson Whitehead novel The Intuitionist at the end as it's an investigation of epistemology on the political level plus is performs an alternate epistemology by being a narrative itself.
Ok so now do your class in four books - post it in the comments.