The United States of (Non)Reading: The End of Civilization or a New Era?

Several years ago a student told me that she regarded all assigned reading as "recommended," even if the professors labeled it "required." Were professors so dumb that they didn't know that?
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2013-10-08-sEBOOKsmall.jpgJust the other day one of my undergraduate assistants reported a friend's boast that he had not read anything for school since fifth grade. A student at an excellent university, successful, "clever," "smart," he can write papers, take exams, participate in class or online discussions. Why would he have to read?

Students sometimes don't buy the class books. Professors are shocked.

Several years ago a student told me that she regarded all assigned reading as "recommended," even if the professors labeled it "required." Were professors so dumb that they didn't know that?

The idea of assigned reading, as the core activity of college students, is old. Students don't see it as central; faculty do.

And though I used to, and sometimes still do, spend a lot of energy lamenting this, by taking a broader view of the nature of reading and writing, I have come to understand it and even to some extent accept it.

Student avoidance of reading is not an entirely new problem. When I was in graduate school, in the 1980s, one of my most indelible memories was of a new classmate, straight out of a first-rate college, complaining in our anthropology theory class that we had to keep finding out what other people thought. When was it time for us to convey our viewpoints? Why all that reading?

Some college course evaluations ask students what percentage of the reading they did. Some report they did as much as ninety percent. Some as little as twenty-five percent.

In a systematic study of college students' reading, Kylie Baier and four colleagues reported that students mostly (40 percent) read for exams. Almost 19 percent don't read for class. In terms of time, 94 percent of students spend less than two hours on any given reading for class; 62 percent spend less than an hour. Thirty-two percent believe they could get an A without reading; 89 percent believe they could get at least a C.

Among many other educational crises, there is a perceived crisis given that "students are increasingly reading less and less."

When faculty enter new institutions, they often ask colleagues: How much reading should I assign? Some departments offer guidelines about the number of pages: Assign 25 pages for each meeting of first-year classes, but no more than 100 pages a week for any course. This has always struck me as strange, given that a page of a novel and a page of a double-column textbook have completely different amounts of text, and take different kinds of attention and time. In response to this faculty challenge, Steve Volk -- named the Carnegie Professor of the Year in 2011, so he knows something about teaching -- wrote on the website of Oberlin College's Center for Teaching Innovation and Excellence that there is no magic formula for numbers of pages. He suggests instead that faculty consider "What do you want the reading to do?"


But it is not only college teachers who worry about how much people are reading. There is a widespread belief that Americans in general read less and less.

This perception builds on public conversations about the lack of reading. In 2007 a National Endowment for the Arts study concluded that adults' reading habits were in severe decline. Only 57 percent of adults read a book voluntarily in 2002, down from 61 percent in 1992.

This was supposed to have all sorts of terrible consequences: educational, of course, but also economic, social, moral, you name it.

Reversing the cup-half-empty conclusion, a 2013 study showed that more than half read books for pleasure -- just not what the NEA defines (or would if the government were functioning) as "literature."

And the Pew interpretation was that if reading for work and school is added to "voluntary reading," then almost all people read "books" at some point during the year: 79 percent of 18-24 year-olds, and 90 percent of 16-17 year-olds.

It is undeniable that people are reading (looking at) writing all the time. It may not be in physical books, however. And just this week, USA Today argued that digital devices increase book reading (on the devices).

David Carr wrote in 2008 about the decline in attention--not only in our students. Attention spans, focus, mindfulness...all these are shrinking. Technology plays a role in this, as many of us spend much of our lives looking at short items. The Onion, the humor website, puts most of its efforts into its headlines. Blogs should be at most one thousand words, but three hundred is better. (This one is too long.)

So if students are sipping text constantly on their devices, and suddenly they are asked to consume what sounds like an insurmountable mountain of pages in some other form -- and for what!? -- they are likely to avoid it entirely.

"Flipping the classroom" has attempted to seek some kind of accountability from students for their reading, so that they have to engage in one way or another with their material prior to assembling for the precious moment of face-to-face interaction. This requires reading -- but reading with a goal. Students often like to do that, as a kind of scavenger hunt for what is useful and important. Just having them read for background ideas seems to be fading.

Actually, I have stopped worrying constantly about this. Students are reading. The public is reading. They may not sit for hours, still and attentive, and focus on one item. They may confuse their facts. They may miss a complex argument.

Don't misunderstand. I worship reading. When I travel for three days, in addition to all my devices I bring six books and five (print) magazines. Yet I cannot concentrate the way I used to. So those less devoted... Should we cut them off from the world, isolate them in soundproof rooms with no WiFi, and force them to read a book?

Writing has evolved, and will evolve. And with it reading changes. From clay tablets designed to record debts to bronze proclamations of kings and emperors, from bamboo strips recording rituals to complex philosophical arguments on paper, from paintings for the royal afterlife to paperback novels, from stone tablets proclaiming a new moral code to infinitesimal elements on a shiny handheld device -- from its origins, writing has transformed, and will continue to change. It is not entirely that the medium is the message, but the medium affects the message. Since humans are the ones doing the writing, we get the writing that suits our purposes.

We are all getting a front-row seat to a sudden change in medium, and therefore in writing and reading. What a quick and shocking ride this is!

Read all about it!

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