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Approaching Difficult Texts (For Students) 14 January 2011

Posted by Todd in Academia & Education, Teaching.
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I have come up against students recently who are resisting my assigned readings on the grounds that they are “too difficult”. This has been an increasing problem over the past few years, but it’s especially noticeable with texts that I have been assigning for several years, and which have received positive student feedback in the past, but that  are now being met with complaints that they are “too hard.” So I’m trying to design a document that I can give to students when they need some skills or attitude adjustments about encountering texts that they find difficult to read. Very often, I find that students get frustrated with difficult texts and give up, and they usually blame me (I’m a bad teacher) or they blame the author (the author can’t write). Rarely, they internalize the issue as one of their own inadequacy (they think they are stupid). Here is a draft of a document I’m trying to design to address this cultural shift in student attitudes toward difficult reading.

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Difficult Texts

There are many reasons we may find a text difficult to read. For our class, which is an upper-division SJSU studies class, here are a few salient possibilities:

• the topic of the text may be new or unfamiliar to you, or may be outside your specialization

• the level of argumentation and evidentiation may be more complex than you are accustomed to dealing with; may be using unfamiliar methods; or may be drawing complex logical conclusions

• the level of the writing may be asking you to stretch and improve or increase your reading skills

Generally speaking, I carefully choose readings for a) topical relevance; b) appropriate level for university students (either upper or lower division); and c) good writing. In AMS-ENVS-HUM 159, I have chosen texts that are exceptionally well written and award winning (both Wade and Diamond). From time to time, I may choose a poorly written article because the contents are so important (and I will usually tell you in class what is wrong with the writing so you can learn from it (e.g., Zuberbühler)). There are a couple poorly written articles in the Agyuman collection, and we can talk about what makes them poorly written in class if you desire that skills discussion.

Faulty or Ineffective Beliefs

I have found that when students find a text difficult, they respond in a handful of unproductive ways that actually hamper and prevent their learning. I have enumerated here the most common problematic beliefs about difficult reading that I have encountered over the past few years.  Most importantly, these are beliefs, habitual ways of approaching the world, that can be changed if you desire to. The unproductive ideas have to be replaced with productive and more empirically accurate ideas. As you read these, ask yourselves which one’s most apply to you and engage in my suggestions for “replacements” to see what you might be able to do. The reward for taking this seriously is the shift in your ability to learn from reading challenging texts.

Faulty or Ineffective Belief No. 1: “I am too stupid to get this text.”

This is a touchy one, but please read me carefully: If this is an idea that pops into your head in my class, do everything possible to immediately counter it with a fact: You are in university; you have already proven your intelligence. A difficult text is not evidence of your intelligence or lack thereof, but of other things entirely. So remind yourself that you’ve already proven your intelligence, and find the real reason why a text is difficult.

Replace with: “This text is about topics which are unfamiliar to me, so I’m going to have to slow down and read carefully and with my full attention to apprehend it. The rewards of doing so are learning and educating myself.”

Faulty or Ineffective Belief No. 2: “This text is boring.”

In some ways, this is a personal issue. If you find yourself bored, take some time to figure out where the boredom is coming from. In teaching, I’ve found that there are generally two sources of boredom:

a) It may be that you simply do not care about the topic of the course or of the reading. This can be common in general ed classes where you are fulfilling requirements for graduation. If this is the case for you, I urge you to find a way through your boredom (maybe just focus on successfully jumping through the hoops; or working to find something interesting or relevant to your interests that you can hang on to).

Replace with: “Although I’m not interested in this topic, I will focus my attention on this text for ___ minutes, because I need to know this material for ____.”

b) Often, however, boredom is an indication that you are encountering a difficult text and are feeling the “pain” of having to work to understand a text. If this is the case, please read on.

Replace with“I’m experiencing my discomfort with the difficulty of this text as boredom; that means I need to address directly the difficulties I’m having.

Faulty or Ineffective Belief No. 3: “The author uses big words, when smaller words will do.”

What you’re really saying is that the author is using words that you don’t know. This is not an indication of a bad writer; but an indication that your vocabulary is being stretched and challenged. When you encounter words you don’t understand, work to make your automatic response to reach for a dictionary. Try to avoid Dictionary.com because it’s definitions aren’t very good; I recommend either the Oxford American English Dictionary or the Webster’s Collegiate.  You may also want to keep a running list of words that you learn in your reading.

Replace with: “There’s a word I don’t know. I will look it up in the dictionary, and then reread the sentence to learn a new word and understand the author’s argument.

Note: Sometimes scholars do make a writing mistake, when they write in jargon. Jargon is specialized words that only specialists know; sometimes, scholars use jargon as a short-hand when they are writing for each other. This is actually bad writing when the writing is intended for larger or more general audiences. You will notice, however, that Prof. Ormsbee assigns readings were nearly all specialized terms and concepts are defined in the text. This is not jargon. This is the author using the text to introduce you to specialized vocabulary in the field.

Faulty or Ineffective Belief No. 4: “This text is redundant, repetitious and wordyThere are too many details.

Although there are moments when authors are redundant, generally speaking Prof. Ormsbee is assigning texts that are offering up detailed and thorough arguments. If you find an idea being repeated, it is more often an indication that there is a concept, fact, or issue that is connected at multiple points and is central to the overall argument; it is usually not an indication of a bad writer.

Replace with: “The author is repeating this set of information several times, so it is my job to figure out why that idea, fact, or issue keeps emerging in the text, what is so important about that idea, what it’s interconnection is to the overall argument.”

Faulty or Ineffective Belief No. 5: “This work is too long. The author could’ve said the same thing in a much shorter space. There are too many details.”

From time to time, Prof. Ormsbee does assign lengthy pieces that could be edited down; but generally speaking, Prof. O has chosen texts that walk you through a complex and thoroughly evidentiated argument. The details presented by the authors we’ve read in class go directly to substantiating their argument; they explain the details of the research, the argument, the logic, and the evidence that lead them to their conclusions. If you only read the bullet-pointed conclusion, you do not actually understand why we should believe the author’s claims or why the author’s claims are important. If you only read bullet-points, you never learn how to build complex arguments yourself.

Replace with: “The author is spelling out for me exactly how s/he arrived at his conclusions and why his/her conclusions are reliable and important.”

Faulty or Ineffective Belief No. 6: “I should be able to read this text quickly and casually and understand its argument easily without working at it.”

Very few people would ever say this out loud, but I find by my experience that this is a common underlying belief of some students. Reflect carefully about your experience with difficult texts, and see if this is a belief that you hold. There are many cultural reasons why we expect texts to be immediately and effortlessly assimilable, but this is a belief that is detrimental to learning. Imagine that what you’re saying is that you learned everything you needed to know by 8th grade (the level most of us can read without having to engage our attention) and that 8th grade level of writing and argumentation is the most complex that anyone should be required to read at. This is detrimental to your learning, your attention, and your retention.

Replace with: I am a university student and am still learning, both at the level of information and facts, and at the level of argumentation and writing. Difficult texts are challenging me to learn new things and approach increasingly complex argumentation and writing. This is part of the learning process.

edited per feedback