The thing about book clubs is that their whole point, pretty much, is to entertain. I mean, sure, there’s the whole edification of the mind and soul and such, and maybe you’ll be inspired or you’ll learn something, but any book club where the choices aren’t entertaining at least most of the time is going to die. This is why book clubs tend to be made up of like-minded folks, so that the book choices will appeal to the members in a fairly uniform way.
But a college course, even in English, is not, in fact, a book club, and the choices of reading assignments have little to do with trying to “appeal,” at least not as a primary objective. The primary objective might be information, or it might be to give historical perspective, or it might be to attend to the conventions of a genre or any number of other important disciplinary concerns. Now, do I strive to assign crap that is not appealing on any level? No, of course not. Because, guess what? If it doesn’t appeal to a single student in a course, it probably also doesn’t appeal to me. But my job is not to entertain: it is to educate. So sometimes we’re all going to have to read stuff that we wouldn’t necessarily choose to read, and to discuss stuff we wouldn’t necessarily choose to discuss, if we were in, say, a motherfucking book club.
Tonight, only six students did the reading assignment in my Monday night course, the one and only course that is required of every single English major. The reading assignment was ~30 pages long. On the one hand, it is always the case that somebody will not have done the reading in a given class period, and it’s unfortunate when all the slacking happens at once. On the other, let’s note: this is a course that meets only once a week, and they had only ~30 pages of reading for this week. And they are all ENGLISH majors.
Here’s the thing: I’m not personally angry that they didn’t do the reading. Look: I was a student once, and there were times when I didn’t do the reading. Shit happens. I only became personally angry at the point at which some students tried to defend the fact that they hadn’t read. Because, you know, the assignment wasn’t “appealing” and it was boring and it didn’t keep their attention. And then when they tried to construct an alibi for themselves: “Dr. Crazy, yes we were all so wrong for not doing the reading, but we had a PAPER DUE! How could we possibly do the reading when we had a PAPER DUE?!?!”
Let’s note, six of their number somehow found it possible not only to slog through the “unappealing” reading assignment but also to submit their papers. And yet, I was supposed to do what? Say, “Oh, I am clearly unreasonable! Who cares that you have classmates who did all the work for this week? Not me! I shall give you a pass!” Um, no.
Here’s the thing: part of being an ENGLISH major is learning how to read texts that are unappealing and to find your way in to find SOMETHING to take away from them. Hell, read them just so that you can complain about them intelligently! I don’t need you to enjoy them – I need you to engage with them! But you can’t just quit when you lose interest. If you do, then your degree means nothing. What distinguishes you from the masses is that you can sustain your concentration for the length of time that it takes to consume a text that other people would just put down after the first paragraph. And that you can find something to say about it. That’s whatever career you end up in. The whole fucking point is that you can engage with things that are boring, or irritating, or unappealing, or whatever. The point of the major is also that you can manage to write something up at the same time that you can also do some reading. Why are you bothering to major in English if you can’t handle 30 pages of unappealing reading and writing a 5-page freaking analysis essay – an essay for which you’ve had the assignment for at least three weeks – in the span of a week? What do you think you’re going to do once you graduate?
I actually gave the slackers a gift. According to my course policies, I could have dismissed them all, charged them with an absence (which would mean that any additional absences would have resulted in a full letter-grade drop in their participation grade), and called it a day. Instead, I treated them like high school students and I forced them to read silently for an hour, while I discussed the chapter with the students who had done the work. (Note: we had a great and fun discussion, which touched on the main points of the essay and veered off course to connect it to stuff that they are totally interested in.)
The complaints came after I put them in silent reading time-out, for what it’s worth. And I think that the ones who tried the alibi approach were actually trying to make up for the anti-intellectual bullshit of the “unappealing” camp. In a moment of frustration with the “unappealing” garbage, I might have said, “so, if I find your paper “unappealing” after the first paragraph, should I just put it down and refuse to grade it? Is that acceptable?” And in a moment of frustration with the “alibi” bullshit, I might have said, “so if I have a stack of 25 papers to grade, does that mean that I can just not do the reading for class on the day that I return them?” I also might have noted to all and sundry that all of what was going to happen this week was on the syllabus since day one of the class, and if they didn’t want to do it, they could have dropped. And I might have said in general: you are paying to take this class; what are you paying for if you don’t come prepared to learn?
What’s interesting about this ridiculous situation is that it actually makes me more committed to our terrible textbook for this class, which is terrible (objectively: but it is the only book that currently exists that does what we need it to do, and which is the book that the department approved, so it’s not my individual choice). And here’s why I’m more committed to it. The textbook is terrible. But maybe part of what English majors really need to learn is that they have to read things that are challenging: not just challenging intellectually, but also challenging in that they are fucking awful. Maybe part of thinking about English as a discipline involves learning the crappy part of it, and not just thinking about it like a glorified book-club of a major. Of course, this is a difficult lesson to teach when students are simultaneously taking courses in which faculty teach to the lowest common denominator and they aim to entertain rather than to educate. But maybe some of what I and other of my colleagues do when they teach this course does make a difference in the grand scheme of things? I hope it does.
And, actually, I think it might. Students were able to see the course schedule for Spring for the first time today, and they were able to put their picks into their registration carts for the first time. Let’s note: only Nerdy McNerdersons are on top of this on day 1. And in spite of the fact that I am a Crazy Bitch of a Professor, somehow I’ve already got 4 (no former students, one current student) who want to take my upper-level contemporary lit class, a class that is going to involve a hard-core amount of reading (and while each student might enjoy one book on the syllabus, it’s entirely possible that they will hate many of not all of the others), and a hard-core standard for writing. And I’ve got a reputation, so if they are chomping at the bit to take a class with me, they know what they are getting into: they are asking for what I will give to them.
Maybe taking a required course with a terrible textbook gives them the confidence that they need to seek courses like mine. Maybe appealing to the lowest common denominator is not, in fact, the obvious way to increase enrollments in the courses that serve majors. Maybe the way to get more enrollments in courses for majors is to kick their motherfucking asses.