Readers vs Readings in Library

In a recent class on essay topics I went to great lengths to introduce students to the notion of a research problem. A research problem is not just question of having good ideas and understanding what an essay topic is asking of students; rather, a research problem accounts for the discursive, practical and material context of the argument that is constructed. I shall write a post on this when I have more time. What I want to raise here is the question of having course readers versus having the readings available to students in the library for photocopying.

The readers seem like a good idea; they collect all the necessary readings together in an easily accessible single document that is affordable to students (normally the cost is the same or only slightly more than the cost of photocopying all the readings). What the reader excludes however, is the dimension of intellectual work involved in actually going into libraries and finding texts for research. There is a material dimension to ideas beyond their ideality and students must also learn how to access these ideas through the material and structured discursive contexts. Having the readings available in closed reserve forces students to learn how to use the library and gets them used to actually going into the library to search for ideas. What do other tutors (and perhaps unit coordinators) think?

A related problem is getting students to understand that searching the massive online journal databases through the library website is almost as easy as searching on Google. There really is no excuse for non-academic online resources appearing in essays.

13 replies on “Readers vs Readings in Library”

  1. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I both agree and disagree with you Glen.

    I completely accept the point about the process of researching a topic, and the consequence that “teaching” students is more than transmitting content (e.g. “theories”, “ideas”) and developing skills in critical thinking. Research is also a question of identifying and meandering through an archive, etc., and “teaching” thus requires equipping students with research-specific readings skills (i.e. searching, skimming, etc.) that are somewhat antithetical to the reading skills associated with good thinking and good argument.

    The thing is, as always, some contexts (e.g. units of study) are more appropriate than others for teaching (in the sense of providing a context for practising) such research-specific skills. In some units, the learning objectives aren’t really designed around the goal of cultivating research skills. Some units, moreover, approach a particular subject matter in such a singular or unconventional way that requiring students to research the problem is a recipe for disaster. In such units the focus is on developing a particular way of thinking that operates according to a logic that is very different from the conventional logics informing so-called “critical thinking”. The only solution I’ve found in those cases is to do the research for the students by providing a reader, and get them focused on the task at hand by actively discouraging further research.

    Other units, however, may be much more appropriate for conducting the kind of research exercises that you imagine. I would perhaps go further than what you’ve suggested though. Requiring students to access the readings via the library reserve amounts not to a different research practice but rather to a different mode of distribution. You’ve still set the readings and in all probability specified which readings go with which topic, and the implicit assumption (most likely) is that students should do all the reading.

    I’d suggest instead that you create an archive of potentially useful or relevant readings — one that is too large and too broad for students to work through and thus requires students to search it (skim, sample, conduct defined searches, etc.) in order to research a problem. That way you can ensure that students aren’t getting misled by completely whacky or inappropriate ideas/arguments/books, etc. but still require them to research the question. You could even design assessment tasks that are incremental/developmental in the sense that an early research task requires students to work exclusively within the archive and a later task requires students to use that research as the basis for searching beyond the archive.

    So the disagreement is not so much with the principle you’ve developed but rather with the potential implication that all units serve as contexts for imparting research skills — which is not something you actually suggested, and so my disagreement isn’t with anything you actually said!


  2. Very good series of points! I was thinking about one of the first year units I am tutoring in at UWS, so really very basic ‘here is the library’ ‘this is how to access online journal databses’ sort of things.

    I’ll knock up the ‘problem’ post over the next couple of days as it is leading me to another point I want to make about the nature of current research funding excluding the contingent nature of research. It are the contingencies, the discoveries made because a researcher precisely did not know what they were going to find, that actully makes rsearch worth doing.

  3. Oh, there’s a great deal to be said about the current administrative and funding structures underpinning research — about the specific conception (hence practices, or vice versa) of research that they breed and legitimate, about different discpline’s disproportionate “fit” with such understandings/practices (or forms) of research, about competing forms of research and the historical transformations and stratifications of such forms, and about the frameworks and rationales for “capturing” (to borrow a very helpful concept of yours) such research.

    Me, I’ve come to hate research. And I do my best to evade the ascendent frameworks and rationales animating research. I prefer to do scholarship (objections to the Kantian/humanistic connotations of the term be damned!), or better still I prefer to write. Should you ever be unfortunate enough to find yourself in the midst of reading anything I’ve ever written, please — I beg of you — don’t mistake it for research!

    Looking forward to hearing your point about the contingencies of research.


  4. I have enough trouble getting my stoods to do the readings in their reader, let alone go to the library!

    I think that there are a few things to keep in mind, here. Most importantly, the types of students we see doing undergrad degrees have changed from the Good Old Days.

    1. I’m teaching at a uni with a very different demograph to a sandstone. I teach an incredibly multicultural group of students: first generation aussie, migrants, children of refugees, refugeess themselves (and we are beginning to see some Sudanese come through our TAFE courses and into our uni degrees – it’s a mixed campus), most of them speaking _at least_ two languages (we laugh about it in class – most students have 2 languages, many have 3 or more).
    This has led to some particular challenges for students – from dealing with English grammar (ESL stoods have different issues with written English than English-speaking/writing stoods with other learning problems), to living in multi-generational households (with attendant increases in their domestic responsibilities), to frequent international travel (I have had 5 stoods this semester alone travelling overseas to visit family or fulfill family obligations. All legit cases, too), and finally to having to deal with a curriculum and discipline (media studies/cultural studies/communications) which is frighteningly WHITE and utterly neglects their experiences. And this is in goddamn CULTURAL STUDIES!!

    2. Most of my students are the first in their families to go to university. Most of them are working _at least_ two jobs to feed themselves and (in most cases) contribute to their household. Very few have decent internet connection at home. Very few can afford to spend time on campus dawdling in the library. They prefer audio recordings of lectures that they can listen to while they drive/PT to their jobs. When we spent a session on planning their time I stood in front of the whiteboard looking at their average weekly commitments and thought ‘There’s no way they can fit this all in. How do any of them make it here at all?’

    3. I have more mature aged students than I’ve ever taught before. They are hardcore and work harder than the other stoods, do all the readings and extra readings. They’re almost all ESL as well, the primary caregiver in their family (usually with large families), some are only in Australia for the year (one arrived with her husband and small child, and is now living on the other side of the city with her female friend). They were telling me the other day that the take-home exam is bad for them – they’d prefer a proper exam because they at least get the time to themselves to work on an exam at uni. A take home exam will involve juggling kids, cooking, cleaning, caring for husband, etc. Imagine a series of essays!

    4. They’ve tended to have gone to quite crappy high schools. Their literacy levels are, quite frankly, not up to the task of university readings. They have limited vocabularies (though these vocabs may span a number of languages) and they don’t read much at all. But they’re no less intelligent than any of my previous classes at other unis. They are actually, on the whole, far more likely to engage with and critique ideas in class – I have to convince them something is useful, and they’re quick to critique things they don’t agree with.

    5. Many of them are dealing with scary arse racism every day. Especially my female muslim students who wear veils and don’t wear ‘western’ dress and my students from places like Sudan. We were looking at representations of race and ethnicity in one of the first weeks and I remember thinking ‘I need to pay attention, here: these guys are teaching me stuff.’ It was humbling to think how glib I’ve been with this stuff. It’s really made me realise that we can NOT talk or write about culture WITHOUT talking about class and gender and ethnicity. Every time we fail to qualify our assumptions about identity we are pulling a Howard.

    Asking them to seek out additional readings feels ridiculous. At this point, I really feel like the work we do on critical thinking about media is absolutely essential and important – they are living with the effects of the Howard govt policies and bullshit funding for unis.
    I have never seen such high numbers of drop outs mid-semester. And these are first years, so they don’t have basic study skills, etc, and they really, really struggle. I have to explain various concepts and cultural references and I have had to spend more time than usual on actual essay writing skills. When I get a student who produced really high quality work I’m absolutely thrilled because I know just how hard they’ve worked for that. And I think I have to marry The Chaser – how wonderful they are for getting these stoods interested in current affairs!

    I have really had to think about my assumptions about university life – I cannot possibly ask students to spend more time on campus when they work full time paid jobs and have kids to care for. I’ve had to get really creative with making lecture notes available. I’ve had to be available on email. I’ve also had to be far more flexible in the time I give them for individual contact.

    Having said all that, if I was teaching middle class kids in a sandstone uni where the library actually had books in it (you’d laugh at the campuses’ libraries here – they’re the size of most reserved sections of bigger libraries and seriously inadequate), where the stoods lived comfortably in college, had parents to pay their bills, or only had to work one part time job, I’d happily kick their arses into the library and push them into further reading. Those little buggers don’t realise how easy they’ve got it.

    Teaching this semester has really brought home to me just how deeply these cycles of disempowerment and disenfranchisement are entrenched. If we were at a sandstone, we’d have more cash for added stuff. But if we were at a sandstone the students wouldn’t need the extra resources so desperately! I mean, we have a reserve of readers for students who can’t afford them – this is a serious issue when your reader only costs $20!

    But then, teaching these guys this stuff seems to actually have meaning – I’m not trying to convince a bunch of privileged kids that they should think about matters of class and ethnicity and so on. I’m busily listening to my students lay out the reasons why they can’t get to the library. And I’ve found that teaching these guys is freakin’ hard work, but also really wonderfully satisfying and exciting. Suddenly I’m teaching a bunch of students for whom Stuart Hall is really _relevant_!

    I’ve had to reassess my teaching and skill myself up – I can’t just coast through with a bare minimum of work. I really _work_ when I’m tutoring and lecturing! And I figure if I can get a hundred stoods paying 100% attention and then asking questions about Stuart Hall, I’m really cooking.

  5. …I hope that didn’t sound too harsh, Glen. I know where you’re coming from. I catch myself thinking ‘but why don’t they think this stuff is fully sick?’ I can’t believe they’re not as nerdily interested in this stuff as I am (and was). And I keep trying to find ways to encourage them to explore reading… if only they had better reading skills! They like the ideas, but the reading is beyond them.

  6. whoa!

    unleash the dp!

    i am at teaching at UWS which is err… not very sandstone… see our VC’s comments in the higher ed supp of the SMH from Monday:

    I desperately want my students to have the skills to mix it with whoever. This is why I want them to know how to use the library, and to be able to write properly, so they can be assessed according to their arguments and ideas, not the inadequacy of their basic literacy and scholarly skills. I am a militant believer in the capacity of smart kids (and mature agers!!) everywhere to have the opportunity to do well, which means I ‘teach up’. I only ask they match me for enthusiasm in tutes. Some do, some don’t.

    I work so fucking hard to translate complex conceptual tools in such a way that the stoods (ha, lovely!!) can grasp them as ‘know how’ and not reified ideality. This is a practical deployment of concepts. Rabbitohs as ‘epic theatre’? Some get it and use it, but, again, some don’t.

    I can see myself in a lot of them; I had no idea what ‘work’ was at uni until second year, second go at uni. Grasping the material and discursive conditions of pedagogy, including the disadvantaged starting point of some of them, is central to my teaching practice. Show them how easy it is to pursue ideas, and to develop arguments. Having ‘time’ is an essential part of what I am calling the ‘problem’.

    What the lazy bourgie fucks at sandstones don’t fully grasp is that when some of these stoods get up to speed (and unfortunately I believe it will only be some) they will zoom straight past their fellow scholars cause they have had to accelerate so much faster. Accelerate! Plus they are hungry to escape the shit material conditions of their existence and for at least some of them to ward off the ennui of soul-destroying comfort that pollutes contemporary suburban existence.

    My teaching philosophy is to present the stoods with a challenge, and in such a way that they can meet and overcome it. It has to be a challenge, and they must have the enthusiasm or naked hunger to engage it. And some do, some don’t. I try to inspire, relate, and demonstrate, but not teach, because in the end I am only helping them teach themselves.

  7. This makes me think about the challenges of teaching a mixed class. I’ve started really thinking about how to offer lectures and tutorials that meet the needs of students of all ability levels (and interests). I always add little extra bits to my lectures for the stoods who are interested in the topic or want to read more – Media Report, academic blogs, film references, etc. I also try to mention the big name thinkers in our field, even if I’m not actually working on them that week.

    I do worry about the students who are actually kicking arse. If I do teach to a lower ability level, am I frustrating them? It’s pretty well known that the presence of more advanced students benefits the group as a whole (though it mightn’t always be neat for them), and I wonder how to encourage a situation where all the students can benefit from a mixed classroom.
    I like the idea of teaching up. I have a little bunch of students who are really doing well, and who come to every single tute and lecture, do all the readings, etc etc (as you’d expect). And they’re really interested in the material. It would be so wonderful to offer them an additional chunk of work or reading or something to feed that enthusiasm.

    I’ve also been thinking about reading groups for students who are struggling. I have quite a few who just can’t get through the readings. And I’ve wondered if smaller groups where we just work through the readings would be useful? But there’s no time or money, and really, shouldn’t a tute do that anyway? But these guys say they have to read with a dictionary on hand (hell, who doesn’t) and it really slows them down.

    …. you know, does that privileged student really exist? Maybe not in our area – in business faculties perhaps?

    What do you think about offering students pod/vid casts of lectures? That’s an extension of the provided readings idea… I’m stewing it over myself at the moment.

  8. That is the weirdest thing I’ve seen, net-wise, for a while. Is it spam? Is it meta-blog cross-bloggination? Is it whacky performing-theory cultural experiment?

    Or is it utterly commonplace, and I just spend too much time off-line to be hip to what every blogger already knows?

  9. sorry rob, spamminatored it! your comment now will forever exist on the shore of teh interweb beach with other the enigmatic flotsam of dead end links and forgotten homepages.

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