By Dr. William Oliver Hedgepeth
Faculty Member, Transportation and Logistics Management
Why do we read? Sir Francis Bacon, the 16th-century philosopher and scholar, advised, “Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider.”
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Harold Bloom, the late 20th-century American literary critic, once said: “We read deeply for varied reasons, most of them familiar: that we cannot know enough people profoundly enough; that we need to know ourselves better; that we require knowledge, not just of self and others, but of the way things are. Yet the strongest, most authentic motive for deep reading…is the search for a difficult pleasure.”
The actor Liam Neeson has “read over 31 books in lockdown due to COVID-19,” including James Joyce’s “Ulysses” and Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment.” Neeson prefers reading books on Kindle rather than a physical paper book. But he is reading books.
A graduate student of mine summed up today’s reading habits this way: “In grade school, middle and high school I was forced to actually go to the library, pick up a book from the shelf, and physically read it. Throughout my bachelor’s and any researching for work now has been more online than actually reading a book in or from a library.”
Public Libraries in the US Have Been Closed Due to the COVID-19 Pandemic
Many public libraries in the U.S. have been closed to the public, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But you can still call or order a book, check it out, pick it up at the library, and return it later.
So do books matter in 2021, when we live with closed schools and jobs that are on hold, remote, or just lost as the result of COVID-19? During this health crisis, reading books may not seem as important to some as to others.
Some Reading Has Become More Difficult Today, Especially for Students
Besides books, the reading of any document seems to be a difficulty today. Reading assigned material is often a common problem for students, ranging from grade-school children to college.
Many professors I work with say that working hard to get students interested in a topic can lead to them picking up a book — or going to Kindle — and reading the entire work.
Getting Students to Read a Book or Even a Newspaper Is Not a New Problem
Getting students to read a book, a college course assignment or even a newspaper is not a new problem for instructors. There appear to be many reasons not to read a book or read only two or three pages from a book or article.
Teachers and professors have learning assignments and tasks that require reading books, articles, or a set of instructions. There are in-class exercises and homework that require students to gain information from some reading activity.
Teaching is about providing deep learning and creative thinking about problems and looking for possible solutions. Students are supposed to have read their assignments before coming into an in-person classroom or going online.
Why don’t students read that book, that chapter or even the few relevant pages before trying to complete a homework assignment? From my many years of teaching, I have found the excuses to be common, such as not having enough time due to both working and going to school or they say the amount of reading is too much.
Also, a social life could be interfering with a student’s ability to find time to read anything. There is a great deal of family and personal pressure on students’ lifestyles today, due to the impact of COVID-19.
Motivating Students to Read
So how can we motivate students to read as part of their learning experience? A weekly quiz is one method that appears to encourage reading.
Although each quiz counts for maybe one to three percent of the final grade, even that small percentage is an inducement for students to do the readings. Another method is to supplement the reading with a short video aligned with the readings to offer the key learning points that will be part of a future quiz.
Look for reading assignments that are interesting and perhaps exciting or a bit strange-sounding. Those could be some short articles that examine a problem, such as logistics. Many items we purchase in a grocery store — such as the vanilla bean — come from faraway places and can be used to create an interesting and informative story to read.
As I wrote in a past article about why there was a vanilla bean shortage, “The price of vanilla beans was $100 per kilogram in 2015. By the end of 2017, vanilla cost $500 per kilogram and its price is likely to increase further in 2018. The problem for vanilla is that 80% of the crop comes from a special orchid grown in one place, Madagascar. It takes five or more years for the crop to replenish itself before it can be harvested again.”
Most Students’ Reading Comes from Online Sources
Today’s college and high school students do read. But their reading is done primarily on Twitter or Facebook or any number of online videos, audio, and text sources, rather than books.
Some teachers have suggested that we professors join these social media communication systems, perhaps as a members-only private club with their students with content not available for public viewing. The purpose would be to encourage students to have more confidence and talk openly to the teachers about any issues understanding the class material. Of course, not all professors would like such social and public exposure to students.
Depending on how creative you can be within the learning objectives of your class, you could introduce a novel or science fiction book to read. That assignment just might expand students’ reading realm or scope of topics. It could work at having the student read an entire book with the lesson objective being to match some aspect of what that novel offered the student.
Also, consider letting students find their own books to read. But they must convince the instructor that the book will relate to at least one of the course objectives.
One other method is to have a team meeting, like a book club. Offer those reading sessions at least twice per course. Each student participates by answering questions about the content of their readings, which are tied to a learning objective. I do this on Saturdays.
What are your methods for encouraging students to exercise their minds, read books and other materials, and find pleasure in reading?