Pick a book, any book

Shocked by his students' great reluctance to read, Nicholas Morton sought a way to get them hooked on the habit

April 21, 2011



Credit: Marcus Butt


I remember distinctly my sense of shock when, as an inexperienced and starry-eyed lecturer, a seasoned colleague pronounced: "Students don't like reading."

My incredulity was perhaps naive, but it was also healthy, for the day we no longer feel appalled by this statement is surely the day we become obsolete.

Sadly, my colleague's claims were quickly confirmed during admissions interviews by prospective students who looked at me blankly when asked: "What do you read for pleasure?"

Since then, only a handful of exceptional students have given me reason to revise this gloomy picture. Many, when discussing their leisure time, give responses involving the depressing words "Xbox" or "Nintendo Wii".

What can we do about the growing distance between so many students and those cardboard-covered rectangles of printed paper that some people still like to stare at? I would like to offer one possible solution.

When I have sought advice from colleagues about "how to get students to read", the conversation usually turns into a lament about the nature of "today's society" or a rallying cry about the need to use assessment to force students to read whether they like it or not. This last approach works to a degree, and certainly helps to foster deep learning, but part of me feels that it goes against the grain. Students should love reading; it shouldn't be a task to be discharged as quickly as possible.

Luckily, the university setting offers us an opportunity to address bibliophobia among the young that we must seize with both hands.

I firmly believe that students come to university expecting to read. The idea of students reading is still presented as a cultural norm: in shop windows, students are always pictured with a stack of books; parents still use the word "studying" to describe what their offspring get up to at university; participants in University Challenge still reel off passages from Keats.

Recently, I decided to act on this expectation and launched a "Reading Challenge" to my history undergraduates. This voluntary event encourages them to read 20 books for pleasure during their degree. It is not an attempt to force on them a "canon" of worthy literature; it presents them with a wide range of books from which they select titles that interest them.

Those who wish to take part receive a long bibliography broken into sections, including 20th-century fiction, philosophy, short stories and so on. The idea is that they choose and read at least two works from each area until they have reached the required number. Successful participants will receive a certificate and a small prize, but this will not be large enough to be an incentive in its own right.

In planning this with colleagues, it was suggested that we outline how a healthy amount of leisure reading can broaden knowledge, stimulate ideas and sharpen comprehension skills - and thus help improve a student's chances of gaining higher grades. But I was instinctively resistant to this idea. I didn't want students to think of this as "work".

As it's still in its infancy, I can't say yet if it has worked. But when I ran the idea past my seminar groups, the reaction was positive - many students indicated that they would like to take part. We are also looking into the possibility of building some form of reading group into the challenge, and another colleague has offered to host an annual round-table discussion on a selected title. The idea is to create a structure that helps guide and motivate students to read for pleasure, supplying direction and encouragement, and - if possible - to build an undergraduate reading culture.

We will have to wait to see the results, but I feel strongly that we must try something.

I remember as an undergraduate being told by an aged and magnificently bearded relation that a humanities degree would, at the very least, give me plenty of interesting dinner-table conversation. Faint praise for the humanities, I thought, and, if I remember correctly, my initial reaction was fairly dismissive.

Reflecting on his words now, I feel there is much to be said for his remark. A person who sparkles rather than bores is normally someone with ideas; such a person will have something to say that others will find stimulating; this will be an informed individual who can articulate their ideas and - crucially - engage with the ideas of others.

Although I could talk about these traits as transferable professional skills, they are, much more importantly, key aspects of a rounded human being. But are they the traits of someone for whom reading is simply a chore (even if they did get a 2:1?) - probably not. I say again - something must be tried.

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