Tara Brabazon: Bringing them to books

March 9, 2011

One short sentence chills the expectations of teachers. A student, in reply to a tutorial question or query about an assignment, shrilly replies: “I don’t like reading.” This is an ice pick through scholarly culture. It is naive. It is short-sighted. It is foolish. It is ignorant. Without reading, a student is trapped within the limitations of their own life, confusing personal experience with researched expertise. Reading builds a productive network of authors, approaches, theories and evidence.

The cry of “I don’t like reading” is one of the few expressions from students that test my patience. When it spills from their mouths, I restrain myself from snarling: “What the bloody hell are you doing at university then?” Such a response would not be productive. It would not help students to learn, write and think. Reading is not meant to be liked or disliked: it is a way to understand the views of others.

My anger at students’ disrespect of reading emerges from my mother’s experiences. Born in 1930, she spent her childhood moving between tiny country schools in rural Western Australia. Learning was snatched from micro-moments of stability, hindered by her father’s working life that extended from timber cutter and log hauler to shopkeeper. Children had to work. There was no time for books. There were potatoes to weigh, bottles to sort and stack, orders to assemble and dishes to wash. Her mother’s constant lament was: “We don’t have time to be sitting around reading. There is work to be done.”

Reading is a selfish act. For three years, students have an opportunity to focus on themselves, discipline their minds, ponder the greatest words ever written and find ideas to anchor their lives. So many men and women would give anything to have the time to explore the world of books.

If a student does not wish to read, then they should not enrol at university. Give the place to someone else. During my first degree, when an academic realised that a student had not completed the required preparation, the recalcitrant undergraduate would be asked to leave the tutorial.

Years later, I asked this dedicated teacher why he so ruthlessly embarrassed the non-readers. He stated that if he had let them stay, the intellectual level would have fallen too low, making it necessary to explain ideas that should have been understood before entering the tutorial. With the non-readers gone, he could teach at the required standard.

This man was an inspirational teacher. He was demanding of his students. I cannot imagine what would happen if I imposed a similar strategy on our current undergraduates. How we teach, why we teach and the methods used to do so have been transformed. Part of the widening-participation agenda requires that we reduce the assumptions made about prior learning. Teachers must be explicit in our expectations. Therefore, my disbelief about students not “liking” reading is neither productive nor useful. Academics require new ways to create innovative learning cultures.

I have been searching for a positive strategy that utilises social media to provide a context and a community that support the act of reading. Academics can use assessment tools to encourage (or enforce) a certain level of research, but there are other options. One I am investigating at the moment is GoodReads (www.goodreads.com).

GoodReads was launched in December 2006 and describes itself as “the largest social network for readers in the world”. The statistics are impressive. The website incorporates nearly 4.5 million members who have 120 million books on their virtual shelves. As a member enters a book into the system, a search engine locates it, reports what other members thought of it and provides a space for personal rankings and reviews. GoodReads comments can then be embedded in Facebook and Twitter feeds.

Founded by Otis Chandler and Elizabeth Khuri Chandler, both Stanford University graduates (one in mechanical engineering, the other in English), GoodReads features a community manager and monthly newsletter. There is even an iPhone app to update the virtual bookshelf on the move.

There are other book-based social networks, including Shelfari, which was acquired by Amazon in 2008. LibraryThing is a fine service, but it is tethered to an older reading audience. The interface is not as welcoming or intuitive. There is also a fee if readers enter more than 200 monographs into the system.

For academics, Scribd is also a possibility. It describes itself as “the world’s largest social reading and publishing company…Our vision is to liberate the written word, to connect people with the information and ideas that matter most to them.”

Scribd deploys the term “Readcasting”, a neologism that describes the sharing of reading practices through a network. It best serves writers communicating with other writers.

The other difference with GoodReads is that Scribd is a publisher as much as a cataloguer. Because the key innovation in Scribd is the capacity to upload and convert a range of documents into web-searchable data, it is a content-conversion service rather than a social site for sharing the reading of books.

The TechCrunch site described Scribd as a “YouTube for documents”. But academics do not need a YouTube for books. We already have that. It is called a library.

My concern with Scribd is that it converts and democratises all content. I do not want books to be one more site of content. Students are reading Facebook updates, Twitter feeds and text messages. Accessing digital content is not the problem: being unable to commit to reading a book and sharing an interpretation of it is.

GoodReads enables students to comment on books, meet authors who are registered on the site and commence a dialogue with an array of interested groups. Events are organised and blogs and videos embedded. Now four years old, it is a mature business of the read-write web. It has the advantage of being intuitive, visually saturated, welcoming of embedded material and facilitating connections to other more popular social-networking sites.

Since experimenting with GoodReads – before considering options for its use within the curriculum – I have discovered an unexpected effect. I connected my GoodReads and Facebook accounts so that my friends, who include many students and ex-students, can see what I am reading. The unanticipated result of this decision is that they now discuss my choices. I show by example that reading is part of daily life.

It would be hypocritical for academics to expect students to be diligent readers if staff were neglecting their own professional development. But if reading is discussed alongside updates about family, friends, music and personal relationships, then learning is embedded in living.

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