This continues the discussion about content, coming at it in a slightly different way. Before a student can really master content, the issue of fluency and comprehension has to be addressed. Very often, this is confused with memorization. There is, actually, historical precedent for the mix up: educators in the late 19th/early 20th century stressed “fluency in reading” as a goal, very often at the expense of understanding. A child was expected to read something, demonstrating mastery of a vocabulary, i.e. they could read all the words. This demonstrated “fluency,” even though the student who had performed this feat, didn’t have a clue about the meaning of the passage. Fluency today is understood to be in the service of comprehension; it marks the student’s ability to read and not stumble on just decoding what is written. Fluency clears the ground, as it were, for comprehension. If a student is struggling just to get through a passage of assigned reading, then comprehension, to say nothing of analysis or questioning is going to suffer.
So, we are agreed that a student should be able read fluently, working toward comprehension and questions or issues that follow in the wake of unlocking a text. Here, we run into an interesting problem associated with assigned reading, maybe a couple. The first is: the authority of the text. What, the student is saying, can I possibly say: it has all been said. Memorization and parroting would seem to be a thoughtful strategy at that point. A book, after all, is someone’s conclusion, someone’s QED. How does one get beyond that, so that the issue the author is addressing, the author’s approach and methods of reasoning can be sorted through, weighed, talked about?
Faculty, in discussions of reading and writing and how well students do or don’t do either of them, very often use the phrase–“getting it.” A typical statement would be something like, “I was in my sophmore year before I really got it, before I caught on, before I know what went with what…” They were revisiting, maybe somewhat nostalgically, what every student wrestles with–what does this teacher want? What am I supposed to be getting from this class? This epiphany usually has to do with the fact that in writing about an assigned reading, one is not expected merely to repeat it, but to discuss it, to question, to probe, to engage in sifting out the wheat and throwing away the chaff.
Oddly enough, this matter of “getting it” is not front and center in a course syllabus, which represents a teacher’s through line in giving a course–the principal issues, something of the history of the thing, possibly current debates, and the like. At the very least, if it is an introductory course, the student will have to master some new vocabulary, and some names that matter; but unless a teacher has invited a student into the work of solving a problem in the field–how is a problem defined, approached, opened up–the student is likely to think of the teacher as something of a talking book. All that needs to be said about this issue has been said, what can I say except to repeat what I have heard–hit the coast button.
This is what “taking a course” means–a certain amount of seat time, reading/memorization, maybe even good notes, a few “content quizzes,” and a final, possibly a research paper (due, disastrously, at the end of the term) and that is that. I have taken a lot of courses that way. You can build a pretty good library, depending on the course selection, and remain untroubled by anything that went on in class.
But how to get beyond these two pinch points–the text that seems to have said everything; the teaching approach that is faculty-centric in the presentation and discussion of material. The first one is, I think, simple but that doesn’t make it easy. Begin by demystifying each text that is assigned and describe strategies for reading. A text book, like an encyclopedia canvasses, maybe highlights, maybe invites questions, but it has a surface like macadam that needs a bit of breaking up so students can see what range of discussions, theoretical debates and counter-debates make up the territory they are entering.
As for the method of teaching….that is what we will have to sort out.