them a little textual pleasure
Forget course guides and handouts, students need to embrace
I have to confess that I have a thing about books. My heart starts
throbbing when I go into a library I have not explored before. I
get excited when I am given the opportunity to spend time in the
great university libraries. Every volume holds the promise of taking
me into uncharted territory. Is it any surprise that I suffer from
what I am informed is a prejudice, the belief that the reading of
books - from cover to cover - is an essential part of university
education? I know scientific papers are important, but I would be
happier if even natural science students were encouraged to embrace
Quality assurance gurus assure me that the book is only one among
many teaching "resources". But I remain unconvinced. I
find it difficult to conceptualise the book as a "resource".
Maybe the Yellow Pages is a resource, but real books are not. I
have been informed that I am old-fashioned and inflexible. I have
been accused of elitism for valuing the book above resources such
as handouts. An agitated higher education entrepreneur once declared
that my attitude discriminated against dyslexics, poor readers and
"non-traditional" students who may have been brought up
in a book-free environment. According to advocates of Template University,
such practices are exclusive. Handouts, on the other hand, are inclusive.
When I point out that in the 19th century working-class people regarded
books as a source of empowerment, I am dismissed as an incorrigible
reactionary who is nostalgic for a mythical golden age. My technologically
oriented friends are tired of pointing out that we live in a digital
age and that the demise of the book is inevitable.
It is not just the purveyors of the culture of inclusion who cannot
comprehend the significance of reading books. Every year some of
my undergraduates complain that I am unreasonable for forcing them
to review an entire volume. One asked whether he could review a
journal article or a chapter instead. I never thought the day would
come when I had to self-consciously justify book reading to my students.
Of course it is not the students' fault that they regard the text
as a non-essential indulgence. In school, reading is treated as
a skill, and the emphasis of the national curriculum is on developing
this and not on appreciating literature. The promotion of the skills
agenda means that we do not educate children to value books.
By the time they arrive at university, many students have become
alienated from the world of literature. Undergraduates learnquickly
that a handout or a dozen pages of a book is considered adequate
preparation for a seminar.
When testing soundbites instead of knowledge becomes the norm,
the book will always assume a supplementary role.
Schools are only part of the problem. Academics, too, must share
Lecturers have gone along with the idea that a course outline should
resemble an idiot's guide rather than a reading list. Indeed, we
treat it as a teaching resource. And the more this outline breaks
everything down into small bits, the more likely it is to win an
award for its contribution to innovative teaching. And those of
us who spare students the trouble of writing notes stand a good
chance of gaining recognition for "best practice".
My suggestion is straightforward. We need to uphold the reading
Let us subvert Template University by providing our students with
book lists instead of course guides. This will not do much for their
skills portfolio, but it might help them to get a university education.
published in Times Higher Education Supplement,
21 October 2005