Friday, April 12, 2013

College Students Can't Read?

Is this really true? Are college students actually unable to read? Let’s ponder that question for a moment. Even if we believe that the American public system of education is ineffective – and most of us do –is it possible for students to spend 12+ years in the company of certified educators and come away with a high school diploma that they are unable to read? Call me Pollyanna, but I don’t think so.

The students I have worked with at Georgia Gwinnett College can read. As a matter of fact, they read all the time. Look over their shoulders and watch them as they read texts and Tweets, web pages, FaceBook statuses, and Desire2Learn schedules. Their comprehension is perfect. They can read, and they can read well.

So why do GGC instructors contend that their students can’t read?  Perhaps the answer lies in a disconnect between students’ literacy experiences and the academic language of college. Consider this example: You are reading a history textbook that alludes to “Camelot.” There is no explanation given; you are simply expected to know the reference. At this point, you can keep reading, ignoring the unintelligible allusion and only partially understanding the text, or you can Google it. Wikipedia’s article on Camelot is about an ancient legend, but your history class is currently discussing the Bay of Pigs. Huh? You do what any sane person would do – you close the textbook and throw it on the floor, stomping on it as you leave your dorm room to head to Starbucks.

At some point in their education, students were supposed to have been introduced to ideas (at least minimally) that would support their understanding of the concepts taught in depth in college. In the past, students read classical literature, philosophy, and science texts written by “dead white guys.” This was a great way to learn, considering that the sum of human knowledge was finite and contained in these texts. As students read through these works, they would understand allusions and references to them written in later books. There was an “academic language” that everyone understood. This is not the case today.

The sum of all human knowledge can no longer be contained within dusty volumes sitting on shelves in libraries. “Dead white guys,” while certainly not irrelevant today, are no longer the focus of our public educational system. Allusions to Archimedes, Descartes, Nathanial Hawthorne, and Herman Melville are most likely going to confuse, rather than to clarify an issue for students. Allusions to Maya Angelou, Neal deGrasse Tyson, Stephen Hawking, and Sandra Cisneros, however, may have a better chance of being understood.

So where does that leave a GGC instructor? Are we supposed to carefully remove allusions that students don’t understand? Are we supposed to hide our treasured musty copies of the “dead white guys’” books, only reading them under the covers at night with a flashlight? Absolutely not! Perhaps it is enough to be aware that unfamiliar allusions may be used in textbooks or lectures and then be willing to explain them so that students will understand them. Don’t give up on our students yet; they CAN read!

(Note: The Pollyanna allusion used at the beginning of this essay refers to someone who is perpetually optimistic and comes from the following source:
Porter, E.H. (1913). Pollyanna. New York: Simon & Schuster.)


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