Alan Jacobs recently wrote about a former colleague at Wheaton College who during a class decided to skip on a couple of the assigned readings. This colleague

devoted two weeks to studying a book and then, at the end of that time, said to his class, “I don’t think that went as well as it should have. Let’s do it again. We’ll have to leave out the next book or two on the syllabus.” Some students — I don’t know how many — went ballistic over this. That’s not what the syllabus says! I’ve already bought those other books and now we’re not even going to read them! Some faculty and administrators became concerned over this “lack of professionalism”; they wondered whether Wheaton could afford to have faculty “the students don’t really respect.” Me, I just wished I had the courage to go off-script that far;….

Now, the main point of Jacobs’s post was about racism at Wheaton. Jacobs’s colleague was black, and Jacobs suggested that his colleague likely got more push back from administrators because he was black than he would have if white. I’m not commenting on that aspect of the post.

What I want to comment on is why it’s usually wrong to skip assigned readings.

One, books cost money. Sometimes a lot of money, sometimes not a lot of money. Not all students–even, I imagine, at Wheaton–are independently wealthy.

Two, in some cases, a student may choose to take a class based on the assigned readings. I can’t say for sure that I ever did, bu when I registered for classes, sometimes I did look forward to certain of the assigned readings. I would have been upset if the readings hadn’t been assigned. The obvious retort is that I could have read the book anyway. But that neglects what one gets from reading a book in class. Sometimes classroom discussion or the guidance of the instructor helps one understand and appreciate a book. Maybe that’s not true for everyone, but it was sometimes true for me. One of my favorite books of all time–a collection of short stories, Dubliners–I read for an English lit class and I’m convinced I would not have understood or appreciated many of James Joyce’s allusions. I might not even have understood some of the stories.

Three, “going off script” and changing the syllabus means the instructor planned poorly. Maybe it’s sometimes necessary to go off script. In at least one class I taught when I was an adjunct, it would have behooved me to go off script because I had too poorly anticipated the classroom dynamics. And while doing so would have been admitting failure, it was more of a failure for me to keep on as I was doing. So I get that sometimes it needs to be done. But it’s still a mark of poor planning.*

There is such a thing as over-entitlement among undergraduate students (and especially among graduate students, but that’s a different story). And part of going to college is learning that life isn’t always fair and learning how to adapt to changing circumstances. I get it. But instructors need to realize that they have an obligation, too. Whether my admonition actually applies to the case Jacobs is talking about or not, I don’t know because I don’t know the specifics. But on the facts as Jacobs relates them, the students’ complaints weren’t baseless.

*Not exactly the same thing, but as an undergrad I was particularly frustrated with some professors’ practice of changing, at the last minute, an in-class exam to a take-home exam. Take-home exams are MORE WORK. Even if the professor says “I only want you to spend an hour on it,” they’re going to grade you as if you had more than an hour to work on it. If a student has to work, he or she likely has to plan a tight schedule to balance work and studies, and fitting in even an extra hour of schoolwork can be hard.

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8 Responses to Book ’em

  1. Murali says:

    Its not just that students can sometimes be over-entitled. They can under participate in ways that derail the entire program. Sometimes, if you don’t get the earlier book, you will be especially lost in the later stuff. When I was teaching philosophy of law, it was crucial that the students got the both the core and particular nuances of Hart’s argument. Or else they wouldn’t have been able to see where his opponents went wrong (when they did in fact go wrong) and what they got right.

  2. Murali says:

    Pressed submit too soon.

    The thing is, if text 1 is much more important to understanding the topic than text 2, and if students have not yet adequately understood text 1 yet, then it seems perfectly fine to cut text 2 out if that would aid in understanding the issue. And its not always a matter of poor planning. Some times, the dynamics in a certain class are just bad.

    • I actually hadn’t thought about it that way, but certainly, depending on the subject and the class, that could be a real issue. I could fall back on the point that the professor should plan for poor dynamics, and maybe I’d be technically right, but you can’t plan for everything.

      So…..good point.

  3. Peter says:

    One of the required books for a college history class was a rather lengthy and costly tome written by none other than the class’s teacher himself. I thought that was odd, as the book dealt with a different field of history than that which we were studying. Well, we DID read the book after all … literally only four or five pages’ worth.

    • Was that all that was assigned or was it just all that anyone bothered to read?

      If assigned, what a waste of (the students’) money. Presumably if the professor was the author, he could have just told you the point you were supposed to get.

  4. fillyjonk says:

    At some schools requiring students to purchase a book you wrote is considered a conflict of interest (if you are profiting from it. We sell lab manuals written by faculty but the tiny profit off of each one goes back into the lab fees to buy equipment and consumables for the classes)

    I remember being kind of shocked over paying upwards of $15 for a copy of Plato’s “Symposium” (this would have been circa 1987). The thing was LITERALLY done pamphlet style: the cover was no thicker than the pages and the whole thing was stapled together. Now, I’d probably pay $60 for that same thing.

    • I don’t know about my undergrad school, but at the places I went to grad school, I don’t think it was considered a conflict of interest as long as the book had been formally published. Maybe because the “profits” in that case would be so small? The general sense I have is that if it’s something the professor put together, like a lab manual or (in one case I know of) a PDF textbook, selling it for anything other than cost is frowned upon, though maybe not necessarily considered a conflict (at least at my schools, based on nothing other than a hunch).

      The good thing about Plato’s Symposium is that it’s out of copyright and can be gotten pretty cheap, unless a copyrighted translation is required.

    • And speaking of Greeks, when I was a Freshman in college (in 1992) I had to shell out about $45 for a (very small) ancient Greek language textbook.

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