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Pathways to Student Success I: Need to Read

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A scholar new to the academic job market recently asked me to reflect on this question: what do I consider to be the greatest challenge of teaching history at a community college? So here goes ... community college students are often unprepared for the level of reading required to succeed in a college history course.

The caveat to this statement, of course, is that many four-year college students are also unprepared because so many high school students are not challenged to read and synthesize large amounts of written information. As a result, even those students who come into my community college classroom from college-prep and honors-level courses in high school often find managing reading assignments difficult. The problem of students not reading enough is not, by any means, unique to history courses. However, there are so many amazing sources available to us as historians -- narrative histories, memoirs, novels, speeches, diaries, etc -- that I have a painfully difficult time selecting readings. Ultimately I assign less than half of what I would truly like my students to read over the course of a semester-long US history survey course.

What makes this problem more challenging is that community college students are notoriously time-crunched by work, commuting, and family responsibilities. As a result of these competing responsibilities, unless there is a graded assignment tied directly to it students often will not read. Compared to completing a written assignment that will be turned-in for a grade, reading for general content and context appear less important and are easily dismissed. A recent survey of community college students conducted by North Carolina State University found that work responsibilities and tuition expenses are viewed as “the top two challenges community college students said impeded their academic success.” (Inside Higher Ed, 12 February 2019) I’ve come to accept that even the most committed student may unwillingly fall asleep reading his history textbook after an eight or ten-hour shift on the job.

So much of the learning that we ask students to do in our history courses requires a significant amount of reading. Students for whom English is their second language often find history courses difficult because they are seeking to understand both language and content simultaneously. With my community college students, therefore, I search for primary sources with accessible language and rely heavily on images to help those students understand key historical concepts as they continue to improve their reading skills. Photographs, political cartoons, maps, charts and graphs have become an increasingly important part of my course assignments to compensate for the fact that students simply either will not or cannot read the amount of material that I would like to assign.

There are many challenges to teaching history at a community college that I have embraced. Classrooms populated by students of diverse ages, political, social and economic backgrounds, for example, produce vibrant class discussion. My students’  different academic backgrounds inspire me to stay active in the field of teaching and learning, in addition to being up to date with historical content. I am particularly conscious of a need to search for new ways to share history with this diverse group and I embrace that challenge. Convincing students that reading will not only enhance their academic experience in my class but their overall quality of life remains the challenge with which I most struggle. Suggestions?

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Suzanne, I taught basic writing at Lib Arts college in high profile sports conference, where many athletes struggled with reading.  Instead of going for volume, I would assign fewer but challenging readings and build in re-reading assignments.  Students assume they should “get” a text after one reading.  Requiring rereading and annotating helped them gain at least some control over new “deep” concepts, as they called them.  Short in-class freewrites on something they annotated or brief summaries also helped.  Or posing a question about something in text they didn’t understand.  I appreciate though that in some disciplines with a prescribed content, it’s hard to reduce coverage, but as we used to say in the writing center, “coverage is a false god.”  We saw many students whose writing problems were really thinking problems.  They wrote “so what” papers that failed to express some larger point worth examining in the first place.  I like your practice of using visual material to promote thinking.  I often had students draw images or abstract designs of their topics, which they the explained in writing.  They loved these “arts and crafts” activities.  Just a few thoughts.

Great ideas Tom.  Curious -- when you have students annotate a text, what specific questions do you pose? 

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I liked to start out with open-ended approach, Suzanne, having them mark anything that caught their attention, whatever the reason: a check mark for "this seems interesting or important"; a question mark for something they didn't understand.  Then identify what seems to be the topic or theme of passage with a word or phrase in the margin:  "I think this has something to do with  X."  I'd emphasize there's no right or wrong answer; the purpose is to slow down and note what author is saying.  The key, I'd tell them, is not just to highlight whole paragraphs, but to use some form of short-hand notation you can return to later, something that gives you some idea on why you paused here.  As followup, I'd start next class with a short exercise in which they had pose a question about a passage they'd marked and present it to the class for discussion, or to write a brief answer of their own, even if they're just guessing. 

Gradually, I'd up the ante as we began developing themes of course material, asking them to mark passages relevant to topic X or to identify any connection to previous readings, and then consider how one writer confirms, challenges, or modifies another writer's position on same topic.  To "read with the grain" or "against the grain," as David Bartholomae puts it in his excellent intro to his "Ways of Reading" reader, which presents sequenced, thematic readings, often quite challenging ones that resist easy summary.  (BTW, some editions have great units on writing about history.)  When students realized how integral this work was to the course, and not just busy work, they took it more seriously, by and large.  Now if they're reading fairly long texts, then you might want to provide some thematic scaffolding from the beginning: "What strike you as really important facts about X? Note 2-3.  Class activity:  pick and and write brief explanation for your choice:  why is  it important? how might it help us make sense of the larger events , conditions presented?

The variations are unlimited really.  It comes down to course goals and what you want students to be able to  do with course content.

About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.