Assign entire books. Period.

31 08 2010

From the Chronicle, a philosophy professor shares his nightmare of the future:

My own peculiar worry about Academe 2020, offered with less than 20/20 foresight, may seem less catastrophic: the death of the book as object of study, the disappearance of “whole” books as assigned reading. Does that count as a preposterous figment of extreme academe, or is it closer than we think?

I don’t mean the already overwrought debate over the crisis of the book as codex—the daily New York Times announcement that electronic readers stand primed to eliminate paper books. (This shift, of course, plays into the problem, since any shrewd publishing type can see how the paper book’s demise might make it easier to digitally trim, abridge, and repackage texts in more “appealing” forms than their benighted authors envisaged.) The issue isn’t the decline in book sales, though it, too, remains an element of the big picture. I am talking about the growing feeling among humanities professors—intuitive and anecdotal, shared over lunch like an embarrassing tale about a colleague—that for too many of today’s undergraduates, reading a whole book, from A to Z, feels like a marathon unfairly imposed on a jogger.

Personally, this one doesn’t worry me. A history class cannot exist without history books. Even more so, a class on literature cannot exist without reading literature. Sure, you could go to the University of Phoenix and probably avoid reading anything longer than a web page, but any degree that includes the humanities has to include reading entire books or it isn’t the humanities.

And just in case I’m wrong the solution is easy: Demand better. There’s another article up at the Chronicle right now about how to write up a distinctive teaching philosophy. Perhaps “I assign entire books.” should be everybody’s first sentence.


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