Recently, I decided to take a “great minds, great books” approach to the reading list in my Foundations of Research Writing course (FCWR 151). I’m having freshmen students read such long-dead yet eternally important folks as Homer, Sophocles, Aristotle, Plato, Confucius, Sun Tzu, Horace, Ovid, Chaucer, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats, Hawthorne, Poe, Gilman, and Thurber. Most colleagues I shared this plan with raised their eyebrows and said such things as, “That is very interesting, but our students will never read that!” Well, anyone who knows me knows that if I’m told it can’t be done, I’ll do all I can to prove the naysayers wrong.
It’s critical that we stimulate our students’ desire to read extensively and ability to think deeply about what they read. This is a teaching and learning issue that affects all disciplines, not just literature and humanities. Educators in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) face similar challenges in encouraging students to read difficult material and to think carefully and deeply about it. I’ve found that highlighting the relevance of the content can capture the students’ imaginations, engage them in the learning process, and hopefully lead them toward that deeper understanding we hope they will achieve.
One way I highlight the relevance of ancient literature and philosophy is to illustrate various ways in which these texts influence contemporary popular culture. For example, I show scenes from the film Troy to preface our study of The Odyssey, and I play the 25-minute epic song “The Odyssey” from the progressive metal band Symphony X while discussing Homer’s epic poem. I show scenes from the film 300 before discussing themes of warfare, strong women, good political leadership, and civil disobedience in Antigone. I play the “Desert of the Real” scene from The Matrix to illustrate and explain Plato’s “The Allegory of the Cave,” and I show battle scenes from the Chinese film Red Cliff when discussing Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. Similarly, I show and discuss scenes from the film A Knight’s Tale before exploring key themes from Chaucer, I play portions of Symphony X’s album Paradise Lost when discussing Milton’s epic, and I show and discuss various Pre-Raphaelite paintings when examining Romantic poetry. The point is to engage the students with text, film, music, and art and to show the intellectual interrelationships that span across time, space, and culture.
The same can be done for other courses in various disciplines. The Science and Technology sections of major newspapers are filled with headlines related to practical applications of engineering, biology, cosmology, physics, and applied mathematics. Contemporary film and television, especially science fiction, offer excellent opportunities to illustrate and discuss applied technology. Summarizing and discussing these stories and films from various STEM perspectives is an excellent way of showing students the relevance of their coursework to the culture around them.
In addition to demonstrating the cultural and intellectual relevance of the concepts found within the challenging readings, educators also must struggle to get students to sit down and read the material, to grapple with the concepts, themes, and ideas found within the texts, and to discuss the content in class. Again, most contemporary students do not sit down to read something for the sake of learning or for the basic love of the experience. They need motivation. I’ve tried the standard pop quiz method, but that mainly penalizes those who didn’t read, and it does precious little to encourage discussion in class.
Instead, I use a game-show quiz model that incentivizes reading and encourages discussion. For each reading, I come up with several content-oriented questions (at least 5–10 more questions than the total number of students in class). After presenting background information on the text, I lead class discussion much like a game show. Working through the text, I ask the quiz questions, and the first student to raise his/her hand gets to attempt an answer. If correct, the student earns points for that day. If incorrect, another student can try to earn points for that question. Once a student earns points for that class period, he/she does not need to answer any more questions that day, giving other students opportunity to earn points. After the question is answered correctly, I lead a brief discussion of key themes and ideas related to that quiz question. For example, when discussing Antigone we talked about Natural Law theory, civil disobedience, what makes for a good ruler, disobeying parents while still honoring them, and the nature of true love.
The results? Thus far, the students are reading, they are discussing, and they are engaged each class. Even after students have earned points, most are still eager to answer other questions and participate in discussions. I have not ever had a freshmen class more engaged in reading and discussing such difficult texts. It’s working, and I couldn’t be happier or prouder of our students. If it can work for a freshman English course, it can work for history, sociology, bio-ethics, physics, microbiology, and chemical engineering. It just requires a revisioning of our pedagogies of reading and our practice of in-class discussions.
David Hogsette, PhD
Writing Coordinator, Old Westbury