Out of the three Comp II courses I taught this semester, I found a shocking statistic: no one read. No one. Okay, well maybe that’s an exaggeration, but not by much. Across these approximately 60 students, I found that when I assigned H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu,” only five people actually admitted to reading any part of it.
Five. Funf. Cinco.
One twelfth of my total students. Didn’t read.
These are at least second-semester freshmen or later. These are young adults who are paying for their education (some have even professed a love of learning), yet they refuse to read.
Taken in isolation, this one statistic would make me cringe, but would lead to no ill will toward the students or questioning of their mindsets. However, this incident is not an island; it wasn’t just this story. It’s been happening all semester to a slightly less drastic extent (I might have had 5 in each class who had actually finished any given work in its entirety).
And I have no idea what measures I can take, either rewarding or punitive, that will change get students to read in the Fall when I teach two more sections of Comp II.
As it stands, 20% of my students’ grades come from daily quizzes. I ask them a single question about the night’s reading, and they either pass or fail. If they read, they can generally answer it. If they didn’t, well…
So when I found they didn’t read “The Call of Cthulhu,” I did the only thing I felt I could.
I told them that they had until the next class period to read the text and that they would be presented with a quiz on it that would be weighted heavily in the quizzes portion of their final grade (note that heavily does not mean unfairly, though).
So when they came in, I presented them with the following questions:
1. Lovecraft said that Cthulhu was “a monster [. . .] of a form which only a diseased fancy could conceive.” Does this sentence serve as self-deprecating commentary from the author? Why or why not?
2. Lovecraft opens The Call of Cthulhu with the line: “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.” Discuss how this statement establishes a central theme that is present through the whole short story.
3. We see in both The Call of Cthulhu by H.P. Lovecraft and The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman a character or characters descending into madness/insanity. In at least 3 paragraphs, discuss the differences and similarities regarding how the two short stories handle this convention. Please use direct proof from the texts when applicable.
They whined. They cried. They complained. They called foul. I stood firm.
Normally, my quizzes don’t resemble that. Some people know the answer, some people guess it, and others try to BS it with hilarious results. I make my quizzes open-ended enough usually that even a cursory reading can help get credit.
But not this time. And maybe not ever again.
You see, I am truly tired of students not reading.
What gets me the most, though, is that I cannot figure out why they aren’t reading. I freely admit that I didn’t read everything I was ever assigned in college and graduate school. Sometimes life got in the way. I get that happens to other people, too.
But most of these students have had this problem all semester. It’s not a “life got in the way this once.” This is a “I don’t want to do my assigned work.” And the way I teach is a combination of lecture and discussion points that simply will not work if the entire class is ignorant of the material. The more engaged they are, the more they get from class.
I do my best, too, to make the material interesting and assign good literature. Sure, sometimes there’s a classic few people enjoy, but I incorporated TV and graphic novels into this class. I had them watch Firefly‘s 2-part pilot and read two Stephen King stories (“1408” and “In the Deathroom.” We even watched Dr. Horrible’s Sing-along Blog in class and did an in-class discussion/explication. And then on the last day of class, we watched the Mark Hamill episode of The Muppet Show as I explicated the nuances of its structure, and I had a student actually ask why we couldn’t do fun stuff like that all semester.
The problem is that they, as a collective, refused to play an active part in their own education.
So here I am, frustrated and concerned, unsure of just what to do now. When preparing my syllabus, I pick shorter works to pair with long ones—Persepolis excerpts to balance Fences, for instance or multiple poems when I assign a longer story like “The Call of Cthulhu”—so they won’t be completely swamped over the course of a week. And yet I still have people who will simply not put the effort forth to read what I ask.
I don’t want my classroom to be a place where students dread to go. And in my mind, I know that’s not the case. But I also don’t want the classroom to be a place that I dread to go.
Maybe you, dear readers and commentators, can help. Do you have any suggestions on how I can better encourage my students to actually read the assigned material? Or is this just one of those innate quagmires that comes with the territory where I just need to suck it up and make the best of it?