I haven’t really talked about readings yet in this series on syllabus development, and that is no accident. It’s too easy to overfill a course, or base a course around readings instead of the other way around. If you’re an English prof, it may make sense to have book(s) at the heart of what you teach. But for most of us, that’s not the case. Still, because we are all huge nerds who love to read, it takes real mental discipline to not stuff wayyyyyy too much reading into a course. Fighting that impulse is tough but crucial.
Readings I assign can be divided into three categories:
– Readings that will be discussed in class.
– Readings that provide direction to complete a task.
– Readings that provide context, more explanation, examples, etc. to what was discussed in class.
The first category is the toughest: students need to read this in advance or there is no discussion. To try to minimize super awkward silences when no one has done the reading, I almost always assign discussion leaders, and have learned the hard way not to assign more than maybe 10-20 pages per class meeting. I remember reading 50-100 pages per class session in college, but what often ended up happening, honestly, is that I barely paid attention if I even did the reading in the first place. Fiction has different rules since it makes for more pleasurable reading, but I don’t get to assign that very often. Since planning is my main focus, newspaper articles are generally what I use: they are short, to the point, generally clearly written, and best of all, free. Which means I don’t feel bad making this type of reading mandatory.
The second and third types of reading are tools, and I treat them as such. Don’t need the tool? Don’t use it. Want to figure out just one issue? Great. These readings are not meant to be cover-to-cover, and I don’t expect or require my students to read them before class. For these, I don’t feel bad about long dry chapters. Read it or don’t, it’s up to you, so no one can complain too much.
When I first started teaching, I often would begin a syllabus with readings and work outward from there. I never do that anymore. It’s just too easy to fall off the deep end: there will always be more seminal journals, “un-missable” books, and …. Before the first day of class, you will already have alienated your students. Better to start from topics and then find the readings that best support them. Of course, that’s easier said than done, especially when taking cost into consideration. Finding one or two books that cover most of the reading topics, even less than perfectly, is better than assigning a dozen different books that the students can’t afford to buy.
My discipline is actually easier than most in this regard. Most of the readings I assign come either from newspapers or public documents and reports. All of those are free, and all of them are available online. I don’t envy those profs that have to assign $100+ books. Then again, I have to completely overhaul readings yearly to stay up-to-date. I guess there’s no free lunch.