Reading Theory with Courage: One Way to Teach Critical Reading Skills

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Ermine Fidan Elcioglu, Sociology

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2011

The Problem: Students who first encounter Emile Durkheim’s Division of Labor in Society or Karl Marx’s The German Ideology or another equally challenging text, in my experience, have reacted in one of two ways. In the worst-case scenario, a student may be overwhelmed by the difficulty of the text that they have been assigned. They return to class frustrated. When asked about their reading experience, they may reply that they “skimmed” it although the text is not really conducive to skimming (because it lacks coherent chapter titles, subtitles, periodic summaries, classic use of introductory and concluding sentences and so forth). By contrast, in the best-case scenario, a student may be very excited about the opportunity to read classic sociological theory. They may be tickled by the challenge of understanding something that was written a long time ago but continues to be relevant today. But they too, like their frustrated colleagues, may not know how to read these texts in such a way that they can deeply understand the main arguments and be able to talk and write about them comfortably and accurately.

Strategy: In the beginning of the course, I argued that “reading” was not the same as “critically reading” something. I distributed a worksheet that enumerated the questions I wanted students to be actively thinking about when they read a text. First, what is the author’s central question? I explained that we should think about the text as the author’s answer to a question. Unfortunately, however, the question that motivates an author may not be explicitly laid out from the get-go. It is up to the reader, therefore, to figure it out. Good sociological questions are ones that investigate explanations (why?) and processes (how?): for example, “under what circumstances …” or “under what conditions …” or “to what extent …” Second, what is the author’s answer to this central question? If the author asked sub-questions, what is his or her answer to those sub-questions? Third, what evidence, if any, does the author offer to support his or her claims? It may be the case, particularly in theory-heavy texts, that an author doesn’t provide any evidence. In those cases, I asked my students to think about what kinds of evidence would be necessary to prove those claims. Fourth, who is the author arguing against? That is, what claims is the author refuting both explicitly and implicitly? Fifth, do I agree with this argument? I asked my students to ask themselves why they may or may not be convinced by this argument and, if they weren’t, to think about how they might “edit” the argument to make it a more compelling one. Finally, I asked students to relate the argument to their own experiences of the social world.

In order to practice this skill, I devoted every other section to critically reading a carefully selected paragraph or set of paragraphs from the assigned readings. We read a few sentences at a time, and tried to address these questions. I encouraged students to do similar exercises with other key paragraphs and then with whole texts

Assessment: I noticed over time that students came to discussion sections less frustrated with the reading assignments and went home more confident about the next set of readings. In the classroom and in office hours, I found myself doing less of the analysis. Students offered well thought-out answers to what they thought was the question and the answer that each author was offering and how it was different from or similar to other authors’ arguments. Indeed, when it was time to take a comprehensive look at all the material we had covered in class and begin preparing for the midterm and final exams, students were well positioned to construct study charts. In small groups and individually, they amassed their answers to the questions outlined above for each author in a single chart and then were able to think critically about the differences in their answers across the different theorists. Students mentioned explicitly the utility of this method in some evaluation forms at the end of the semester as well as in conversations with me. I was happy to learn that some students were using this method in other courses as well.