Why is college reading so difficult?

The Culture—"Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas any more."

Get used to it: you will have more reading in college than you ever had before. Most of it is the "do or die" variety—read (and understand) this text if you wish to pass the course. Not only must you read the material, usually you must actually do something with the texts you read.

Reading is a transaction

Constructing Meaning

Think of a piece of reading as a conversation between the author and the reader. The author seems to be doing all the talking, but inside your head, you are responding. (By the way, this is a good reason to underline things in the text, scribble reactions in the margins, and take notes.) The meaning is created in the transaction between the writer and the reader.

Most texts don't have "hidden meanings" the way ancient magical texts do (college reading really has very little in common with Indiana Jones). If I tell a joke about engineers to a large group and only the engineers laugh, it's not that I had some sort of elaborate hidden meaning; the issue is simply that the engineers were an audience who understood and appreciated the joke while the others did not.

Consider the text, "The recommended maximum inflation for this tire is 35 psi." There's not much nuance of meaning, interpretation, or emotion there, yet the reader still must construct meaning. What does "psi" mean? How strong is that recommendation? Can I go to 36? 50?

Now consider the text, "He had a black, evil heart."

Interpreting the text "GODISNOWHERE" depends on what you bring to it. The religious person might divide that word like this: "GOD IS NOW HERE." The atheist might see "GOD IS NOWHERE." If you don't bring anything at all to a text, it's very difficult to understand it. The real trick in this conversation is that both of you get to do some talking: you AND the author make meaning together. If you never say anything, you probably will fall asleep and have a terrible time remembering what the author said. If you never let the author speak, you have only learned about your own thoughts.

You see what you expect to see

Some time ago, I asked a class to read Andrew Sullivan's article, The Conservative Case for Gay Marriage. In the article, Sullivan says, "When I grew up and realized I was gay, I had no concept of what my own future could be like." Several of my students, who had been taught repeatedly that gay people choose to be attracted to their own gender rather than to the opposite gender, totally missed the "realized" and wrote about Sullivan's choice. Whether or not you believe that people make a conscious decision about their own sexual attraction, you have totally missed Sullivan's point if you don't realize that Sullivan thought that his homosexuality is a built-in part of his nature and he has no power to change it.

You are not really reading if you don't allow new ideas and concepts to present themselves. You don't have to accept everything you read (In fact, college asks you to compare readings and to discuss their validity), but you do have to understand what you read. And you aren't understanding when you are only reading the text that's inside your own head.

Your defense:

Read carefully. Try to be open to the idea that people—good, intelligent people who want to be intellectually honest—are not all just like you. Some of them are gay. Some of them lived in the 19th century. Some of them are not from your political party.

Cultural references

That quotation at the top of the page ("Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas any more.") comes from the 1939 movie, The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy and her little dog Toto have been blown from the flat black-and-white land of Kansas to the magical, full color land of Oz. I put the quotation on this page as a tag line to indicate that you students are moving from the simplistic world of high school to the magical, full color world of college.

I once asked a class to read Barbara Ehrenreich's article, Guys Just Want to Have Fun. Ehrenreich's point is that most college males spend their time drinking, playing games, and making friends. She says that it might be a good idea to return to gender-segregated higher education "with the academic equivalent of Pinocchio's Pleasure Island for boys." If you have never heard of Pinocchio's Pleasure Island, you're not going to get much help from a dictionary. You find

You won't get there by reading the 1881 Italian book about Pinocchio, either. It has the Island of Busy Bees, but that's different. You need to be aware of the 1940 Disney cartoon, in which "Pleasure Island" is a place where boys gamble, smoke, drink, and make jackasses of themselves (literally). It's a great metaphor—in Ehrenreich's opinion, college boys spend their time gambling, smoking, drinking, and making jackasses of themselves.

Do authors throw in cultural references to make you look stupid or to hide their meaning? No, they assume that they share a culture with their audience, and these shorthand references can actually enrich the meaning of a text. American authors don't find it necessary to explain all the details of our election system in every political article. An author from Saudi Arabia wouldn't explain the Muslim faith in an article to other Saudis. Every new cultural event generates new references: I can probably mention September 11 without having to point out that "The September 11 attacks, often referred to as September 11th or 9/11 (pronounced as "nine eleven"), were a series of coordinated suicide attacks by al-Qaeda upon the United States on September 11, 2001." You already knew that—in fact you probably found it insulting and tiresome that I threw the explanation in here. (And the fact that it's the opening of an article in Wikipedia probably shows that it's common knowledge.)

Your defense:

Two questions you will never have to answer

Did you like the reading?

It's sad but true: your emotional reactions to a piece of college reading are almost never important. You might be asked to analyze, evaluate, or apply what you've read. You might be asked to compare it with some other piece of reading or trace the effects this piece had on later events. You'll almost never be asked whether a piece pleased you.

I personally don't like shrimp, but if I'm asked to write about the effects of pollution on Gulf of Mexico shrimp fisheries, my own distaste for the little beasts has absolutely nothing to do with the topic.

Is the writer (or the piece) stupid?

Almost always, a reading is assigned because the professor thinks it's worthwhile. Often it's a favorite that says something in a particularly elegant way. Few professors want to waste their time (or yours) working with a piece of garbage. Textbooks are usually edited by people who want to present the most intelligent and useful readings to the students.

In light of this, you are on extremely risky ground (with your twelve years of public school and two weeks of college) when you proclaim that the professor's favorite author is stupid and that a writing in a well-respected anthology is trash. Try to figure out what the reading was really about and why you were asked to read it.


The views and opinions expressed in this page are strictly those of the page author.
The contents of this page have not been reviewed or approved by Ashland University.
Revised 8/8/17 • Page author: Curtis Allen • e-mail: callen@ashland.edu.