Friday, August 28, 2015

Figuring Out the Readings

I'm working on my syllabi and calendars for my courses, all three of which are at least somewhat new this semester.

I'm teaching Intro to Lit, and doing all writers who are people of color, so that's a challenge.  Right now, I'm trying to figure out how much reading (of a modern novel) I can realistically expect first year students to do in a given week.  I'm guessing somewhere in the range of 150 pages (it's a three hour a week class, so that would be about 50 pages for each class hour, or 50 pages for each 2-3 hours outside of class that I expect them to work).  Does that sound right?

I looked at Karl Steel's reading calendar for "Small Things," a graduate seminar he's teaching.  Doesn't it look fun and interesting!

What strikes me is how much reading he assigns.  Of course, this is for a PhD grad program seminar, so one assumes the students are taking only one or two other courses (and teaching, themselves, probably) and have done some of the reading before (I'm sure they've read "The Prioress's Tale," mostly, for example.

But when I think of doing that reading myself and prepping to teach the readings (or a similar level of readings in my own field, well, it's pretty overwhelming.

I teach senior seminars for undergrads here, and sometimes MA seminars, and I assign maybe half as much reading in a week.  For one thing, I know none of my students will have read the texts I'm teaching, unless it's a Shakespeare play that they may have encountered in high school.

But equally, I have to create reading assignments that I can do myself.  And here's where teaching 11 credits a semester really hurts, I guess, because I'm reading and grading for three classes, and one of them is a first year writing class which requires loads of feedback on student writing.

So, I wonder if my teaching load leads me to assign lower reading loads for my senior/MA seminars, and if that means my students aren't getting the reading intensity they should for those courses?

I also have to plan on teaching readers who are less prepared as readers, if that makes sense.  I can't give my students something that assumes they know about the Romantic era in even the most basic way without taking time to catch them up on what the Romantic era was (that's on my mind now because I'm teaching a ecocritical Shakespeare course, and we're reading some introductory stuff that refers to Romanticism).  What I'm getting at is that I only assign readings that we'll be able to discuss in class.  My students, wonderful as they are, mostly won't read well enough to get a theoretical argument without help from class discussion.

So, the questions of the day are:

How much time do you expect students to work on your course stuff per hour of meeting time?

How much modern novel reading do you think a first year student can do in an hour or two?

How many of your students are working half time or more at a job?  How does that impact their school work?

How much reading do you assign for a senior seminar in your field?  How many hours?  How much of the reading do you need to discuss in class?


  1. For underclasspersons who are English majors, 150pp/week would be a reasonable maximum for me (more like 100 for freshmen nonmajors, and they still complain). Senior seminars and MA seminars are very different from each other, in my experience. I think the students are just at different developmental/maturity levels, and though I wouldn't probably assign my MA students as much as Steele does (hard to tell, since his syllabus doesn't give a great sense of how long each reading is), I'm comfortable assigning a goodly amount and not talking in depth about it all. With senior capstones I don't feel that way, and I know I need to spend a lot of time working through academic prose with my students.

    And you're right that either is a burden on the instructor, esp the grad class, and esp for those of us with more than two preps a semester. Last term, teaching a new MA class on Donne, I was lucky to be teaching two very familiar other classes, for which I--of necessity--did very little prep.

  2. Anonymous2:47 PM

    My rule of thumb is 3 hours out of class for each hour in class (though that's our university's official policy some of my colleagues undercut it saying oh more than one hour per class hour is too much).

    I struggle with not equating my own pace of reading to students. I've assigned 50 pages of fictional narrative per class before, but no one got through it at the pace I had assigned. I now try for 30-40 max, though sometimes it goes over. Our lower division courses (in my field) are language acquisition so the reading question doesn't work so well there. In seminar-style courses I assign those larger chunks of reading, and while there's a lot of resistance (X doesn't make us read this much!) they generally get over it once they get into the texts. I think I am about on par with English page assignments, and I assign less than History does at the same level.

    Many of my students work on campus but they don't talk much about their work schedules in the context of their schoolwork. If anything students have other classes or extracurriculars getting in the way more than work or family obligations.

    At this point and in my context, I'll assign 50 pages for a class when it only meets twice a week and it's an "easier" text; otherwise most students won't get through it, I'll get negative course evals (not tenured yet!), and everyone gets annoyed.

  3. Senior seminars and M.A. seminars? Around 150 words a week, mostly because my M.A. seminars are heavily populated by students who are not savvy in my end of the field. (Either that, or I'm teaching the methods M.A. seminar which is very theory heavy and needs time to digest.) My Canadian history colleagues usually aim for a book a week or 200+ pages, but 85% of our students are Canadian history specialists. They grok that stuff much more readily than my early modern materials.

    Right now I'm writing up notes on the "new for teaching" titles for my autumn M.A. seminar on London history. My two undergrad classes are minimal revision prep - in one of them I have to adjust for new editions which really mostly affect the source reader. But the M.A. class has three "new for teaching" titles which are great fun but a lot of work to read!

    1. Oh, I bet the London history course is fascinating!

  4. I think I usually assign 40 pages per class session when I teach Austen on an MWF schedule, so 50 pages for a modern novel sounds about right (assuming there's no stylistic weirdness going on that would make it as hard / harder than 19th-century prose).

    If I'm teaching an upper-level course in Shakespeare or early modern drama, I usually assign 1-2 acts of a play per class session, but I build in some days when students don't have any new reading. I generally assigned less reading when I taught early modern poetry (except for Paradise Lost, which was basically one book per day of class, and I found myself struggling to keep up).

    I think most of my students are working enough to detract from their schoolwork, unfortunately, although I don't really have specific numbers.

  5. When I was getting ready to write the syllabus for my first American Novel course, I asked an experienced colleague how many novels I could assign in a semester before students would complain that it's too many. "One," he said. He was right, but that doesn't stop me from assigning six or seven novels in an upper-level undergraduate class.

    I aim for 100 to 150 pages per week for all my literature classes, depending on the difficulty of the reading and the level of the class. (All undergrad; no grad students.) No matter the level of the class, some students struggle to keep up with the reading...and some try to get by by reading online summaries instead. (Even English majors!) I don't know what to do about that.