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“Our undergraduates – and postgraduate students as well – seem mainly not to be avid readers,” says Jo Brewis, professor of organisation and consumption at the University of Leicester. As a result, she accepts that “recommending whole books would be rather daunting” for them, and she tends not to do so.
Tales of students’ aversion to the traditional contents of university libraries are becoming commonplace among academics, with the internet typically fingered as the culprit.
“Incoming undergraduates have had their attention habits fashioned in a totally different world than that of those who are teaching them,” reflects Tamson Pietsch, fellow in history at the University of Sydney. “This can lead to a clash of expectations and also of abilities on both sides of the equation. In many ways, incoming students absorb information quickly, they understand the power of images, and are adept at moving between different types of sources and platforms. They are perhaps less used to concentrating for long periods of time and working through the nuances of an argument developed over the course of many pages.”
Indeed, the flood of information with which they are deluged in the digital era means that even academics are reputedly reading fewer whole books than they used to. Stephen Curry, professor of structural biology at Imperial College London, was sufficiently keen to remind himself that “not everything can be argued in 800 to 1,000 words”, so he made “a recent new year’s resolution to read less on the internet and more [in] books”.
The reason, he says, is that books permit a deep and sophisticated development of ideas. “Students often come from school feeling they understand the concept of ‘energy’ or ‘the atom’,” he explains. But “these were struggled over fiercely before they gained wider acceptance. Even concepts that seem grounded can be undermined and superseded. It is tempting to think that the 20th century was such a great age of science that we are now just fiddling at the edges. A historical approach can help students realise that there is still room for them to make a contribution.”
Len Fisher, visiting fellow in physics at the University of Bristol, also regrets the increasing move towards seeking information on the internet, since books “drive and encourage readers to think for themselves in a way that just looking up answers does not” and “allow for serendipity – spotting that unexpected, fascinating titbit as you turn the pages or glance at the next book on the shelf”. Students also have a lot to learn from “books that show why scientists ask the questions that they do, rather than mere explanations of the answers – not just ‘history and philosophy of science’ type books, but biographies, books about big questions and intimate histories”. The point, he says, is to bring ideas to life by associating them with the lives and personalities of the people who first had them. As well as physicist Richard Feynman’s memoir Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman, he also recommends James Watson’s The Double Helix as another prime example.
Brewis herself would like to see students reading more because “it would enable them to make more considered arguments in their coursework or examinations, and to demonstrate to us as assessors that they have considered the debates and controversies in the literature and arrived at reasoned conclusions on that basis”. She also believes that reading a book on a topic ostensibly unrelated to that of the degree can bring a valuable external perspective to bear on assumptions that otherwise typically go unquestioned: “We always want our students to reflect on the status quo, on what we take for granted and on what the alternatives might be,” she says.
In principle, Jenny Pickerill, professor in environmental geography at the University of Sheffield, would also “encourage any student to read well beyond the set readings”. She believes that they should take on “anything that excites or challenges them”, noting that “some of the books I have found most thought-provoking and that have shaped my research are biographies or journalistic non-fiction”. Yet when she does recommend full-length books, “students struggle with them, saying the language or concepts are too hard. I recently had a student suggest an alternative book for a module I am teaching which they found easier to engage with. It was a good book, but it was not really academic enough and I am still unsure if that matters or whether I should be recommending more readable books. There is currently a disjuncture between the types of reading we want students to engage with and the types students feel able or willing to do.”
For Pietsch, it remains important that universities “facilitate forms of engagement with ideas and arguments that are deeper and slower than those usually available online”. And she believes that academics can help to make this happen by teaching students that “reading a book from front to back cover is not necessarily the best way to use it. Things like the index, introduction and conclusion, as well as skim and strategic reading, help to make a long book that might at first seem insurmountable [become] very useful. And let’s face it, this is how academics read too.”
One thought we had at Times Higher Education was that it might also be fruitful to start students early. What if heads of first year were to set incoming students a book to read before they even arrive on campus, as an introduction to university study? Of course, to inspire a bibliophilia that lasts until graduation day and beyond, the book would have to be particularly engaging, as well as instructive. So we asked a range of academics to contribute one recommendation each to a list that is also being published this week in our sister publication, TES, read by schoolteachers.
Although we stressed that the choice shouldn’t be too specialist, we otherwise left the criteria pretty vague. It could be a book that would “help potential students hone their critical thinking, prepare them for independent learning, understand the basics of scientific (or social scientific) method or even negotiate the social and sexual minefield that lies ahead”. Contributors were free to select “an inspiration or a warning, a classic of popular science writing, a polemic, a satire, a novel or a biography”.
In the event, we were delighted to receive suggestions in all of these categories, ranging from Ludwig Wittgenstein to P. G. Wodehouse. Scholars are keen to warn students about everything from their own cognitive biases and the continuing obstacles faced by women to the often savage nature of intellectual progress and the battles within universities between the in-crowd and the out-crowd. Others want to inspire students to engage politically, to question authority and the views they grew up with, or simply to relish “the excitement of ideas and the possibility of life and sexuality”. It is hard to believe that there isn’t something in there for even the most bibliophobic of 18-year-olds.
Source: Times Higher Education