My slides for an ALA 2012 panel, Readers' Advisory for Town AND Gown: Academic and Public Library Partnerships for RA Services.
In 1998 our library, like other academic departments, developed an assessment plan, and part of that was deciding on a small number of key learning goals. These were the ones we arrived at. The last one is, frankly, a bit of a challenge to assess, but we realized we wanted to think about more than finding and using information. We wanted to think about the broader ways libraries can contribute to liberal learning. Implicit in this goal is that we want students to relish reading and be able to figure out for themselves what role reading will play in their life-long learning.
I believe that developing a passion for reading is an important part of information literacy for lifelong learning. Why? I probably don’t have to defend reading to this audience, but I will anyway. The ACRL standards for information literacy make a false assumption. They assume that information is sought in response to an information need. In fact, much of the information that enters our knowledge base and belief system comes not from seeking it, but from encountering it, and since fiction makes up a significant portion of what we read, it’s important to recognize that we learn a lot from fiction. In fact, Richard Gerrig’s research found that what we encounter in fiction is cognitively shelved with non-fiction. We want students to become good at reading critically – not just in terms of critical appreciation of literature, but as in critical thinking about the information they encounter in fiction and the emotions that fiction engenders. Another psychologist has found that reading correlates positively with empathy. Fiction may serve as a simulation of life situations, giving us practice with conflicts and issues that we have not personally experienced. We need more empathy in this complex and challenging world. Psychologists are not the only ones who have thought about the role of pleasure reading in empathy; a report from scholars at the London School of Economics argued that more people learned about issues in Afghanistan from The Kite Runner than from any number of scholarly studies and white papers. What we choose to read is part of identity formation, and identity formation is a big part of what is happening to students during their college years. It’s important for students to read off the syllabus and make their own choices about what to read as part of who they are. Yet students don’t get much opportunity to develop their own tastes at this critical time.
The kind of reading practices encouraged in college classrooms are quite different than the practices of people who read for pleasure. At times, college professors feel they need to not only train students in new kinds of critical reading, they have to discourage students from the kinds of reading people do when they are enjoying themselves. They should avoid becoming so immersed in the imaginary world that they forget to highlight important passages or recognize how the author is creating a particular literary experience. They should avoid identifying with characters or relating what’s happening in the story to their own experience. Those interfere with critical analysis. As one professor put it, students need to learn that reading, which seems effortless, is actually hard when done properly. Another author who argues for the transcendent value of reading feels that students need an expert to help them decide what to read because reading commercial fiction doesn’t have the benefits of reading good literature. These attitudes are fairly hardwired into schooled reading, at least at the college level. Close reading is good; effortless reading is not. Rita Felski, who has written about the value of the affective states avid readers experience when reading for pleasure, says “enchantment is richer and more multi-faceted than literary theory has allowed.” She suspects that English departments distrust pleasure reading because it is associated with women’s supposed tendency to succumb to escapist fare and because it is believed to be a cheap sleight-of-hand trick performed by profit-driven mass media concerns. This reminds me of the “fiction problem” – when a library director bragged in an annual report that he had rid the library of popular fiction, saying "It is certainly not the function of the public library to foster the mind-weakening habit of novel-reading among the very classes - the uneducated, busy or idle - whom it is the duty of the public library to lift to a higher plane of thinking.“ Fiction, in his estimation, was a mind-weakening drug. “Once the habit . . . is formed, it seems as difficult to throw off as the opium habit.” Some English professors seem to feel the same way today.
I decided to teach a course on books and culture during our January interim term, and was a bit surprised when it filled – and my email inbox filled with requests by students to be added. I added more seats the next time – and it happened again. This made me think students must like books and reading more than we tend to believe. So did a survey the students conducted; the vast majority of the students they asked liked reading, too. A colleague and I decided to do a more formal survey and, with the help of student research assistant, we were able to do a solid survey of our students, representative of all years, genders, and majors. Nearly a third of our students took the survey, which was distributed in selected classes to all students so that attitudes toward reading didn’t influence who took the survey. I should also mention that we know from national survey data that our students are not above average among college students when it comes to reading for pleasure. This survey data comes from large public institutions as well as community colleges and liberal arts colleges – our students are not on average more inclined than college students at larger, more urban, or less selective schools to read voluntarily. We believe this means that a similar survey distributed at other kinds of colleges and universities would have similar results.
We also surveyed academic librarians and a limited number of faculty members in English departments. About 40 percent of them thought students don’t read because they don’t enjoy reading. In fact, 93 percent of our not-above-average students said they enjoy reading; only 3 percent said they don’t enjoy reading for pleasure. There were some differences – women were more likely to say they like to read than men, and humanities majors were more likely than pre-professional majors to enjoy reading – with 99 percent of humanities majors saying they like to read and only 90 percent of pre-professional majors saying they do. Still, this is a far higher number than their teachers and librarians expected.That’s not to say enjoying reading translates in to actual reading. Students reported spending very little time during the academic year reading just for fun. They say they are too busy with school and social obligations, they read so much for class that they need a break, and that they have to wait for breaks before they can indulge in reading what they want to read. Which is a shame, since some research has also shown that reading fiction, even for a short period of time, is a great stress-reliever.
So two thoughts before I go on: First, the idea that reading is at risk, especially among young people, is bogus. I have actually used the NEH’s Reading at Risk study as a critical thinking exercise: what’s wrong with this analysis? Students are able to pick out the false assumptions, the misrepresentations of cherry-picked data, and the ways in which the conclusions go off the rails: voluntary reading is correlated with going to museums, educational attainment, and doing good deeds. People who are convicted of crimes are often non-readers. Therefore we must encourage reading among youth or they’ll be headed to jail. It’s not hard to figure out what’s wrong with this picture. Yet it continues to be cited as authoritative evidence that we’re doomed. When it comes to reading, doom is a popular theme and has been for generations.
Second, we have a lot to celebrate. Students are engaging in reading and writing more than ever in history. They apply the skills we work on in college – critical thinking, reading with a critical lens, expressing themselves effectively with a good grasp of rhetorical principles – in everyday life situations. And there are many more ways for students to discover books they might enjoy than there were in the mythical golden age of reading. So what does that mean in practice? At our library, we don’t actually do much readers advisory, and we haven’t built a relationship around RA with our local public library. What we are focusing on is helping students develop an understanding of their personal identity as readers, help them identify ways to learn about books they might enjoy reading, and encourage them to take advantage of public libraries wherever it is that they end up after college. We now offer two credit courses. The January term course on Books & Culture remains the most popular, but we’ve added a pass/fail course during the spring semester, Reading Workshop, for the equivalent of one credit in which we discuss a book chosen in advance, students choose a book of their own to read and share, and work on developing a “to be read” list. This course was designed to parallel physical activity courses like Yoga and canoeing, providing exercise for the mind and imagination while giving students the low stakes but credit-based permission to read for fun. Two things that failed miserably: we created a couple of book club bags that had multiple copies of books and a discussion guide. We ended up donating these to the public library in hopes they would get some use. We also piloted a “fiction section” because many of our students had the impression we didn’t have fiction and others were simply frustrated because the Library of Congress system is not well suited for fiction browsing. After a two year experiment, we saw no difference in circulation of the books we’d selected for that section, even though it was in a high-use high-visibility area. Things we are still evaluating: we collected suggestions from faculty and put them on bookmarks, since student indicated they would appreciate faculty recommendations. We changed our circulation policy so that students can check books out over the summer. We have students in our reading classes write book reviews and put them in LibraryThing. We now have over 80 faculty recommendations and over 100 student reviews in our LibraryThing account. Whether these help students discover books I can’t say – but it at least gives students experience with a book-focused social network for readers. Finally, students who take the January class have two assignments. One is to do a group research community-based research project. A group last time, for example, interviewed students who are immigrants or children of immigrants about their reading backgrounds. This coming year I’m going to see if students might want to create a pop up library or perhaps investigate creating some tiny libraries and a plan for maintaining them.
Students do a lot of reflective writing in the class. Here’s an example.
Another wrote:It was an ordinary place in ourhouse growing up, but it becamemagical every night when my momwould sink into the soft cushionswith a book in her hands. Myyounger sister and I would sit oneither side of her resting our headsagainst her arms, peering at theillustrations that transformed ourliving room. My mom’s voice woulddecode the squiggles on the pageinto words, into a story. My firstmemory of books comes from thisspot in our living room.
This is from a reading autobiography by an avid reader.
This is a tiny snip of an amazing project on several large panels that told the story of a bookish adolescent’s experience with sexual assault.
Some students created altered books.
We have a public reception for the students in the library at the end of the course. Last year, students in three book-related courses participated. As for the Reading Workshop course, I don’t have any photos to show, but here are what some students said: “The discussions were great . . . When I read a book I don't usually have a network of people who have also read the same book, so I can make recommendations to others to read it, but unless they do I am not able to have an in depth conversation about a book.”“I loved it. Reading books that I would enjoy outside of an assignment made it seem like it wasn't reading for a class and was a nice break from my other homework.” “I really liked the relaxed atmosphere of the course. It made discussing the books a lot more free and enjoyable as opposed to being stiff. This helped to make it easier to offer up commentary during the discussion.”
Learning Goals @ the Gustavus LibraryStudents will understand how knowledge is organized and will be able touse that understanding to pursue information independently.Students will be competent and confident in the use of research tools intheir major discipline(s).Students will develop an understanding of how knowledge is produced anddisseminated and will recognize that they play a role in knowledgeproduction.Students will develop a sensitivity to and an appreciation of thediversity and wealth of knowledge created by differentcommunities throughout time.
Photo creditsMan reading by firelight by dkjdAltered book used for background by bronia sawyerSerious man reading, photo by ceaWoman reading by Gustave Courbet, photo by cliff1066Rhythm of Study by kessakoAll other photos by Barbara FisterCourse sitesBooks and CultureReading WorkshopZotero group bibliography: College Students and Reading for Pleasure Barbara Fister | email@example.com