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January 31, 2005

The Victorian Novel Death March

The Little Professor leads her students through A. Conan Doyle swamp on their English fiction death march:

The Little Professor: Disjunction: PZ Myers' post on teaching genetics reminds me how difficult it can be to make the jump from my basic abilities to my students' basic abilities--and I'm not talking about intelligence or lit-crit skills. Last week, for example, I gave my students an in-class reading assignment--a short story by A. C. Doyle, about twenty pages long--and offered them a half-hour to finish it. Um. Yeah. Oops. Twenty pages of Doyle takes me about ten minutes; I wound up giving them forty, and most of them still weren't done. More to the point, I shouldn't have expected any of them to be done--but I'm no good at estimating how fast people who aren't me will be able to read anything. (Even as I type, I can hear students in my Victorian novel classes muttering, "Yeah, we figured that out already, Dr. B.")

Posted by DeLong at January 31, 2005 01:58 PM

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I read veeeeeery sloooooowly... but with superb retention.

Posted by: Saam Barrager at January 31, 2005 03:04 PM

you are practilly speed reading. You must have been brought up on books as entertainment. I thought I was fast, at 100pages/hr thru' a novel, but you beat me.

Posted by: big al at January 31, 2005 03:05 PM


There's these damned things called hormones. Yeah, and see undergrads are just starting to win the colossal struggle to control them. And unless your giving out a reading on something hormone related don't count on them REALLY reading it at all -- much less in 20 minutes.

I’m actually disappointed in the students that no one had the guts to fake like they had done it. (Kids these days! What IS this country coming to.)

Just my personal experience but you wink at them when you say "read" or "20 minutes." a handful will assume your not a total jackass and skim most of it and then you can have a half way decent discussion among that 30 percent of the class while other daydream about nocturnal exploits and what have you.

Posted by: Michael Carroll at January 31, 2005 03:50 PM

I recall a US Naval Academy cartoon from many years ago. It showed a recognizable professor holding a slide rule and looking at a test item he was writing. He's saying, "Hmm. 20 minutes for me, so 10 minutes for the students."

Posted by: BayMike at January 31, 2005 04:05 PM

This is a lot more understandable when you consider that a rapidly growing fraction of the world's English speakers can't even tell the difference between "its" and "it's" anymore. Apparently actually pressuring kids to learn how to read in grade school nowadays is regarded as harmful to their self-esteem.

[Let me confess that I sometimes write "it's" for "its" and vice versa: after all, the principal function of the apostrophe is as a possessive marker. I also write "too" instead of "two"...]

Posted by: Bruce Moomaw at January 31, 2005 04:37 PM

Her student is clearly time-wasting. It's a strategy we often used back in high school: Delay, delay and delay. The more time you waste, the less work you would have to do. Whatever in-class assignments you're given, always say you haven't finished yet, then your teacher wouldn't have time to assign homework, and the in-class assignments would miraculously become a take-home assignment ...

Posted by: weco at January 31, 2005 05:40 PM

What a daft thing to do. I'll bet most of the students had in fact finished inside the forty minutes - but if you give reading in a class you have to wait for the slower readers, not the average ones.

Posted by: derrida derider at January 31, 2005 05:56 PM

Richard Niebuhr was my teacher, and he would tell us that it took many years to learn to read slowly. I am forever trying to learn to read as he read.

Posted by: anne at January 31, 2005 06:24 PM

Niebuhr would read to us the Brothers Karamazov, and stop and chuckle, and suddenly there was more before me than I had imagined there could be :) We would do a poem by Emily Dickinson and an hour would race by for a few lines.

Posted by: anne at January 31, 2005 06:29 PM

Average high school student's reading speed is 200 words per minute. To do well on the SAT, you need at least 300 wpm. We don't teach kids how to read fast anymore. And a smaller percentage read for fun (I guess), and the lack of practice shows up in slower reading.

Posted by: ned at January 31, 2005 06:59 PM

I know the experience: but a good friend of mine at USC, teaching writing, decided to spend a class hour on reading, teaching the simple technique of following the finger, or pen, across the page with your eyes. One hour, a couple of paragraphs -- and he had an essay to read that night. Next day, he started discussing it, and asking questions about the author's viewpoints, CALLING on students, cleverly ignoring the frantic page turning and speed reading taking place around the class. Ever since, when he gives an in-class read, Lee starts the discussion based on a few students, and, if someone says they don't have time, he says, "Then MOVE YOUR FINGER FASTER! One, two three four!" (mimicking finger exercises), and goes on to the next student.

They read. A bit faster than they thought they could. It's annoying to lose an hour to it, but a worthwhile tradeoff.

Posted by: Arnold Williams at January 31, 2005 08:50 PM

When I was in high school they had the brilliant idea of creating a College Preparatory Curriculum. This would show up on your transcript that would be submitted to colleges when you applied. A full four years of English classes was one of the requirements. Never mind that I tested at high school graduate level English skills in the eighth grade. So I was running short of English classes to take when I hit my senior year. They had a reading class. All you had to do was read 12 books and report on them to get a C. The first thing they did was give a reading proficiency test. I cheated. I read part of it twice. The result was 400 words per minute and 90% comprehension. BTW, they cancelled the program after I'd chosen my senior year classes. I could have rescheduled. I could have taken Chemistry earlier and had time for Advanced Chemistry and Advanced Electronics. GRRRR.

Posted by: Jim S at January 31, 2005 09:46 PM

The more interesting something is, the slower I read it. But I can read tremendously fast if I'm killing time, or if there's something I need to know about that's not really very interesting or challenging.

Posted by: John Emerson at January 31, 2005 10:10 PM

I'm struck by how much less my students read for recreation than I did at their age. Part of it I'm sure was my willingness to embrace my inner nerd at an early age, but part was also the absence of computers and video games. I think students are significantly less experienced in the process of reading today. What's really daunting is hearing my aunts talk about reading a novel a week (and I'm talking the great ones) and writing a report on it for English class from sixth grade on. It makes me realize how much television interfered with my development as a reader.

Posted by: Pudentilla at February 1, 2005 05:15 AM

Why a time limit on reading fiction? What's the point of reading fiction if you're going to skim over the author's words. I've never understood why reading fast is supposed to be indicative of a discerning mind.

Posted by: DRK at February 1, 2005 06:39 AM

His surname was "Conan Doyle," not "Doyle." You'd think an English professor would know.

Posted by: jr at February 1, 2005 07:20 AM

I was in grad school in English for several years, and remarkably few of my fellow students either (1) liked to read or (2) did the reading for class.

This turned out not to be a problem, however, because the professors would usually prefer to talk about anything rather than the assigned reading. So if I showed up actually having read, say, The Newcomes (you did say "Victorian Novel Death March," right?), so much the worse for me.

(I had thought we would learn *how* to read like professionals in grad school. Evidently not. So now I'm a frickin' lawyer.)

Posted by: Anderson at February 1, 2005 08:40 AM

Second on what John Emerson said--that's why it took me FOREVER to read even 60 pages in my Russian Politics class a year and change ago. Also second on Pudentilla--when I became a teen, I pretty much dropped reading for fun and watched FAR too much tv. My parents blessed me by swearing that they wouldn't buy a video game system after my uncle's NES (with which my sister and I had become obsessed, when it was "the cool thing") finally broke down.

Any tips from anyone on
A) Reading at least 400 WPM on a regular basis
(word=5 characters) and
A1) not slowing down too much on interesting or
dense materian such thatone can
B) Reading what is necessary to educate oneself
in liberal arts, while still having a social

(While I was in college, which I haven't finished,
I didn't have much of one, even though I
technically belonged to many organizations.)

Posted by: James S. W. at February 2, 2005 10:30 AM

Posted by: at March 14, 2005 11:04 PM

Posted by: at March 14, 2005 11:04 PM

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