He didn’t assign the readings

Alan Jacobs recently wrote about a former colleague at Wheaton College who during a class decided to skip on a couple of the assigned readings. This colleague

devoted two weeks to studying a book and then, at the end of that time, said to his class, “I don’t think that went as well as it should have. Let’s do it again. We’ll have to leave out the next book or two on the syllabus.” Some students — I don’t know how many — went ballistic over this. That’s not what the syllabus says! I’ve already bought those other books and now we’re not even going to read them! Some faculty and administrators became concerned over this “lack of professionalism”; they wondered whether Wheaton could afford to have faculty “the students don’t really respect.” Me, I just wished I had the courage to go off-script that far;….

Now, the main point of Jacobs’s post was about racism at Wheaton. Jacobs’s colleague was black, and Jacobs suggested that his colleague likely got more push back from administrators because he was black than he would have if white. I’m not commenting on that aspect of the post.

What I want to comment on is why it’s usually wrong to skip assigned readings.

One, books cost money. Sometimes a lot of money, sometimes not a lot of money. Not all students–even, I imagine, at Wheaton–are independently wealthy.

Two, in some cases, a student may choose to take a class based on the assigned readings. I can’t say for sure that I ever did, but when I registered for classes, sometimes I did look forward to certain of the assigned readings. I would have been upset if the readings hadn’t been assigned. The obvious retort is that I could have read the book anyway. But that neglects what one gets from reading a book in class. Sometimes classroom discussion or the guidance of the instructor helps one understand and appreciate a book. Maybe that’s not true for everyone, but it was sometimes true for me. One of my favorite books of all time–a collection of short stories, Dubliners–I read for an English lit class and I’m convinced I would not have understood or appreciated many of James Joyce’s allusions. I might not even have understood some of the stories.

Three, “going off script” and changing the syllabus means the instructor planned poorly. Maybe it’s sometimes necessary to go off script. In at least one class I taught when I was an adjunct, it would have behooved me to go off script because I had too poorly anticipated the classroom dynamics. And while doing so would have been admitting failure, it was more of a failure for me to keep on as I was doing. So I get that sometimes it needs to be done. But it’s still a mark of poor planning.*

There is such a thing as over-entitlement among undergraduate students (and especially among graduate students, but that’s a different story). And part of going to college is learning that life isn’t always fair and learning how to adapt to changing circumstances. I get it. But instructors need to realize that they have an obligation, too. Whether my admonition actually applies to the case Jacobs is talking about or not, I don’t know because I don’t know the specifics. But on the facts as Jacobs relates them, the students’ complaints weren’t baseless.

*Not exactly the same thing, but as an undergrad I was particularly frustrated with some professors’ practice of changing, at the last minute, an in-class exam to a take-home exam. Take-home exams are MORE WORK. Even if the professor says “I only want you to spend an hour on it,” they’re going to grade you as if you had more than an hour to work on it. If a student has to work, he or she likely has to plan a tight schedule to balance work and studies, and fitting in even an extra hour of schoolwork can be hard.

Photo credit: U.S. War Naval College. 120830-N-LE393-132 NEWPORT, R.I. (August 30, 2012) A U.S. Naval War College student syllabus sits on a table during a class. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Eric Dietrich/Released). Creative Commons license 2.0.


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Gabriel Conroy [pseudonym] is an ex-graduate student. He is happily married with no children and has about a million nieces and nephews. The views expressed by Gabriel are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of his spouse or employer. ...more →

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32 thoughts on “He didn’t assign the readings

  1. Skipping a book I assigned is something I have never and never would do because I know students will lose their heads about it.

    Realize though that this has consequences, which fall almost entirely on the students. By not allowing the instructor flexibility, the instructor is forced to shoehorn material that might be better left out. I think it’s probably worse to cover books due to slavish obedience to the syllabus when the instructor’s later judgment says otherwise.

    But yeah, I wouldn’t do it. If it were me, I’d have probably left some more flexibility in the syllabus. I’d disclose that the book list might change depending on how far we got and what direction the class takes but always give at least two weeks of advance notice for any reading. Of course, students aren’t exactly a fan of that sort of thing either, but it’s less likely to get escalated to the administration and the larger internet.

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    • I wouldn’t have a problem with the “maybe we’ll cover it clause” in a syllabus provided the student isn’t led to buy it believing it will be used or believing that it might or might not be used, but better buy it now because it might not be available when we find out.

      But then, I’m coming at this from a pre-internet perspective. You no longer necessarily have to buy everything during the first two weeks or so the books are stocked in the book store before they’re all sent back.

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  2. The point about books costing money is what struck me, as well. Even if it’s a common book that could be picked up for $5 in a used bookstore if all you wanted to do was read it, the classroom copies often cost $30-$50 or more – each – because of the literary commentary that’s included in them. Shelling out $60 on assigned readings that are never used in class in a valid reason for students to be upset.

    I can understand the professor’s reasons and rationale, and they make some sense – better to read and understand one book than to cover a book without understanding or gaining anything from it – but he may not have thought about the practical realities of student life and they were affected by his decision.

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  3. Depends on the book, I say.

    If’n it’s a book that everybody ought to read, it’s good that the kid has it. “Read it over the summer/winter break”, we can tell them. “Pay attention to what Gorgias says about the responsibilities of wrestling teachers!”

    Now, of course, that works primarily for books that cost less than 10 bucks.

    If I was told to buy a book for $75 (or more) and then told “yeah, we don’t use that one”, I could easily find myself getting pissed off that the college professor and the college book store were colluding and running a racket.

    I mean, I’m pretty sure that there haven’t been any significant advancements in art history since 2012, so we should still be able to use the 2012 book instead of Art History (Updated For 2016). So when “History of Philosophy” or “The Great Thinkers of the Reformation” put out new books every two years, I get pissed off. I’m pissed off right now just thinking about it.

    But there are a ton of books out there that should result in you buying another couple of cinderblocks and another board even if you don’t get to them in class.

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    • I mean, I’m pretty sure that there haven’t been any significant advancements in art history since 2012, so we should still be able to use the 2012 book instead of Art History (Updated For 2016). So when “History of Philosophy” or “The Great Thinkers of the Reformation” put out new books every two years, I get pissed off. I’m pissed off right now just thinking about it.

      , your and ‘s (and ) points probably depend on what the subject is. I come at this from my liberal arts background, where there usually weren’t breathtaking advances from the 5th edition to the 6th, and even the 4th and maybe even the 3d would be serviceable. I suppose a different field would have different criteria for that sort of thing.

      If I ever do teach again, it will most likely be history (my field), and I’d probably make room for older editions of the textbook. The one I used when I last taught (2009) was actually quite good and cost only about $35.00 (not the $100 or so that similar textbooks usually cost….I’m not quite sure how it could be so good and yet so cheap).

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    • And in some areas of science (e.g., molecular biology), the problem is pretty much the opposite – the field changes so fast that any book at the higher levels of university is going to be out of date by the time it’s published. So if it wasn’t a sort of racket, as you say, they could use the same book for 5 years and cover the more recent advances using journal articles, and it would save money for the students without loss of quality.

      And math is even worse. The basic principles of calculus don’t change year to year. You don’t need a different book (at around $120) every year! You could keep the same one for 10 years without loss!

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      • When I was an undergrad and ran into a wall with Ordinary Differential Equations I moseyed down to the off-campus used book store and bought a textbook on the topic from about 1950. It was perhaps a quarter the size of the assigned textbook, covering the same material, and was much clearer. The assigned text had a bunch of filler that just got in the way, and the imperative is to justify a new text on an established subject by presenting the material in a different way. Not necessarily a better way: just a different way.

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  4. Note that on the takehome exam it somewhat depends on the culture of the institution, if the institution works it right you can have folks follow a time limit (indeed the take home exams were often open book as well, so being takehome allowed on access to more reference material). At Cal-Tech at least in the 1970s most finals were open book takehome. type. Of course Cal-Tech has an honor code. (Also I do have to admit that the student body at Cal-Tech is very much a high end student body).

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    • To me, open-book exams were always harder because it put more pressure to know the facts. Or to be more precise, it lowered the premium on knowing the facts. My competitive advantage as a student was that I was pretty good at memorizing things, like my lecture notes from class or the key arguments (plus some supporting details) from the readings. That’s another reason why I was probably so irked by the take-home bait and switch. At the same time, others might have done better because maybe they got test anxiety.

      To the point you were making about honor codes and managing things in one hour’s time, etc., my main gripe is with the last minute switch and not with take home exams per se. It’s one thing to say at the beginning of the semester, “the midterm will be a take home” and quite another to say, on the day of the midterm, “you know, I can see some of you are nervous, let’s take a vote and see how many of you want to do the exam as a take home” and the vote is something like everybody saying “take home” and me saying “in class.”

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  5. As someone who’s spend a long time being a poor college student and is going to become a teacher (and one who will certainly conduct last-minute revisions to his curriculum), I have very mixed feelings.

    But my big take-away is that this is a symptom of a larger problem (or two, considering the racism that’s the focus of the original article):

    Schools make very shitty decisions regarding the required materials and rarely take cost sufficiently into account. For my teacher training program, I had to buy two different books, each of which had about thirty educational case studies, so that I could read and write a response to two studies in one book and a third in the other. Not, mind you because anything in those case studies was particularly important. Just to practice my writing skills so I’ll do better on a qualifying exam.

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    • Yikes, that is a waste. If the actual content of the case studies wasn’t that important, you’d figure they’d either have you buy just one book, or find your own case studies.

      For the record, despite all my complaining about last-minute revisions and “poor planning,” sometimes it is indeed better to change midstream when something isn’t working. (And I really would need to know more about the actual class in the situation Jacobs is describing before being so quick to judge.)

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  6. Over at HItcoffee, Murali made a point I hadn’t thought of but probably should have:

    Sometimes, if you don’t get the earlier book, you will be especially lost in the later stuff. When I was teaching philosophy of law, it was crucial that the students got the both the core and particular nuances of Hart’s argument. Or else they wouldn’t have been able to see where his opponents went wrong (when they did in fact go wrong) and what they got right.

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  7. I have some sympathy for reasons two and three, but number one is a textbook example of a sunk cost. Once the books are purchased the question becomes which choice is of greater value to the students, re-doing the first book and skipping the next two or pushing ahead. I lean toward the latter, but don’t have a strong opinion.

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    • I’ll have to think on that point a bit, perhaps because I’m still fuzzy on what sunk costs are and why doting too much on them is a fallacy. (You didn’t say “sunk cost fallacy,” but I assume that’s what you were intending. Please correct if I’m mistaken.)

      Fallacy or no, it seems my #1 is an example of two sunk costs. The first is the students’. They’ve presumably bought the book (and let’s assume the window for getting a full refund is over). If the professor presses on to that book, the students won’t get as much of a benefit from that book because they’ll have (per Murali’s example I quoted above) a poor understanding of the material. Or presumably most of them would have a poor understanding. Each classroom usually has a talented tenth that groks the material and is ready to move on.

      The second sunk cost is the instructor’s. He/she has already devoted precious course time to the students getting a concept, and they (or most of them) don’t get it on schedule. Yet the instructor also has book no. 2 looming on the syllabus–and the ire that will come if he/she chooses not to teach it.

      Whether I adequately understand your point or not, I do tend to lean the same way as you, but probably feel more strongly about it, and say the professor should push through. But all that might depend on the subject.

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      • A sunk cost is just a cost that has already been incurred and can’t be recovered. If you sit through the first hour of a terrible movie, you can’t get that hour back. If you think that the movie will improve, then it makes sense to keep going. The fallacy part comes in when people choose to sit through the next 30 minutes of that terrible movie solely because they don’t want to waste the previous hour. It’s already been wasted.

        I purposefully didn’t use the term fallacy, because I don’t know if it is a fallacy in this case. If re-reading the first book would contribute to a better overall course experience, then refusing to do so simply because of the cost of the books would be in line with the fallacy interpretation. You are right that the first reading of the book, good or bad, is itself a sunk cost and that the professor may well be stuck in his own sunk cost fallacy. And that’s why I lean towards just pushing on.

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  8. 1.) Refund the cost of the unread books. Or purchase them back at full price.
    2.) If students really want to read the book with the support of the prof, insist that the prof extend office hours to support students who opt for it.
    3.) Factor this into professor evaluations but leave room for the sort of shit that happens that will require going off-script.

    ETA: An added benefit of my #1 and #2 is that it will incentivize better planning. The university won’t look kindly upon a professor who is constantly having to buy back books and will either train him up or let him go. And professors will not take kindly to giving up extra time and will hopefully avoid putting themselves in that position.

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    • Not sure a university would have funds allocated for that sort of thing, unless you want the prof to refund the books out-of-pocket. But setting aside issues of bureaucracy and budgeting, I think your solution is the best answer to this issue. Students get what they need, and the prof gets flexibility.

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    • I’m mostly with Katherine, but with a partial objection to your point #2: The class time is noted on the course timetable. Students may not necessarily have the time available for whenever the prof chooses office hours. And it’s not just guidance from the prof. It’s also the experience of learning the book as a class. I downplayed (or didn’t mention) that in my OP, but there is something about learning it at the class time.

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      • Agreed. None of these are perfect solutions. Perhaps to state my point more clearly…

        IF a prof goes off script and fails to read a book in class, at least give students an option for a guided reading group. It isn’t the same as the in-class reading and might not work for everyone, but it is better than just doing nothing.

        Of course, the question of if the prof should go off script remains. I think that decision really needs to be made on a case-by-case basis.

        As an educator (admittedly at the complete opposite end of the spectrum) who hasn’t written a lesson plan since grad school, I sympathize with a desire for flexibility as an instructor. I couldn’t imagine plotting out a semester-long course. Especially for a course that is high on class participation. I’d hate to have to say, “This is a great dialogue guy. We could probably go on for hours and really engage in some profound learning. But the syllabus has us moving on so…”

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  9. Hi all: Thanks for the comments. I have to go to bed, and tomorrow is busy, but I’ll try to pick up tomorrow or Friday.

    ETA: PS: I’ll definitely read your comments, but it might take me a while to respond.

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  10. I took a class on Utopias in college. We had about ten books to read there, and it wouldn’t have really broken the bank if we stopped on one (or had some to read outside of class).

    I audited (read took notes for someone) a Russian History class. They read books for “flavor and context”, just as much as anything else. Films were assigned on a “pick one of three” basis.

    I took notes for someone in a Shakespeare Class — here, the choice to do more plays (and let the class vote on them) cost the students zilcho.

    There is also some value to asking: “if you didn’t understand the PRIMARY book, how the heck are you supposed to understand the sequel?”

    I’m broadly supporting the professor, though I would really ask that he use the now optional book as extra credit. Because, truly, he bears some responsibility for the class going offcourse.

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  11. In grad school I had a related problem with a professor he had a 10+page (may have even been 20 really ridiculous) reading list, and a syllabus with general areas that would be covered and when. so say for a certain topic he had 6 readings you had to either guess and hope that was the ones you read he used in class or try to read them all which was a literal impossibility time wise the program I was in we were carrying 18 hours (plus factor in finding and copying all the articles). He also assigned 14+ page term paper topics (the only thing we were graded on) one week out from when they were due. God I hated him okay rant over

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    • This was extremely common in History. Generally speaking we were given what I’d call a bibliography for an entire subject area [sometimes] separated into primary and secondary sources. Kindly professors assigned a text to different students to “master” and teach back to the class… but all the texts were expected to be read (somehow, somewhere, somewhen).

      What surprised the neophyte Marchmaine was that the secondary sources were the ones that really needed mastering… so that we might participate in the “conversation”

      I remember being positively amazed at two colleagues who exemplified mastery of two different graduate poles… the first was a genius virtuoso with the primaries, ah… such a gifted writer with incredible insights; the second was like a bookie for the mob regarding the secondaries… he could give you the odds of ascendancy of a particular school of thought past/present/future and where exactly any given professor stood with an uncanny accuracy. Both became respected tenured professors, but their contributions are/were wildly different.

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