Assigned Readings and Privilege

The issue of course design and assigned readings has been occupying my deeper thoughts recently. At the start of my current course there was some talk about it, and this blog post by Kate Bowles from a few days ago has fueled some of my ideas. Kate suggests a great idea for students at the start of any given course to provide individually contextual resources in lieu of providing introductions. It’s an especially nice idea because the act of “introducing yourself” is kind of embedded in participants’ description of their context and in their contribution of resources that are meaningful to them. However, I don’t see the innovation of participant contributed resources as being mutually exclusive to instructor provided resources. It would be unwise to do away assigned readings.

Perhaps there’s not some great anti-course-readings movement out there that’s sweeping across education. But, like I said, the idea got me thinking, and I do think there’s a few important points to be made about why course readings are not evil, and how perhaps they can be salvaged while educators bring in much needed learner contribution. If assigned readings are better understood maybe it will lead to better use.

Kate describes course readings in terms of a habitual sign of expertise, and points out the risk of focusing “our entire teaching strategy on replicating our own expertise in the minds of others”. These are valid points if we’re going to view the learner ↔ teacher relationship as human to human. I suggest, that with the presence of the term ‘expert’, the relationship here is primarily human to body-of-knowledge.

Now, keep in mind that non-human entities have agency and can learn. They are encapsulated processes in themselves. And, a body of knowledge is one such encapsulated process.

Bodies of Knowledge, or Topics, consist of experience (change in experience, actually, and thus I still prefer the term ‘value’, but…matters for another post), including expert decisions about how to represent that topic. Selected readings are one of the ways that learners access a body of knowledge. This may come off as habitual, as chances are assigned readings will reflect long-standing, basic information about that subject area – cores tend to be much less dynamic than fringes. To me, assigned readings are not like replicating one person’s expertise, or signing a contract (grading and measuring learning certainly are), it’s more like establishing a relationship with a body of knowledge. When an instructor decides some readings for a course they are executing that body of knowledge, representing it through the course readings for learners to initiate a relationship with.

When entities undergo relationship, it is never fully nor exhaustive. We have to encounter other entities in some way. And, to be sure, if course readings are the only way learners relate to a topic, then it’s probably a limited way to experience a topic. They’ll only experience the basics, being out of touch with the current environment. This holds true for the opposite, though – the absence of expert input will leave participants only exposed to novice contributions. They’ll experience only the contextual side, developing a mere surface appreciation for the topic. The better questions in this case are how to use various types of readings and how learners are prepared to encounter these readings (ie: how secondary schools prepare students to handle information). In including the potential for both sides, the problem of assigned readings can thus be addressed depending on what best suits the specific course.

There are some implications of eliminating assigned readings as a policy:

  • Something about it just seems illogical – I want to hear what the expert has to say, especially if I’m paying for some course and, presumably, paying for access to such a person’s time. In my experience, more often than not in a class where instructor presence is particularity low (which also seems to be more often than not these days) one or two students will begin to dominate forums with resources, notes and discussion topics. Expert dominance is traded for a limited number of participant dominance.
  • To strictly get rid of assigned readings enforces a Human Privileged view of learning. This may not be so bad in itself, but it does raise some concerns. Non-human entities can lean – Can they, should they be ‘educated’? That is to say, do they have intentions? Is this the same as having agency? If topics are merely at the controls of human learners, suppressing and allowing how the different sides of them that are allowed to relate, it can call into question the very idea of non-human entities being able to learn. The definition of ‘learn’ would become wide enough to simply use the word ‘change’.
  • Bodies of Knowledge don’t only serve educational purposes. They serve practice. Often instructors’ lives overlap between educators of the field and participants in the field. To expect that the instructor should participate in the field from an educational perspective will shape the view of that body of knowledge in an Educational Privileged way. With practice less represented, the change in experience at the core of any topic will be more difficult to observe. It means distorting a topic because we want novices to learn in a specified way. At the very least, we have to be aware of this and be sure that this is how we want to collect and gather information for future generations.
  • The structure of relation doesn’t seem to fit other emerging theories. As learners, do we want to change our environment or change ourselves? To fight our environment, or to live within it? Both are useful in different situations, but maybe this is the point…when we declare something off-limits it removes the ability to use it situationally, or to connect in such a way. We start to see and expect other objects, entities and resources as having to adapt to us, the human, rather than us existing ecologically within our environment. I realize that this is all quite theoretical, and I don’t mean to present it so dramatically, but I do think it matters.
  • This issue is an example of a common occurrence in the way educational change is proceeding recently – too often rejecting the past, rather than realizing that traditional education wasn’t bad in itself, it was just limited. It couldn’t adapt to the need of so many new situations and new technological affordances. Education doesn’t need to throw away past practice, it needs to and has been adding to it greatly. We’re capable of a liberation of education here & now, not a shift. Don’t throw away stuff, we may need it. It’s all about Education from Situation.

3 thoughts on “Assigned Readings and Privilege

  1. Goodness me, this is terrific — so much to think about here. I just wanted to pursue a couple of points for clarification.

    In a learning community where there’s considerable expertise around the table, such as #cfhe12 (which is what sparked my interest in addressing this question), I’m not sure the binary of expert v. novice works so well. The question then extends — are there some situations where we’re more confident of this binary, than others? For example, do we need different approaches for introductory or transition courses, than we do for graduate courses? And between these extremes, how might the middle ground be staked out? When do we feel students are approaching the capacity of beginning researchers? And how do we treat students equitably in all this?

    The practical responsibility that your post raises for me is the need to create K-12 and then foundational tertiary curriculum that builds and extends learner capacity to exercise judgment when faced with the body of knowledge (and I love the idea of this non-human entity having a capacity to learn, if I take your point correctly.)

    In my own teaching I’ve found that by making the core, shared activity searching for credible resources to bring to the class, rather than focusing on all reading the same thing assigned by me, I have been constantly surprised (and I think students have surprised themselves) by the acuity of their judgment about expert knowledge. As I also ask students to comment on and explain the reading they use as evidence for their case, it also turns out they do more of “the reading”. I haven’t found that it’s been difficult to express my relative expertise in the topic, in responding to their choices. So I think perhaps the value for money proposition isn’t at risk. And perhaps it makes a little clearer that the value for money resides in expert judgment in dialogue with resources, not in the resources themselves that are already freely available (the question so many people are now asking about why people should bother with a college education, and not just read the course materials for themselves online.)

    So I can exercise/model/adjust that expert judgment in relation to resources I contribute, or resources other people contribute.

    This is such an interesting conversation. And no, I don’t think there’s a move to sweep away assigned resources either!



    • Thanks for commenting, Kate. I think you’re right about the binary not working so well. All the more reason to take it situationally. Maybe the better distinction is in how well someone knowledgeable in a subject can express their expertise in relation to student choices and contexts, balancing that bridge between learner contributed content and core topic content. That might be what you’re getting at in your description of your classroom, and I would certainly consider this type of dialog as access to an expert. I think I’ve expanded my thoughts on this, thanks.

      Can you think of other categorical ways in which you express your expertise, or could it mostly just be described as within the dialogue?
      (edit: ah, I can follow ideas on your post’s comments)


  2. I think the clearest example of the way in which expertise is routinely—and sometimes careless—expressed is grading. This is an issue that has vexed critics of Coursera’s peer grading strategy, which does look a bit like offshoring. I’m cautious about this, however as I think my role as an educator is to encourage students to become progressively more capable of exercising good judgment about their own work—but realistically that judgment may not be there at an early stage.

    I really don’t mind everyone reading the same thing, and I don’t even mind if it’s provided by me. I think my reflection in this area right at the moment is why we do this so habitually — why it’s treated as a kind of professional failure to choose to avoid it. Personally I’ve found the ceiling doesn’t fall in and the outcomes are good. So I’m curious as to the kind of superstitious attachment we have to it.

    I was discussing your blog and these questions with a colleague today, and I can definitely confirm that the assigned course reading is well protected!


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