Reading… and Reading

There’s a huge difference between being able to decipher letters and grammatical structure and to recognize or say the words on the page and being able to truly read, that is, to understand what those words actually mean. I was reminded of this earlier in the week by events at the university.  Students in the music program cannot take their final performance jury [applied examination] until they have paid all their fees. Similar policies are in effect in other departments.  A number of students discovered when appearing for their juries that they would not be allowed to take the jury.  This practice is not arbitrary or capricious.  The Music Department discovered through bitter experience that, without this policy, a substantial number of students never paid those fees. As a result, course syllabi carry that warning; every applied music instructor is required to announce that policy; and signs are posted on the bulletin boards for the week before finals reminding students of the consequences.

Yet with each succeeding year, more and more students, primarily first year students, discover that the warnings are accurate. This suggests to me that we have a generation – or at least a portion of a generation – that either (1) does not truly comprehend written instructions, or  (2) feels that there is no responsibility to read such instructions, or (3) feels no compunction to follow such instructions, or (4) believes that no instruction applies unless it is specifically addressed verbally to them on repeated occasions, or (5) applies only to everyone else, or (6) possibly all of the above.  This phenomenon is not new.  There have always been individuals who have ignored warning signs, wet paint signs, and the like, but when a growing and significant percentage of college students protest “I didn’t know [whatever]” after being told at the beginning of the semester, reminded in their course syllabus, after being reminded in their last class, and having notices posted on the bulletin boards, then we as a society have a problem… and so do those students.

Part of the problem, frankly, lies in the secondary school system which has become so preoccupied with “student success,” i.e., getting students through, that far too many students enter college with no understanding that failure to do the work – all of the work and not just what they like – and to finish it in the time period required is not only necessary in college, but in the world beyond college. Each year college syllabi become longer and more detailed, partly because incoming college students also cannot or choose not to listen, possibly because it is difficult to hear when one spends most of one’s time with earbuds in both ears.  Now, it appears, many also do not respond to written communication, possibly because both eyes are so locked on  smartphones that nothing written registers, either.  Yet the education gurus respond to this by declaring that faculty need to use more interactive technology to reach students.

At what point will all the “reformers” realize that students have responsibilities… and not just faculty?

9 thoughts on “Reading… and Reading”

  1. G.Thomas says:

    Similarly, my wife works in the financial aid department of a major state university. The instructions in the student’s financial aid packets spell out clearly the documents needed for processing and that the aid will not be forthcoming until all are received. Sure enough, her office is swamped by students every term with problems because they didn’t get their aid, invariably it’s for insufficent documentation. Sometimes the student has even been reminded repeatedly by email, by phone and even face to face meetings including warnings that the failure to provide these documents will mean – NO MONEY!

  2. Dave says:

    Please don’t ‘blame’ the High School teachers; they are under ever increasing pressure too. Recently where I live, it has been strongly suggested that teachers’ pay and promotion prospects should be tied to the results of their students. Those in ‘power’ think this is a wonderful way to ensure students do well on tests, etc. I get angry just thinking about it. I’m glad I’ve retired from the profession.

  3. The problem there is that “results” are usually equated with test scores, as opposed to critical thinking skills and ability to actually use what they’ve theoretically learned.

  4. Matthew Runyon says:

    While a good portion of those reasons are true, and I’ve certainly been amazed at the number of people who seem oblivious to various requirements, I would like to add another reason that I’ve struggled with on a number of occasions: The written, spoken, etc. rules are often meaningless.

    As far back as I can remember, I’ve been informed of various rules and requirements…Only to have the formal requirements immediately withdrawn by the teacher/staffer/official and replaced with rules they feel to be more common-sense. After a while, you start to tune out “officialspeak” and only listen in when the cadence of the speaker returns to normal.

    It’s not just school. I still remember being utterly shocked when I learned as a ten year old that speed limit signs were supposedly indicating the /maximum/ speed, because I’d almost never seen anyone drive under the limit. For years I thought the signs indicated the /minimum/ speed because that’s how everyone I ever saw acted.

    At my job, there are a number of things we are not supposed to do…Except for this client, and that client, and this client over here, and we end up with agents who never realized, working at the office for ten, twenty years, that they theoretically weren’t supposed to do something. It’s on the official rules list, but every account they’d ever worked on it hadn’t been followed.

    I never even saw the official Standard Operating Procedures for my primary client for almost a year, because the document was close to useless.

    So, there are rules, and rules. Now, I went out of my way (and still do) to figure out which are which, but it’s still difficult to read or listen to officialspeak, because my brain automatically tries to discard it as worthless.

  5. R. Hamilton says:

    This is not a new phenomenon, and not exclusive to educational institutions. Decades ago, when timesharing computers with many terminals were still common, it would be routine to place a “message of the day” on the system, that would be displayed when users logged in. Scheduled outages would be announced there. Nevertheless, and despite a user base far above average literacy (in multiple languages often) and intelligence, the phone would ring off the hook when a scheduled outage started. Why? Because people take notices for granted and quickly stop reading them.

    I’m almost surprised that a modern educational institution would at some point recognize the need to stop protecting the students from the consequences of their willful ignorance. Sadly, most of the staff will still be solidly on the side of public policies that attempt to protect everyone from everything, at massive expense in both money and liberty…and apparently, at the further expense of the subsidized proliferation of those singularly ill-suited to look after their own survival under less contrived conditions. Breeding sheep as a power base at the expense of the productive is an old game, but very annoying…

    1. Grey says:

      I agree with R. Hamilton – we are bombarded with so much legalese and arse-covering nonsense, that it starts getting automatically ignored. When was the last time you read a EULA when you installed a piece of software? You just scroll to the end and click accept.

      (That doesn’t excuse anything, of course, and it sounds like the kids in LEM’s post were exposed to the message in many different forms designed to punch through the ingrained apathy.)

  6. Jim S says:

    I believe, based on my own professional experience in local law enforcement, that it’s a mostly a combination of points 4 & 5; in essence, the rules don’t apply to me unless and until you specifically tell me they do. I only slightly blame the current “everyone’s special/everyone succeeds” attitudes, because I’ve seen it in people from every generation since 1900 or so. As one example, if a court appearance is mandatory, I circle the court address on the summons AND specifically call the violator’s attention to the location. They still go to the wrong courthouse.

    I think that R. Hamilton and Grey also have a valid point: warnings, caveats, policies, and the like are so often buried in such a thicket of legalistic papers and “routine” announcements that they’re easily ignored. But that in no way excuses a student from being unaware of the requirement and obligation to pay their fees, or anyone else from other obligations buried therein.

  7. Keilani Ludlow says:

    I have been amazed at the amount of blah blah blah I have to read for each and every class. As some others have alluded to, there is so much fluff packed around the things that I actually need to know, I sometimes miss the important parts. I agree with the need to cut back on all the disclaimers and the filler, and just put down the vital information.

    Additionally, we live in an age when speech and writing are continually shortened. Blurbs, tweets, posts, updates, texts, all abbreviated without necessarily being concise. Our brains, or at least the brains of the upcoming students, are being trained to focus on short bursts. My sons regularly are only given sections of the books they are supposed to be reading in Lit. classes at school. This is due to lack of time (Common Core focuses highly on writing without the reading necessary to become a good writer), lack of materials (not enough money to purchase enough books for all students so they just read them in class) and so on. It damages the ability to focus for longer writings and creates the “automatic scan” portion of the brain so that students get in the habit of skipping over the main portion of anything and just looking for the bold spots or headlines.

    Ultimately, until held accountable, it makes sense that many will not read what they need to.

    As a side note – I find it quite amusing how closely some of your books parallel your life experience. I know, this is built-in subconscious or conscious material you are using, but still, after recently re-reading Of Tangible Ghosts and Ghost of the Revelator, it was especially funny to read this blog post.

  8. Victoria True says:

    The problem is I think endemic to the manner in which our society is maturing. My Torts professor in 1L gave the a perfect example. He purchased a Batman costume for his young son, and the tab had a disclaimer: “Cape does enable wearer to fly”. While funny on one level it was actually quite frightening in what it implied.
    1) That past experience had informed manufacturer’s that without this disclaimer they might find themselves in court defending against liability. This is an expensive process which then increases product cost regardless of the outcome of the case.
    2) That a warning of this kind is fairly useless to the a large portion of the target audience. The costume was for a 4 year old who could not be reasonably expected to have literacy level to understand the warning.
    3) The label was easily overlooked, so that the adult would be unlikely to read it.
    4) As many of us from the geek contingent pointed out, Batman cannot fly. He possesses (in the primary comic arc) no superpowers. No cape of his would allow you to fly without auxiliary equipment.
    5) The implied presumption that a manufacturer or service provider can have no expectation of fundamental intellect on the part of the consumer.
    The end result is a world full of warnings, disclaimers and caveats that are often misunderstood or used to actively mislead.
    But in the end the absence of personal accountability as a fundamental premise means that an individual does not intrinsically hold themselves accountable for paying for what they desire unless forced to, and disclaims accountability for active engagement in understanding the direct and indirect costs of their acquisitions. The solution to this problem I think is presented succinctly in Gravity Dreams. Allow people to experience the consequences of abdicating personal responsibility fully. Make information available, and hold people accountable for pursuing enlightened self interest. If they fail to the consequences should be realized.

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