Are there any freshmen reading this?

The new school year is approaching and it’s approaching more rapidly than I would prefer. I keep getting email messages from students asking about the reading list and assignments for my classes, and I keep having to email them back and explain that I am still trying to figure out what the assignments and the reading list are going to look like. Interestingly enough, these “extra eager” students are enrolled in the online class I’m teaching.

Anyway, as is typical of the new year, there’s a discussion right now about the extent to which first year students do (or, as the argument goes, don’t) read. I say this is “typical” because usually about now, someone posts to the WPA-L mailing list and other places a list of “things entering college freshmen don’t know,” which lists stuff like “freshmen have never heard of Richard Nixon,” an assertion based on nothing and also one that doesn’t seem to matter a whole lot.

This year though, there’s a different twist: the posts are revolving around Tommy Lee Goes to College, the latest “reality” show about rock-n-roll guy Tommy Lee (who, like a lot of other celebrities nowadays, seems to be a lot more famous now for “being vaguely famous” in the past rather than actually doing something to make him famous in the present) going to college at the University of Nebraska. One of my colleagues posted a message to the WPA-L list reflecting on the show, noting with despair that “freshmen just don’t read.”

I posted back to the list about this, and as I said there, I think it’s worth remembering that the Tommy Lee show is A TELEVISION SHOW. Even though they say it’s about “reality,” it’s most certainly not really about reality. Thus is the nature of the genre, which I generally do not enjoy at all (though The Amazin Race was pretty cool). And while I haven’t seen the show (and I won’t, unless there is nothing else on TV and I have absolutely positively have nothing– and I mean NOTHING– else to do), I would have to think that it’s pretty heavily edited If you were going to make some choices about what to show Tommy and his new college pals doing, would you show them all studying?

And besides all that, it’s pretty hard to make any clear assumptions about the concepts of “freshmen” or even “reading,” at least around here. EMU is probably best described as a “comprehensive and opportunity-granting regional university,” and what that means in terms of freshmen here is we’ve got a mixed bag. Sure, we have “traditional” college freshmen– 18 or so years old, middle-class kids– but I’ll bet this group makes up just about half of incoming first year students here. We certainly don’t have as many “traditional” freshmen as that quaint liberal arts school in Ann Arbor; our students come in all ages, races, and socio-economic backgrounds.

Because EMU is an “opportunity granting” kind of school, we do admit a lot of dramatically underprepared students, and a lot of these students indeed “don’t read” or do much of anything else related to the college experience, largely because they never were asked to do this kind of work before. Some of them will get their proverbial “acts” together, taking advantages of various tutoring and support services and teachers and such and they’ll go on with their college career. Some won’t and they’ll leave college to go and do something else. And to tell the truth, I think giving students the chance to discover that college is not for them (at least in the moment they are in school) is in itself an “opportunity.”

On the other hand, because it is a bargain, costing literally half as much as U of M (and I like to think we’re a good school, too), we attract a lot of perfectly prepared and “normal” students who just don’t have a lot of money and/or who are working themselves through school.

As far as reading goes: well, this post is long enough without me going down that path. I guess I’ll just say that when we say that “freshmen don’t read,” it seems to me that it depends a lot on what you mean by “freshmen” (see above) and “read” (does skimming count? how about skipping around? what sorts of things do they have to read to count as reading? etc.).

Interestingly enough, literally while I was reading this conversation on WPA-L, Annette was telling me about a blurb for a book she saw in Newsweek. It was My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student by Rebekah “not her name” Nathan. Here’s a blurb from that web site about the book:

Placing her own experiences and those of her classmates into a broader context drawn from national surveys of college life, Nathan finds that today’s students face new challenges to which academic institutions have not adapted. At the end of her freshman year, she has an affection and respect for students as a whole that she had previously reserved only for certain individuals. Being a student, she discovers, is hard work. But she also identifies fundamental misperceptions, misunderstandings, and mistakes on both sides of the educational divide that negatively affect the college experience.

By focusing on the actual experiences of students, My Freshman Year offers a refreshing alternative to the frequently divisive debates surrounding the political, economic, and cultural significance of higher education—as well as a novel perspective from which to look at the achievements and difficulties confronting America’s colleges and universities in the twenty-first century.

There’s a decent article in Inside Higher Ed about Nathan’s book and experience. In terms of the whole “freshmen don’t read” issue, here’s an interesting passage:

In the classroom, Nathan found that she sometimes engaged in the same behavior that had driven her crazy as a professor and that annoys faculty members everywhere: feeling tired or coming to class without a firm sense of the reading. These experiences have made her a different kind of teacher, she says.

“I really did not understand about the reading thing,� she said. “If you ask most professors at most schools, they will tell you that students don’t read.� Nathan said that she, like her fellow students, did the readings when there was a direct relationship between the readings and the course. Obvious ways to make that connection are quizzes and essay assignments. But Nathan says less obvious ways, in which readings are directly related to key themes, can work as well.

“You have to make it useful in the classroom,� she said, “not just reading for reading’s sake.�


In any event, Nathan’s book sounds like it might be interesting, er, reading.

5 thoughts on “Are there any freshmen reading this?”

  1. I tend to take (audit) a class each semester. It reminds me about the reading. Usually I’m learning how a teacher approaches the content or the context, but I’ve noticed that it’s quite difficult to make reading a priority if there’s no mechanism to push me.

  2. Confused question, because I’m seeing your usage more and more frequently, Steve: when it’s used as a noun (and not as an adjective, as in “my freshman year”), isn’t the plural of “freshman” “freshmen”?

  3. Nah, this is what happens when I don’t proofread my own writing carefully enogh, Mike. I think that my useage (which you’ll noticed I corrected) before was just flat-out wrong, so I don’t know if there’s a shift to “freshman” instead of “freshmen.” Really, what I should have said is “first year student,” which is a term I personally prefer.

    Oh, and I added a link to that Inside Higher Ed article, too.

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