The Decline of Reading (in My Classes)

trollope-wardenI’ve been ordering next year’s books — not because I’m that ahead of the game in general but because early ordering enables the bookstore to retain leftover copies from this year’s stock and students to get cash back at the end of term if they have books we’re using again. I’m teaching a couple of the same classes again in 2023-24 (my first-year writing class and Mystery & Detective Fiction) and so it isn’t too hard to get those orders sorted out. While I was at it, I thought I’d also make my mind up about which novels I’d assign for the Austen to Dickens course (this year I’m doing Dickens to Hardy — once upon a time I taught them both every year, but now I do them in alternate years) . . . and this has had me thinking about how my reading lists have changed over the past twenty years.

I don’t mean substantively, although over the years titles have come and gone and been offered in many different combinations. But going back over recent book lists to get ideas, what stood out to me the most is that in the early 2000s I routinely assigned six novels in these one-term courses, often including one really long one (Vanity Fair, Bleak House or Middlemarch, say). Then around 2008 I went down to five, which remained standard for my book lists until 2020, again usually including one of the big ones but often balancing it with one pretty short one (The WardenCranford, or Silas Marner, for example).

Then in Fall 2020, when we “pivoted” to online teaching, I took the widespread advice to reduce students’ workload, both because online pedagogy is more laborious for everyone (because of things like written discussion boards replacing more impromptu in-person discussions) and because of the additional stress of the pandemic. That term I assigned just four novels. I taught the 19th-century fiction class online again in Fall 2021 — and again I assigned four novels. Both times one of the four was a big one, but overall, there was less reading than I used to require.

OUP MiddlemarchWhen I came back to in-person teaching last term, I was wary about going back to pre-pandemic norms. Things in general didn’t really seem normal, after all. So once again I assigned just four novels. OK, one of them was Middlemarch! (But again, I used to assign Middlemarch routinely as one of five or even six.) My impression was that for many of the students, this reduced reading load was a lot — overwhelming, even, for some of them — and so I have ordered just four novels again for next year (although one of them is David Copperfield).

What this has me wondering about is what has changed. Was I delusional, back in 2003 or 2004, thinking that most of the class was actually getting through six Victorian novels in a term? My memory of those years is that they included some of the best classes I’ve taught: lively, engaged, enthusiastic, with students often showing up again and again to work with me. Perhaps that was just a very self-selecting fraction of them; perhaps I focused too much on those who were keen and keeping up and the others coasted through somehow (SparkNotes, maybe?) without my being any the wiser. What about all those years I assigned five novels? Again, I always thought things were going fine, if not for everyone, then for most of the class. I certainly don’t remember complaints about the reading load in those days, but over the last two years I have had quite a few students contact me to express concern about their ability to get through, and also just to comprehend, the novels on my reading

Did the pandemic make that big a difference, with its disruptions to students’ learning and study habits perhaps undermining their patience or capacity for sustained reading? Are students working a lot more outside of school now than they were in 2008 or 2015? Is it an ongoing generational shift, as the trend towards easier modes of media consumption continues? Or is it a question of my own lowered expectations lowering their expectations — of their classes and of themselves? If I put five novels back on the list, would they rise to the occasion? I do feel there have been losses as the number of titles we work on goes down, because there’s less variety, but I have heard the wisdom that less content actually means more learning. I could address the variety problem by replacing the one big novel with two shorter novels, I suppose, but I am reluctant to give up the chance to work through one of the long ones, not least because that kind of doorstopper is one of the literary glories of the period — and not many students are likely to try any of the really big ones on their own, so my class is a rare opportunity to offer them that experience.

copperfieldI could still add a fifth book to next year’s list if I want to. So far, I’m committed to Pride and PrejudiceJane EyreDavid Copperfield, and The Warden. In 2017 I assigned Persuasion, Vanity FairJane EyreNorth and South, and Great Expectations for the same course; in 2013 the list was PersuasionWaverleyJane EyreDavid Copperfield, and North and South (I remember that year distinctly, because it was the year of the Waverley intervention!). I wouldn’t dare add Waverley at this point, I don’t think (I last taught it in 2020, just before we all got sent home, and oh my goodness does looking back at that post make me nostalgic) but I wonder if Mary Barton or Adam Bede would break them, or maybe little Silas Marner. Or maybe I should accept that for whatever reason, at this point less really is more, or at least enough.

What about the rest of you who assign reading for a living? Do you find that the amount of reading you dare demand keeps going down? If so, do you mind, or do you think it is a net benefit? What do you think are the causes? Is it just reality catching up with us (after all, if we’re in this line of work, we do probably read more, and faster, than most) or has something really changed? Students out there — current, former, or prospective — what’s your perspective?

19 thoughts on “The Decline of Reading (in My Classes)

  1. Helen February 10, 2023 / 4:37 am

    Six Victorian novels in, what, 10 weeks, doesn’t sound too onerous to me but are your students tackling other courses requiring sustained reading? If so, I would wonder how deep their reading would be. Perhaps it’s better to study fewer books and go into them more deeply?

    Sometimes people do question my passion for re-reading with the old chestnut of ‘So many good books to read and every re-read is one book less’ but I compare that to visiting 10 countries in 14 days as opposed to spending two weeks in one country and getting to know a little bit of it well.

    Sad, though, to think that if you don’t assign a book literature students won’t read it.


    • Patricia Stefanowicz February 10, 2023 / 6:18 am

      Hmmm…why do students read (and understand?) fewer course novels? There are plenty of reasons, but addiction to instant messaging (and mobile telephones in general) is almost certainly one aspect. Absence of continued focus and ‘thinking’ is at least in part due to too many things and too little time. Back in the last century, at least at my Uni and College, we had fixed times for breakfast, lunch and dinner; we had fixed lecture/seminar/studio times, when students were expected to be in adttendance, at least for Seminars and Studios (8-12 students), even if no one ever took attendance for 100-person lectures (skip at your own risk?) We were also expected to participate and not coast along. Assessments were rigorous, even if there might be only 3 small and 1 long paper per semester of c.15 weeks or 1 small and 1 large project for studios. That said in Shakespeare, for example, we would read two tragedies, three comedies and probably two/three histories, so about one play per fortnight with 4 hours per week of lecture/seminars. If one was an historian or English Lang and Lit student, probably 3 Modules in one’s major with about this much reading per module. No one complained (much), although I am sure people went looking for the York Notes of the day…

      Back well before the pandemic, I took a personal (executive?) decision to pick up messages/emails only twice a day. If I am in my office (or home office), I pick them up at 10am and 4pm. If I am going to be in lectures/out-of-office, then I pick them up before I leave and then when I am back (so 10 and 4 are ‘guidelines’). I respond to the easy ones straight away and flag those that may require more thought (and more thoughtful responses) for ‘later’, while I ‘mull over’ the response(s). If someone is desperate to find me, he/she can, of course, ring me, and, if I am available, I will answer; if not, I do return most/all phone calls as soon as I am out of meeting/lecture/whatever.

      What is great is that I am far more efficient in my work/writing/prep and assessing or whatever. When interrupted, I inevitably had to go back two or three paragraphs (or more) to remember my train of thought and argument, or, if designing, I had to go find which bit of the drawing I was involved in before the ‘ping’ interrupted me.

      My system works for me, but might not for others…



      • Rohan Maitzen February 10, 2023 / 8:09 am

        I agree that distracted habits is part of the problem, for all of us, not just students, although for them I don’t expect spending too much time on email is the main issue. I read an article recently (which I linked to on Twitter, if you’re interested) about mindfulness and reading; it addressed some of these challenges in what seemed like important ways.


        • Patricia February 10, 2023 / 8:45 am

          Yes, please, I’d like to read that article.


    • Rohan Maitzen February 10, 2023 / 8:08 am

      It’s 12 weeks, though with some breaks. The amount of other reading would depend on their program I suppose.

      I do see the value in studying fewer more deeply – but I have also felt that there are some diminishing returns, with the reduction in range. It’s about finding the right balance, I guess.


      • Helen February 10, 2023 / 9:39 am

        I don’t know how things are in Canada but in the U.K. there is much evidence of grade inflation in schools (& universities!) which means that today’s students are simply not as capable as those of, say, 10 years ago. Also, the content of Eng. Lit. A-level courses is much reduced and is now mainly 21st century, so that young people arrive at university without having had to read more than one, two at most, novels in two years. Therefore, university lit. courses (where they still exist – many universities no longer teach Eng. Lit. as a subject, simply incorporating some literature into their language & linguistics courses) have had to be ‘thinned out’ as students simply can’t cope.


        • Rohan Maitzen February 11, 2023 / 10:09 am

          I think one thing your comment highlights for me is that reading longer and denser books requires a skills set: students should not be discouraged if it is difficult at first, but we should support and train them so that they can do it better. Also, I find students now get anxious if they don’t “get” every detail right away, so I’m encouraging them to be comfortable with a bit of confusion, to trust that as they keep going the things they need to understand will get clearer. I read a lot of things in my youth that were way over my head but I wanted to be able to read them so I persisted; I’d like them to be similarly aspirational, and then to trust me to help them.


  2. lawless523 February 10, 2023 / 2:29 pm

    Distracted habits aren’t going away. Modern life almost requires them. Not everyone is in a position to only pick up messages when it’s convenient for them, or doesn’t interrupt their priorities.

    I am very much in favor of adapting to life as it is, not as we wish it were or how it was when we were in university, though in my case I took an English course way back in the 1970s that only had three books: two novels and a book of biographical information and critical essays about the author who was the focus of the course, so not every reading list was large back in the day. The novels were Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov, the author was Dostoevsky, and I had already read both novels on my own for fun. I later read The Possessed/Devils and The Idiot, also for fun, although both of them proved Dostoevsky could have sometimes used a good editor. (I especially feel that way about The Idiot.)

    Life in a pandemic that has made clear business, government and many fellow citizens think commerce and money is more important than lives is tough enough. I think what you’re currently doing is the right thing, especially since students are reporting difficulties.

    That modern technology isn’t what’s behind this, but rather the pandemic, is to my mind demonstrated by the fact that those very same distractions existed back when you assigned 5 books but you didn’t hear similar complaints.


    • Rohan Maitzen February 11, 2023 / 8:53 am

      I agree up to a point with the idea of meeting students where they are, but I think that we can and should also push them and raise their expectations, including of themselves. There’s also always the tension between supporting the weaker students and challenging the stronger ones: I don’t want my pedagogy to be based on the lowest common denominator, even though I also of course want to do everything I can to help all students learn and succeed. Trying to find the right path through these competing goals is the nature of the work, of course, and always has been.

      I think you are right that the pandemic has changed a lot for everyone.


      • lawless523 February 11, 2023 / 9:35 am

        It seems to me that the most useful way of challenging them is through the material currently assigned, not by adding a book back.


  3. Tony February 10, 2023 / 7:31 pm

    As someone who reads about three books a week on average over a year (including several long ones at some point), six in twelve weeks doesn’t seem overly arduous, but I think that the students have too many conflicting duties (e.g. work…) that pull them away from reading. As mentioned above, expectations have also dropped, meaning that what you expect is a big step up from what they’ve been accustomed to.

    On a different note, I find the idea that you can simply decide what you want to teach fascinating! In my area of expertise (teaching English as a Second Language to potential university students) the trend is towards centralised curriculum writing, with individual decisions based more on classroom management and implementation and delivery of set materials (with some flexibility). Making the whole course up ourselves would actually be a move back to the bad old days of pot-luck teaching!


    • Rohan Maitzen February 11, 2023 / 8:46 am

      I definitely think that more students are working longer hours – one of the ways constantly rising tuition (itself a function of declining government funding) has academic and pedagogical consequences.

      Our departmental curriculum is worked out collectively, with consideration to disciplinary norms and also to degree requirements at the program level. Courses get approved by the department and faculty based on a description, but once they are ‘on the books’ as long as we respect that description we have complete autonomy within whatever framework it sets. So it’s not quite that I can do whatever I want, but for each course I teach, I can definitely determine the book list myself.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Tony February 11, 2023 / 11:48 pm

        Interesting… I think what intrigues me here is that students doing the same (or a similar) course could have wildly differing experiences because of the different books and assessment tasks!


        • Rohan Maitzen February 12, 2023 / 12:46 pm

          That’s typical of courses in this field, as far as I know. Even our introductory classes, which are prerequisites for further work in the department, have basic descriptions and common course objectives but allow instructors a lot of freedom about how to reach them.

          I asked my Austen to Dickens class once if they would have been upset if I’d skipped either Austen or Dickens in my actual reading list and to my disappointment the majority of them said yes. Who knew! But I guess they felt it would be false advertising.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. Liz Mc2 February 11, 2023 / 5:17 pm

    So much of what you say (and commenters too) reflects my experience and the questions I wrestle with when planning a reading list. I rarely teach a survey-style course, so I think I feel less of a loss than you do in moving to fewer assigned readings. I did teach a 2nd year British Novel course in Fall 2020, and I cut back from 6 to 5 and ended up only doing 4. (On the other hand, Mary Barton read really well in the pandemic, with lots of reflection on class differences in exposure to illness, and students got really into it).

    I think technology is a big part of this: I myself have much more trouble focusing now and wondered if I could still read big Victorian novels (yes, but not with the same absorption as 20 years ago). It’s something I keep promising myself I’m going to work on. The pandemic didn’t help. And at my institution, we have seen a big rise in international students, whose English skills are not always up to the level of reading we are asking of them.

    Like you, I try to strike a balance between some literary and historical breadth and making space to focus on the skills of close, analytical reading that I think are valuable in many contexts, and that many students don’t have when they arrive at college. The shift in how much reading I assign is partly driven by acknowledging the reality of what today’s students can/will read, and partly by the philosophy of “uncoverage” and depth over breadth, which, again, is easier to apply in my case since I teach mostly 1st year courses.

    It’s easy to get discouraged, and to complain about today’s students (not saying you are doing that), but every semester I also have students who get excited about something we’re reading, who persist through difficulties and really want to learn.


    • Rohan Maitzen February 12, 2023 / 12:52 pm

      Last term I felt very discouraged at times because the class seemed so quiet and attendance was so poor – but on our last day a number of students came up to tell me how much they had enjoyed Middlemarch and how glad they were that I had assigned it (one said explicitly that he knows he never would have read it otherwise and was very glad he had). So yes, that happens and matters so much. I try to approach every class in that positive spirit.

      If I feel frustrated again next time with “just four” because it means sampling fewer authors, I think I’ll try five with two “short” (by 19thC standards!) ones and see if that’s the right balance for today’s classroom.


  5. lauratfrey February 12, 2023 / 6:39 pm

    I can’t comment as a student or a teacher, but my capacity to read went down since 2020 and I’m still not 100% sure why. Smart phones and social media have been around for a while so I don’t think that’s it. I also think about how it was “normal” to go into the office everyday, and now I only go in twice/week, but am SO tired on those days, like just wiped out!


  6. Karen Bourrier February 13, 2023 / 12:09 pm

    This rings true to me. I finished my BA in 2003, and my impression was that most students were doing most of the reading, and that there was more of it. I could be misguided, since I was a keener! Now, as faculty, I started in 2014 with four Victorian novels on a course, including Vanity Fair, and I’ve gone down to three (but also In Memoriam and other poetry.) I also need to do reading quizzes to keep up the motivation. Less reading and many more little assignments for credit than when I was a student. I’m doing just Middlemarch in a grad / advanced undergrad seminar next fall–we’ll see how that goes. I’m a little worried one novel is not enough, but it is Middlemarch!


    • Helen February 13, 2023 / 12:45 pm

      Am currently re-reading Middlemarch and agree that there is an enormous amount to think about in the novel. I think that’s why I love Victorian novels so much.

      However, it doesn’t seem to me to be a difficult novel, unlike some of Henry James, say – despite Eliot’s little lectures which can be a tad boring, the rest of the novel is very gripping.


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