The Unread Reading

In The Pervert’s Guide to CinemaSlavoj Žižek says:

All too often, when we love somebody, we don’t accept him or her as what the person effectively is. We accept him or her insofar as this person fits the co-ordinates of our fantasy. We misidentify, wrongly identify him or her, which is why, when we discover that we were wrong, love can quickly turn into violence. There is nothing more dangerous, more lethal for the loved person than to be loved, as it were, for not what he or she is, but for fitting the ideal.

For some reason, these lines occurred to me shortly after I posted the following irate status on Facebook yesterday:

Teaching honeymoon over. Walked out of class today with 25 minutes still left on the clock. 3 out of 33 students had bothered to do the reading. I struggled for as long as I could, and then told them I couldn’t teach them given their failure to do the reading, that I’d see them next week.

A stream of eminently sensible suggestions followed: assign short quizzes, do ‘cold-calling,’ ask students to do oral presentations in class, write response papers, write online in a blog or forum; and so on. I’ve tried all of these at one point or the other in my teaching career. (I can also add to this list: I have asked students to bring in marked-up passages from the text, which are supposed to serve as the basis for class discussion.) I have not been able to sustain any of them; most of these strategies, if not all of them, fall by the way-side during a semester. Perhaps I grow exhausted; perhaps the students do. Nothing works quite as well as a few students–half-dozen, say, in a class of twenty–doing the readings and coming to class prepared to hold forth on anything that caught their fancy. (In case you are wondering. the assigned reading was the first eighty pages of A Canticle For Leibowitz for my Philosophical Issues in Literature class.)

Perhaps my struggles with The Problem of the Unread Reading Assignment are mine alone. Perhaps I am in the grip of an unshakable, untenable, fantastic, conception of my students: they do the readings because they have found the expressed rationale for doing so–the percentage of the class grade that depends on class participation, the intrinsic interest of the text, the intellectual value of close reading and analyses of philosophical material, and so on–to be sufficiently compelling; they are provoked, vexed, amused, irritated, and otherwise stimulated by the assigned readings and seek outlets through which they can express their responses; the classroom, populated by their fellow students, who have read the same material as them, and a teacher, who has promised to discuss it with them, seems like an ideal venue to do so.

All too often, I impose this vision upon an uncooperative reality and find myself disappointed. You may be right in considering this a not particularly intelligent response, but here, sadly, as in too many places elsewhere, I find myself the slave of emotion, not reason.

So if there is a ‘violence’ here, it is always inwardly directed: a crumpling of my resolve to continue teaching,  a paralyzing, seething, frustration that undermines my self-esteem and sparks dissonance about my decision to have ever chosen a path I seem eminently unsuited for.

Of course, this is only the beginning of the semester, so it’s too early to step off the road; for now, it’s back into the breach, forewarned and forearmed.

2 thoughts on “The Unread Reading

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