The syllabus: reading reconsidered

When the purgatorial period of add/drop comes to a close, the books ‘- and the credit card debt ‘- begin piling up. And after the initial shock and awe, and the question ‘why in the hell these things are so expensive’ is answered with a shrug and a call to mom and dad, another question arises: What do I have to read?

Not ‘what’s on the syllabus?’ ‘- that’s in black and white. It’s a nuanced art which many college students master better than their chosen field of study to navigate syllabi and figure out the bare minimum we can get away with.

As a student of anthropology, I’m interested in my contemporaries’ ‘bookways,’ or how they make use of their textbooks once they’ve been screwed by the textbook industrial complex.

I had this hypothesis that I was working with for a while that there’s an implicit contract between professors and students that says: ‘this is too much reading. I know this. Only a small percentage of you will do all of it. But enough of you will read Book A and enough of you will read Book B and enough of you are prodigious-enough bullshitters that we’ll be able to keep the conversation going all semester.’

So I asked around: What percentage of assigned readings, roughly, do you do each semester? Most of the answers were in the double-digits, but less than half were passing grades; one woman just answered, ‘Ha!’

Emboldened, I took my hypothesis to the two men responsible for my leaning tower of literature, Dickie Wallace, an adjunct professor from the anthropology department and Norman Sims, professor in the journalism department.

In retrospect, I wish I hadn’t, because neither of them bought it, and now I have to do all the reading.

‘I don’t agree entirely with your thesis, which is that professors don’t expect students to do all the reading,’ Sims said. ‘Realistically, I think we understand that not all books are read, but I don’t know anyone who would make an assignment with that expectation.’

‘I wouldn’t say it’s an implicit contract, but that it’s an understanding among profs that they have to teach to the front of the room and the back of the room,’ Wallace told me in an interview on the first floor of the W.E.B. Du Bois library, beneath 20 some-odd floors of UMass students Facebooking, fornicating and lighting fires.

Oh, and doing their reading.

‘But there’s no way I can design tests and papers that include every chapter. I have an idealistic assumption that you’ll want to do it all.’

To wit: We know you don’t, but we wish you would.

Sims also told me that readings today are nothing compared to what they once were.

‘The rule-of-thumb used to be one book a week for, say, English classes,’ he said. ‘Today that might seem excessive to some students, but one of my classes this semester has a book every two weeks.’

Sims, an expert on literary journalism, has a sizeable reading list of eight books for his class Literary Journalism in the Twentieth Century, not including the frequent hand-outs. But he knows his stuff.

‘The thing about Norm,’ Joe Meloni, my managing editor, told me recently, ‘is that you do all his reading during the summer after his class, when you have time to.’

In his own defense, Sims told me: ‘If you use this class in your story, be sure to mention that it’s a four-credit honors course.’

Sure thing, Norm.

But Sims also told me that he avoids ‘it would be good for you to read this’ books, because they’re ‘frequently ignored, and they should be.’ Wallace also said he tries to ‘be explicit’ about how the readings tie into course concepts.

‘It’s frustrating when students don’t do the readings, don’t see the connection, and sometimes end up being critical of the class afterward because they don’t make that connection.’

It’s easy to bemoan the rising cost of textbooks as prohibitive, a barrier to entry for those cash-strapped scholars trying to get a quality education on a budget. Yet a lot of students, myself included, are too lazy or too busy or some sort of odd combination thereof to sit down and get their money’s worth anyway. So we buy them, grudgingly, or don’t, and hope ol’ W.E.B. Du Bois has them on reserve on one of his lower floors for the week before the final.

Of course, that’s all behind me.

But there’s no implicit contract, like I once thought. So maybe that’s how we lighten the self-guilt over ignoring our studies to sleep or party or chase stories for student newspapers, rather than do the very thing we put ourselves into debt to do, which some are not fortunate enough to do:

Read the goddamn book.

S.P. Sullivan writes on Thursdays. Read him online at