Monday, November 8, 2010

A Luddite Defense of the Book

Guest Blogger: Steve McCullough

In the history department, we believe one of our missions is to prepare our majors for either law school or graduate school. While I cannot speak of what it takes to succeed in law school, as someone who earned his doctorate in 2007, I feel I am qualified to speak how we can help our students thrive in graduate school. And for me, the answer is more reading.

One of the shocks many first year graduate school students face is the amount of reading they are expected to do on a weekly basis. In history, learning historiography, the essential literature, is just as important as research skills. By the time a grad student reaches his/her comprehensive exam, they are expected to have read or have knowledge on an estimated 300 books.

So can we help out graduates excel in their further studies? I am firmly convinced that one way is to have a reading load of at least three books, excluding textbooks, in almost all history undergraduate classes. While weekly reading of primary source materials is a key ingredient of helping students place historical events into context, we also need to challenge them by assigning monograph length works that examine important topics or people.

When I took my first history class as a freshman at New Mexico State University in 1988, among the books I was assigned was Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, 1972. At the time the names of George McGovern and Richard Nixon only brought vague recollections of political discussions in my house long ago. Thompson made me realize that the 1972 was one of the most exciting in recent history, even though at the end, he admitted McGovern supporters deluded themselves in thinking he was electable. I realized then that I wanted to spend my life exploring the past.

I realize how in today’s world reading books seems passé, perhaps even obsolete. Students are reading less and less in K-12 as teaching to the standardized tests has gripped schools. Students come into college able to take multiple choice tests, but have little or no experience in reading monograph length works. To me, the lack of historical knowledge is something easily fixable by taking classes. The hard part is teaching critical thinking, including the ability to read a book and offer informed analysis.

To that end, in each of my classes, students are expected to read three books and then write a critical thinking paper based on books of topics I want my students to learn greater knowledge of then I could offer in lecture. For my U.S. History to 1865 class, I used Gordon Wood’s The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin to illustrate how the American colonists in the 18th century went from considering themselves loyal British subjects to creating a new national identity as Americans. I next assigned Peter Kolchin’s American Slavery: 1619-1877 to more fully explore not only how slavery changed from colonial to the antebellum period, but to also discover the world the slaves made. Finally, I used James McPherson’s For Cause and Comrade: Why Men Fought in the Civil War to offer a glimpse into the world of Civil War soldiers. For most classes I assign at least one book on war because of how removed we are as a society from war with the end of the draft in the 1970s and the creation of a volunteer armed forces. I often fear that students only understanding of war comes from popular video games such as Medal of Honor or Call of Duty.

As I end this blog post, I realize I use only anecdotal evidence to make my case. I can offer no research or evidence to support my argument other then personal experiences. But I firmly believe that to help out students succeed in the next stage of their education when they leave Lincoln University, we must prepare them for the rigors of graduate and law schools. And even if our graduates chose not to pursue further degrees, it is vital that we help create not only well informed citizens, but well read ones as well.


  1. I totally agree that reading is the single most important ingredient in preparing students for graduate school. Writing comes close behind, but reading helps writing, I would argue.

    If I were teaching, I would probably be tempted to skip the textbook as a requirement, in favor of the the kind of scholarly monographs you have mentioned, Steve -- as well as selected primary source documents whose surrogates are now available online.

    My own experience in graduate school bears out what you report about reading load -- it was enormous! I was working full-time, and I would be lying if I said that I actually did all the reading. But because of my experience as a reader, I knew how to skim, read selectively and pull out what I needed to complete assignments. This is not ideal. I wish I had had the luxury to actually read everything, something I perhaps could have done as a full-time graduate student (or then again, maybe not). But my reading skills were the key to my success in difficult circumstances.

    Steve, you characterize your description as anecdotal, but if so, it is incomplete. You report what you do, but you haven't reported how well it has worked -- perhaps that is because the results are not in yet? I would love to hear more about that end of it, if and when you have something to report.

  2. You may be right, Steve. Let me know how it works out for your class and students. Susan is also right. Some kind of assessment, particularly of the Middle States type, may be needed. A definition of critical thinking may also help. Ideally, such projects as Steve is suggesting should be a university one rather just a dept. one. I mean sociologically in terms of having an academic culture that supports or reinforces it. I am afraid there is little of that here at this institution.

  3. Sorry for the typo: I mean "such a project" rather than "such projects."

  4. I really enjoyed the post and the questions it raised, Steve. One question it made me think about is how you are defining "book." Do you want students to have the chance to hold a physical paper-and-ink object (is that part of being well-read?) or would it be OK to assign something in electronic form, on the web--something they could listen to on their iPod or read on their Kindle or laptop? I wonder how that changes the reading experience, if the medium is indeed the message?

  5. I sure hope you meant physical book (as implied by your self-characterization as "Luddite")-- on the other hand, if you assign something that is also available electronically, students would have the option of using that version, I suppose, especially if nothing is lost (e.g. illustrations, which don't show up in any of the Kindle books that I've read so far).