Monday, April 29, 2013

Required Reading? Crowdsourcing of Experience

by JONATHAN HSY

(First: read Jeffrey's post about Elemental Ecocriticism in Tuscaloosa!)

Should instructors ever assign their own publications as required reading?

I posed this question on twitter and on Facebook (just for kicks) and found intriguing conversations unfolding in both venues: see the brief twitter convo HERE and the epic public Facebook comment thread HERE. One of things I very much enjoy about social media is how different spheres of my life unexpectedly jostle and collide in one (virtual) space, and I find it so fascinating to witness conversations involving my academic/professional contacts as well as non-academics (in this case, people reflecting upon their own undergraduate experiences).

As the comments thread began to grow on my Facebook page, I was surprised -- but perhaps shouldn't have been! -- to discover there wasn't a clear answer/consensus to this question. People offered a range of different reactions to the experience of an instructor assigning their own works in class; these reactions seemed to vary depending on how the readings (and ensuing discussions) were framed, and there was some speculation about whether the level of the class itself (graduate or undergraduate) influenced how people responded to instructor-authored readings. Most of the people chiming in were literature folks, but I get an initial sense that conventions might differ by academic discipline. In any case, I'd say that a instructor's decision to assign her/his own work can be influenced by host of other factors -- including general campus culture, as well as the general personality/disposition of the instructor.

Sample responses to the idea of assigning own's own work as reading:

PRO: can provide insight into scholarly writing process and revision, can give students a sense of what we do when not teaching, can lay foundation quickly for new work the class is doing together and models writing as a springboard to other discussions (in a grad seminar), shows we believe in our work and its scholarly merits and we can welcome constructive criticism; seems to be standard practice in some disciplines (e.g. history).

CON: "It's weird" (says KARL), students can feel uncomfortable criticizing the work in front of the instructor, conversation can be stilted, some students might see it as scholarly self-promotion or even a cynical ploy to sell more copies of one's work.

My current stance is this. If there happens to be a case where I feel something I've written could be of potential interest or usefulness to students in a class, I'd make those readings optional; I personally wouldn't feel comfortable requiring those readings. If I ever were to produce something I thought was "so important" or foundational/necessary for the subject matter that it merited status as assigned reading, I definitely wouldn't force students to pay for access to those materials. (SIDE NOTE: I will grant that the question of assigning anthologies or essay collections is a slightly different matter...)

So what say you, ITM readers? Have you assigned your own work, or discussed your instructor's own work, in a class? If so, how did it go?


7 comments:

Jonathan Hsy said...

Heinrich C. Kuhn provides some great insights over on Google+ (the comments thread is public):

https://plus.google.com/114194813937417228452/posts/W7YRMQaArNd

Steve Muhlberger said...

Usually not. They have access to my perspective in class. I'd rather they spend the time and money on an additional source or perspective.

Crystal said...

Is this assigned reading mandatory?

Signed,
A former student

Jeffrey Cohen said...

It's a vexed issue! Reading through the FB comments it was interesting to see how ambivalent people feel about assigning their own work. I can see why it might be a good idea to take the risk, but after almost two decades in the classroom I have never done it.

Then again, work I've published bores me and the idea of teaching it is pretty terrifying. I'd have to pretend I'm interested in things that are out of my life ...

Jonathan Hsy said...

Thanks for chiming in Jeffrey! I was wondering what you might think about this.

Something that also occurs to me right now is just how much of a *time lag* there typically is between the time something is written and the time it appears; published work can be a "time capsule" or snapshot of your thinking at the moment but by the time it's "out there" your own thinking will most likely have advanced... so I wonder (in addition to "boredom") if part of the emotional difficulty in teaching your "own" work is the fact that you're weirdly revisiting a "past self" that you no longer inhabit.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Jonathan, I'm sure that's a large part of it. My most widely taught text is "Monster Theory" and I wrote that in 1994. I'm contacted frequently by students who've encountered it during a composition class and it just makes me uncomfortable to think they are using something that to my mind belongs in an archive (and doesn't represent the way I now write or think).

I suppose the more cheering part is that they don't see it that way, and I am grateful that the piece has remained alive...

tenthmedieval said...

I struggle with this. The opportunity very rarely comes my way because I largely teach first-years in Oxford and the Oxford history syllabus omits the tenth and fourteenth centuries in first year (NO I DO NOT KNOW WHY). But when dealing with third-years it's still tricky. My book wasn't written to answer the questions one might ask undergraduates. One or two of my articles might be more useful. On the other hand I feel a bit more useful assigning it to graduates working on the Feudal Transformation--but that is, all the same, a theme I have explicitly avoided in my published work. So in the first place I think I lack the confidence to assume that what I've written is relevant; but it's also that I can't tell whether I recommend it, or they read it, because it is useful or just because I wrote it. On the other hand one of my future plans is a volume of translated charters for teaching with, so I'll have to quell these insecurities when that's done, if I'm still teaching (currently somewhat unlikely). Then comes the question of whether to require its purchase and on what scale...