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20151104_095016[1]It was a few years back. I had a couple students I had agreed to help with a reading. Since I didn’t think they were reading at all, I thought I would begin the session by simply giving them time to read. We would discuss the article after they had had a chance to read part way through it, or at least that was my plan. But there I was, not a full minute into the reading session and one of the students had already commented on the point of the article. He finished with rising tone, as if inviting me to confirm or deny the validity of his point. His overall demeanor seemed to suggest that he was ready to begin the discussion.

I asked this student to just read for a little while, explaining that we would discuss the article afterwards. If he had specific questions about the meaning of words in the text, I would be happy to answer those, but I wanted to save the general discussion until he had had a chance to read the material.

It wasn’t another minute before he asked me a question about the point of the article. And another before he made another point about a random line on the page. Each time, he seemed to be trying to kick off the full discussion. I decided to compromise and agreed to discuss the matter after he’d finished one page.

He never made it through that one page.

I should point out that this was a college student, and a rather bright one at that. But it was very clear to me that he didn’t read. I wouldn’t say that he couldn’t read, because I’m pretty sure that he could parse any reasonable sentence you threw at him, but perhaps the effort to concentrate on a full reading was too much. Anyway, the specific reasons for not reading in this case are beside the point. What interests me most about this example is what the student was doing INSTEAD of reading. He was working me, lifting a word or a phrase off the page and inviting me to elaborate on his own contributions. Whether phrased as a question or a comment, his every utterance was an effort to put the ball back in my court and get me started explaining the material. The one thing that was never going to happen that semester was him reading a text, but if he could pull it off, I would never realize he hadn’t done the reading at all. After all, he had so many thoughts about the reading.

…the reading he didn’t do.

On some level, this is simply a bluff. We’ve all done it, partly because we’ve all been caught with our pants down so to speak. At some point in our education, we’ve all been asked a question about readings we didn’t do. You can admit you didn’t do the reading or you can say something in an effort to sound like you know a thing or two about what you were supposed to have read. Most of us have probably tried the bluff a time or three. It’s not that unusual, at least not as a single instance. But what was unusual, or at least very striking to me in this case was the realization that this was standard operational procedure for the student in question.  Near as I could tell, this was how he handled all his teachers and all his readings. And why not? It worked.

Most of the time anyway.

What made that particular circumstance unusual, and awkward, was my own determination to get this student to read something on that day, even if it was just a single page. Had we not been meeting outside the classroom, and had I not made it a point to ask him to read then and there, the painful impossibility of my expectation that he actually read something might never have given us both cause to regret each others’ company that evening. I might have come away suspicious, but in this case it had become unusually clear that this student didn’t read, and that at least one of the reasons he didn’t read was that he never needed to. All he had to do was field an observation or two and let the imagination of his instructors fill in the gaps for him. It’s how he learned what was in all of his books.

This is exactly what psychics do, or at least one variety of them, the ones who do cold reading. Ostensibly ‘picking up a vibration’, or ‘getting an impression’, a psychic may ask you if there is someone important in your life, someone having trouble, and since of course all of us have someone like that in our lives, we will happily fill in the details and confirm that they are right. Soon we will be talking with the psychic about cousin Ernest and his heart problems. And if we’re not very careful, we may just think it an amazing thing that this psychic somehow knew about cousin Ernest without us ever telling her about him. We’ll come away from the experience thinking it’s amazing, and amazing of course is exactly what the psychic wants us to think about the whole experience.

Perhaps she wants to think that way about it herself.

Not the cold reading student though. The cold reading student doesn’t want their powers of divination to be noticed at all. He wants you to think his contributions to classroom discussion are perfectly normal, his errors understandable, and his proper calls exactly what one would expect of an individual working his way through the material. He may be hit or miss on tests and other assignments, but as long as he is talking about the classroom materials, he has an angle, and that angle is the imagination of the instructor. If he can land a comment in the ballpark, so to speak, he can rely on the instructor to pick that ball up and carry the game forward.

…perhaps without ever realizing that the student hasn’t a clue.

This is why some students specialize in so many one word answers. You can give them an essay by an abolitionist and ask them what the authors main point is in that essay and they will tell you it was ‘slavery’? What they are expecting you to do at that point is say something like; “yes, he is talking about slavery and what he has to say about…” If instead you insist on asking the student to explain what the author actually says about slavery, then the whole thing is just going to get very unpleasant. Since no-one wants to experience an unpleasant conversation, and since most instructors are dying to get to the interesting details of whatever they happen to teach, odds are quite good that the instructor isn’t going to be that fussy. So, students can just toss a word out and watch what happens, a bit like giving a broken machine a kick in the hopes it will restart.


I once had a one-on-one session with a student who had been asked to read an essay by John Stuart Mill. This was admittedly pushing the envelope for this student’s reading abilities, but it was actually one of the more user-friendly readings in the textbook my college (in its infinite wisdom) made me use that semester, so I figured I’d do my best and ask the students to do the same. So anyway…

I thought I would work through the first paragraph of the essay with her and see how things went. She looked at the first sentence and found the words ‘freedom’ and ‘will’ in there. She then looked up and thought about it a moment before explaining that we have freedom of the will. That’s what she thought Mill was saying. She had pulled two words off the page and thought her way to the connection between them. What she hadn’t done was to read the actual sentence in front of her.

We repeated this process for an hour, and she approached every sentence the exact same way, pulling a few keywords off the text, looking up, and imagining the connection between them. This approach yielded an interpretation nearly the polar opposite of the one Mill had been trying to convey. I carefully explained Mill’s actual position, watching her eyes widen as I did, and upon completing that lesson, I risked a comment on her reading strategies. I asked her to read each sentence in turn, each full sentence, and to do that for the full article. She looked at me like I was insane. That’s not how reading was done! She proved even more surprised to learn that this is what I wanted whenever I handed out readings in any of my classes.

And at last, I understood why she never got anything out of the other textbooks.

I can just imagine the number of readers now thinking of this or that tool or technqiue to help this student learn the necessary skills, or to motivate them to learn, and I myself wish the college where this occurred had more in the way of persistence and retention facilities, but all of that misses the problem. The problem in this instance is that this isn’t a problem, at least not to the student. It’s a problem to me, and to anyone who thinks reading is an important skill, and it would be easy to think that since this was a college class and I was the instructor that value ought to have controlled the situation, but that just isn’t the case. What this student was doing worked!

…at least as far as she was concerned.

This was not a young girl with a few Freshman skills to learn. This was a middle-aged woman with a white-collar job and a family, and this was how she read. Most importantly, her reading was NOT simply a function of her own inability; it was also an adaption of sorts, and one which she had been using successfully throughout her adult life. I reckon it suited her purposes for any number of tasks wherein a reader might be expected to have thoughts similar to those of an author. Her knowledge of the written documents in her life had thus been cobbled together from words and phrases off the texts and the verbal exchanges occurring around her.

Where this woman fell flat was in the encounter with an alternative point of view, one which happened to use a vocabulary familiar enough to suggest all the wrong things to her imagination. Did she care about such things? I doubt it. Today, she probably tells the story of her asshole teacher and that insane book that said all the wrong things about something important. Hell, her approach probably even handled quite a number of errors. If she misread a document, someone would correct her, perhaps without ever thinking twice about. Most of the time, I expect she was just fine.

But I do wonder what disasters might have followed when she wasn’t.

My point isn’t that these are mistakes. They are not. They are coping strategies, and they can be damned effective, at least insofar as these approaches can get a student through a discussion and perhaps even an essay. Students employing these strategies as a way of life may well accept that they will take a hit on exams and assignments, but when it comes to conversation, they will often be just fine. All they need is an instructor willing to fill in the details for them, to imagine that one word answers are the tip of a thoughtful iceberg, and to give a student the benefit of the doubt on ever so many moments of silence.

It really does work.

But of course the real question isn’t how this works in education. It’s how it works everywhere else?