Instructor Insights

Written Reading Responses

In this section, Professor Edoh describes the rationale behind requiring students to write weekly reading responses.

What Are We Doing Here?

When I was in grad school for my PhD, I was frustrated by the fact that academic texts often feel like they’re written to not be understood. This made me really angry. I thought, “OK, I’ve been in school for many years. How is it that this still makes no sense? If it makes no sense to me, what are we doing here? What is the point of the academic enterprise if we produce work that can’t be understood?”

So this has been a gripe of mine for a very long time. And it was all the more frustrating when there was no space to express that. The danger when you’re a student, especially at elite institutions, is that when you don’t understand, you think there’s something wrong with you: you’re not good enough, you’re not smart enough. But it’s actually a structural issue, and it’s the writers’ responsibility to write better work, to write more clearly. I felt that students needed an infrastructure to support them in processing this often opaque work.

How the Reading Responses Worked

The reading responses helped provide such an infrastructure. When you’re forced to sit down and write something about what you read, even if it’s just to articulate what it is you don’t understand, it already pushes you toward developing your own understanding. So I asked the students to try to summarize the key points of the argument, and then they were free to take it in any number of directions. They could relate it to other work that we’ve read in class, or to events in the news, or to their personal experience, to something going on in their own lives. What I wanted to do was to show that what we do in the classroom is not separate. Academic work isn’t separate from life, and it’s not something that’s only accessible to some people. We’re always theorizing. Making sense of our experience is about theorizing. If we can help students make links between what they’re reading for school and what they’re experiencing in the world around them, we’re in great shape as educators.

There was quite a bit of variety among the different students’ responses. Those who had more understanding of theory, or already had taken many courses in these areas and had thought about them a lot, could get analytical really quickly. Others had to bring it back to their own personal experiences. That was great, because it also meant that they were integrating, but over the course of the semester, I tried to push them to move toward analyzing more. Early on, it was enough for them simply to describe whatever issues the text brought up for them. As the semester went on, I began to nudge them further, asking them how their responses related to points we had discussed in previous classes, or what new questions they raised.

Students were required to post their reading responses ahead of class, so I could read them over when I was preparing my notes and figure out how to tailor my lesson plan. Of course, the lesson plan for each day was based on the syllabus and the readings I had assigned, and I had my sense of what I wanted them to get out of the readings. But then if I looked at the responses and I saw that several people got hung up on a particular point or there was a conceptual bit that wasn’t quite clear, I was able to work that into the class discussion.

"Having instructors who make you feel you have nothing to offer is not just neutral, it’s damaging. It’s really important for me to valorize students’ voices, to show that I’m taking their work seriously."
— M. Amah Edoh

Valorizing Students’ Voices

I really love being able to point to something a student has said in making an argument, or if in presenting my lesson, I can say, “Yes, as you brought up in your paper, this thing is going on in the reading, that’s exactly right.” What made the biggest difference for me in the classroom as a student was instructors who made me feel like I had something to offer. Having instructors who make you feel you have nothing to offer is not just neutral, it’s damaging. It’s really important for me to valorize students’ voices, to show that I’m taking their work seriously.

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