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Reading a Book

posted: 10.11.11 by Steve Bernhardt

I mentioned in a post last summer that I was going to require my first-year comp students to write a paper based on their experience reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, an immensely popular nonfiction book that was selected on our campus as a shared summer reading for all incoming students. We are now in the middle of the assignment—and so far, so good.

I am convinced that everyone in my class has read the book, and most have intelligent things to say. This book lends itself well to essay writing, in part because of the range of issues it raises. As part of thinking through ideas for their papers, I asked students to list themes from the book that might be the focus of discussion: racial bias in healthcare settings, research ethics, tissue culture and cloning, the complex research process that the author pursued, health-care and scientific literacy, and issues of class and education. We worked in class to articulate thesis statements that would represent a real position or stance on some thematic issue in the book. We also spent time work-shopping one proposed thesis to see what episodes in the book might be discussed as part of the paper. We do all this work in public space, via Sakai, using the Forum tool. I haven’t seen the students’ first drafts yet—they are due Wednesday—but my sense is that they are working hard and developing strong ideas.

To ensure that students were giving the book a close read, I decided to give a couple of reading quizzes. On the first quiz, I asked a set of factual questions about memorable events—anyone reading with any level of attention could answer these questions. (What kind of cancer did Henrietta have? Cervical. What stands in the lobby of Johns Hopkin?. A statue of Jesus.) Everyone did so well that on the second quiz, I asked meaningful questions that had no fixed answer. (Who was the most ethical person in the book? For whom did you feel the most sympathy? With whom did you identify?) These questions led naturally to a discussion about how we use our reading experience to inform our writing about texts. It matters where our points of personal engagement arise, since these points of connection often lead to strongly felt positions and interpretive arguments.

I know, because I asked, that few students (3 to 4 out of 22) had read the book over summer, as we had instructed them to do. No surprise there. But there was no resistance to reading it as part of our course, and some were also writing about the book in their First Year Experience meetings. Now that they have read it, I am surprised at the perceptive comments they offer. For me, this assignment confirms a belief I have held for many years—that students deserve to read quality books, books that readers would actually choose to read. I still recall what one student at Southern Illinois University–Carbondale wrote on a college-wide survey of reading and writing practices I administered in 1983: “I wish we could read some REAL books, not just textbooks.” Just suppose if, in every class at the university across the whole curriculum, we required at least one REAL book. The outcomes, I am convinced, would be remarkable.

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