Karen Swallow Prior in The Atlantic:
About ten years ago, I started requiring the students in my general education English classes at the university where I teach (primarily freshmen and sophomores not majoring in English) to sign a “contract” during the first week of the class. They must agree, among other things, to obtain the required textbook and bring it to each class. It might seem odd that in a college class I would have to make such expectations so explicit. But in the past decade or so, I have found that students are seldom if ever held accountable for or even actually expected to read the assigned texts. Years of their so-called “reading” is spent “making connections” between themselves and text or the world and the text, but the foundational step of actually reading the words on the page is neglected often to the point that actually reading the assignment isn't necessary: Students become skilled at responding to leading questions that solicit merely their opinions or experiences. And they apparently get decent, or even excellent, grades for doing so.
Getting my college students to own and use a literary text hasn't been the only challenge. I have found that, increasingly, I have to teach students to read, actually read, the words on the page in order to be able to answer simple questions about the text. I have to train them to look down at the words rather than looking at me or up at the ceiling or into their hearts in order to comprehend the meaning of the language. I have to remind them to cite passages as evidence when they answer questions, something more and more of them are unaccustomed to doing. I have to exhort them to use dictionaries to look up words they don't know because the approach to “reading” they are so familiar with does not depend on knowing the meanings of words. Instead, they have been expected merely to offer “reader-response” answers to questions that prompt readers to react superficially to the text rather than to comprehend it. This subjective approach emphasizes loose, personal reactions to texts and interpretations that can not always be supported the text itself. So, for example, when I teach William Blake's poem, “The Tyger,” many of my students are erroneously convinced, based on reader-response style impressions, that the tiger in the poem is a “symbol of evil” when nothing in the text offers such evidence. A colleague of mine recently had a class of students insist with no textual support that Samuel Becket's 1953 existential drama, Waiting for Godot, is about gay marriage. Even English majors, I'm finding, rely more and more on Spark Notes summaries because years of lively classroom debates about vague literary themes have overtaken attention to how authors create worlds through language.