Kill the Course Reading List

if you love your students, you’ll kill those course reading lists – they do no good and can do great harm. The full course reading list is a crutch for mediocrity which I no longer provide.The main reason for this is that I require my students to develop skills in locating and evaluating sources for themselves. Indeed, in many of my courses, location and evaluation of sources is a required part of the course assessment. Exactly how this works varies

I teach part of a politics methods course – a 4 week slice – and in that I’m happy to take the bibliography and evaluation on paper. Since it is very clearly a methods course, there is no set ‘content’ – the methods are the content and I can hang them on any topic I chose as a carrier for the methods. Every year, I use a different, current topic and require a portfolio based on it which includes not only the bibliography and evaluation, but also article mindmaps, lit reviews, text analysis and a set of research interview questions. Since the topic changes from year to year,  it’s plagiarism proof – even I don’t yet know what the topic will be next October, but it won’t be the same as last October

In full length courses with more time, I usually require the students to use Zotero to gather their bibliography, and expect them to share their bibliographies in a class group online. In some courses where the focus is on a particular body of primary sources, there will certainly be overlap between what people find, but that is useful. Putting the Zotero bibliographies up on the projector for discussion allows us to explore how certain texts bubble to the top of the list as core readings, while others may or may not find universal approval. There is no such thing as a bad text for this purpose, because after collecting in my sequence comes evaluation of sources – sometimes I ask students to actively seek out some poor sources so we can have a discussion of what is wrong with them and why we would not rely on them.

Not only does this require students to learn how to use search methods to find their bibliography, but it also allows me to push them to find a range of types of sources other than just books off the library catalogue which is, in itself, a safe place. I can ask them to find webpages in the wild, find images, find video or audio – and use Zotero to learn how to properly identify those sources sufficiently so that we can go back and locate them, consider the need to archive local copies of materials which may disappear or be edited, and to see how Zotero supports different styles of citation and understand how inline citations are simply inferior to proper footnotes!

This doesn’t mean I don’t have set readings – I do. Usually, I have 12-20, or about 2 per week, chosen mainly because they illustrate something and provoke discussion. More is counterproductive – there is no point in requiring an impossible amount of reading. Most students now work part-time; and even if they are lucky enough not to need to work, students taking a full course load only have 6-8 hours a week to devote to each course. Over 2 hours of reading, plus participation in discussion forums, and other work, and that time is full.  I do ask them, early in my courses, to time their active reading of an article, with notetaking, so that they get a feel for their pace of reading and to draw attention to those who simply cannot read a 20 page academic article in an hour.

I also sometimes require a set text – usually in survey courses. I don’t follow these week by week. I make it clear that I don’t feel obliged to spend hours reciting ‘infodump’ which can be better presented in a good narrative survey. Usually, my guidance on set survey texts is to get through it quickly in week 1 and review the relevant sections each week.  So, for example, in my course on the UN, we use Paul Kennedy’s ‘Parliament of Man’ – it’s a good read, and I’m happy to follow his sequence of topics as we work through primary documents and more detailed readings on each issue. I don’t always reward the students for knowing that content,  but I do tell them that if their final work shows consistent ignorance of the narrative, they will be penalised.

So I am a mean, cruel and heartless taskmaster, denying my students the comfort of a nicely formatted reading list and forcing them out to forage for their intellectual fodder.


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