TESTING, TESTING, ONE, TWO, THREE: MAKING SURE LITERATURE STUDENTS READ LITERATURE

A student in our Department has bragged (in a classroom, before a teacher and classmates) that he has passed an English Literature subject (mine) with a high mark without having read any of the set texts. How? Quite possibly, he has attended classes regularly, seen film adaptations and downloaded guides to the set texts. Yes, it can be done. The result of his boast is that we, the English Literature teachers, have started a discussion about whether we should introduce compulsory, eliminatory reading tests: you don’t pass them, you’re not awarded a mark for the corresponding exercise.

There was a hilarious moment in our last meeting when a colleague with a degree in English from Edinburgh University explained that as a student there he had to pass a pre-semester eliminatory reading test. Yes, he was expected to read ALL the set texts BEFORE the subject started; students who failed the reading test were, simply, not allowed to register for this subject. I assume not even Edinburgh can hold today these high expectations about students’ willingness to read. I explained to him, though he knows this perfectly well, that it’s even difficult to test students before teaching each text, as they don’t buy the books with time enough to read them, if they buy them at all. We publish the complete syllabus for all subjects in July but not even second semester students buy all the texts in advance. I was told by one of them that they buy books about two weeks before we use them in class, as it’s too expensive to buy them all at once. Logically, they read the books, if we’re lucky, as we teach them. The only option is testing them after teaching is over, not quite a guarantee that classes will work better.

So: point one, students don’t read – will the tests encourage them to read? Maybe. My own resistance to testing has also much to do with the fact that we’ll have to use class time and mark even more exercises (not to mention preparing the tests themselves). I find it very depressing and disappointing that we need to check that university students do what they’re supposed to do, but they’re leaving us no other option. Now, again, how can a student pass an English Literature subject without reading the books? The answer is simple: what we test is their acquisition of the intellectual skills required to write literary criticism. In an exam, we don’t ask what happens in chapter 18 of Wuthering Heights but how the structure chosen by Emily Brontë conditions our understanding of the love story between Cathy and Heathcliff. We teach reading, but we test writing based on reading. A clever person can perfectly understand this and, well, cheat (see above).

What depresses me even more than having to introduce reading tests is that an intelligent student may boast about not having read a set of wonderful books: Wuthering Heights, Great Expectations, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Heart of Darkness. It is sad to see how some people prefer flaunting their ignorance rather than learn. A sign of our times, no doubt. Some day, hopefully, the tide will turn and we’ll get eager, self-motivated students asking for more (and if you’re already here, do ask us, please, we love to teach those willing to learn). Meanwhile, I’ll sharpen my red pencils and get ready to mark those irritating reading tests… another waste of time.

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