My friend, Jim Austin, asked me recently, “Do your students ever read books?”
My sarcastic mental response as a college English professor was immediately, “They better read every single thing I assign to them. In their textbooks.”
But his question was deeper than that.
I have been teaching a whole generation of millennials, for over a decade at a rural community college. Jim was asking me if millennials read.
Crack of a spine.
Smell of the pages.
“Do your students ever read books?” resonated with me, and it’s an intelligent question to ask and revisit, especially as publishing trends change and state Common Core requirements drive what is taught in public schools.
Often, I don’t know my students’ background with reading until I specifically ask them. In a face-to-face classroom setting, I might take a quick straw poll a few times throughout the semester, especially if I’m trying to make a point about something I’ve assigned to them. I may ask, “Who’s ever read The Scarlet Letter?” or “Who knows something by George Orwell?” Those questions will sometimes lead me to an answer about their reading background, but it’s an answer in total isolation.
I may ask a more open-ended question, like I did to my freshman literature students this semester: “Tell me about your high school experience studying poetry.”
After the crickets stopped chirping, I had my answer.
Consensus: very little focus on poetry. That’s if there was even a focus, and for some students, there wasn’t. There were a few who identified select teachers (even by name!) who spent time in their junior and senior years with poetry, but this was the exception rather than the norm.
Needless to say, in this class, I had my work cut out for me.
A few years ago, I started assigning an excerpt from a graphic novel in the literature class. I thought that this blending of pictures and narration would help students ease into other forms of literature and understand the analysis part of the class. I also thought I would be introducing a new style of literature to students from my part of Texas.
I was right that these books were a good fit with my literature class. But I was wrong that this was something new for my students. When it came to graphic novels, my class was light years ahead of me.
I returned to Jim’s question “Do your students ever read books?” Many who love graphic novels, Western comics, or manga (from Japan) would resound with “Of course!” followed by the rattling of their favorite series. For manga, those were Naruto, Bleach, and One Piece, to name a few.
They were reading. It wasn’t Hawthorne or Orwell. But they were reading.
Publisher’s Weekly released an article on the resurge in popularity in 2015 and, it seems, in the early part of 2016 of manga. That means that my graphic-loving students can now choose a new series, like Attack on Titan, Tokyu Ghoul, and One-Punch Man.
I’m glad they’re reading.
Not everyone in academia may agree that all reading is equal. Just because my students are reading something, does that necessarily mean what they are reading is productive? I must admit that I can’t be the judge here. And why should I be?
What I can do instead—and what I have done—is change my reference. I can continue to make allusions to Mark Twain, but I can also make allusions to Dragon Ball or Eiichiro Oda, the best-selling manga artist of all time. By varying my references, I’m casting a wider net, and maybe I’ll catch some of the students better this way.
Some students have perked up when I start discussing manga in a college class, in ways they don’t always do. I think they are surprised.
And I’m glad.
So, Jim, my students do read. And now, we’re learning to talk about that in a college class, in language and in a frame they understand.
Audrey Wick teaches English at a community college in Schulenburg, Texas, a town of about 2,750 residents.