If You Can’t Beat ‘Em…

Every now and then I blindly lurch onto a good idea. Yesterday my sophomore honors students were complaining about the dryness of the reading, and to be honest the fare has been a tad arid (Hobbes, Locke, Marx, Mill. We're weeks away from a novel). Then after class one of the students sought me out to say he was having trouble understanding the readings. “I read,” he said, “but nothing sticks. I just can’t keep my mind on it.” So I asked him if he annotated his texts. Seeing a look of incomprehension on his face, I quickly brandished my well-festooned copy of On Liberty.

“Look, I’m a pretty good reader,” I told him, “but even I don’t try to digest this stuff without making little notes in the margin about the key ideas and arguments. That's annotation.”

“Oh," he said. "I highlight.”

“Highlighting! Bah! A total waste of time. I’d like to throttle whoever started that practice. A highlighter doesn’t squeeze the argument through your brain. You must wrestle what you have read into your own words. All you have is a hazy set of impressions until you do that.”

“But what if you don’t get the main idea?”

“You have to start constructing an understanding somewhere. It's better to start with something—even if it’s wrong—than with nothing at all.”

So here’s my pip of an idea for class on Friday. I know my students don’t annotate, but it occurred to me that they do shorten ideas into bite-sized nuggets all the time. So on Friday they are to have read a chapter of Mill. I’m going to have them translate the chapter into six text messages of 160 characters each. They can use text-ese (2b or not 2b), but they have to capture the key points. We will compare our messages and decide who best captured Mill’s central argument. This could be fun (r nt). wl c.


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