In my introductory American Literature II survey course, I emphasize hunkering down and isolating oneself within the walls of literary or critical narrative for an hour or more. Many of my English majors struggle with this task because reading requires long stretches of relative isolation and fixed attention on a singular text. Such isolation and fixation run counter to the ways we Facebook, tweet, text, Youtube, blog, and work, not apart from each other but as overlapping tasks. While studies have shown that such multitasking has benefits and limitations, engaging in those debates is not my concern here because the fact is my students are already technological savvy multitaskers.
In light of this, it is no wonder that my English majors in American Literature II read reluctantly. My immediate response consisted of instituting frequent reading quizzes that asked questions that online summaries neglect. Over the course of the semester, some students accepted the disciplinary nature of quizzes and relented, reading more diligently and beginning to read when they didn’t before. However, quizzes worked only to an extent. Some students began to read but inconsistently. Other students who appeared to have read, which they demonstrated through discussion, had difficulty receiving above a C on the quizzes. Most students also seemed to view quizzes as punitive, and this may have detracted from their engagement with the course.