When I was an undergraduate, I didn’t much like lecture classes. Listening to a lecture seemed to me an awfully inefficient way of getting the information I wanted. Just give me a book!  I’ll learn a lot more in an hour’s reading than I ever will listening to a lecturer.  Besides, even if the speaker is excellent (and most aren’t), it’s hard to listen to anyone talk more than 30 minutes or so without getting bored.

Now following the principle of “do unto others,” I probably shouldn’t base my classes so much on lectures.  The odd thing is that most of my students have exactly the reverse opinion.  They like the lecture format!  Many of them would prefer that everything was lecture-based and that they didn’t have to do any reading at all.  I am amazed at the number of students who never even look at the relevant pages in the Chodorow text—pages that I would have found more helpful than any lecture.
Much less surprising to me is the difficulty students often have with primary sources.  Even students who like to read sometimes find primary sources tough going.

A few years ago, my daughter Miranda took my Western Civilization II class.  Miranda is a bright student, and she reads everything.  In junior high, she was reading Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy for fun.  Certainly a student like this would love things like Descartes’ Discourse on Method, right?  Wrong.  She was furious with me for making her read the Discourse.

Her quiz was a diatribe against Descartes, basically telling me the guy made no sense at all.  And for months, if I so much as mentioned Descartes, I’d get from her a rant on how absolutely awful the guy was.

Now, over the years, I’ve discarded readings that students found too difficult to manage on their own. But despite the fact that the Discourse on Method is frustrating even for very good students, I still assign Descartes and probably always will.

I do this because Discourse on Method really is a great welcome to college, and a great way to welcome you to something that really is enjoyable, interesting and important.  And if you didn’t find it interesting and enjoyable, well maybe that’s because you don’t yet know how to read.

 “Of course I know how to read!  I learned in Kindergarten.”  Well, yes.  But reading at the college level often means learning to read all over again.  You see, up to this point, unless you were in accelerated classes, many, if not all, of your high school reading assignments were deliberately dumbed down.  Textbook companies are under pressure to produce texts that require no more than an 8th grade reading level, and so very rarely did you end up reading anything really challenging.

But, from here on out, you won’t get much that’s dumbed down, and, for some of you, it’s time for a quantum leap in reading ability, and you’ll have to adopt different strategies than you usually used in high school.

If you are struggling at this point, a good recipe for success is to adopt the PSQ5R strategy for approaching your readings.  PSQ5R is an eight-step method that works well for most college-level books.   Here’s how to use PSQ5R techniques in approaching Discourse on Method:    

•    Purpose

Why are you reading this?  

At the specific level ask: What is your professor expecting you to do with what you get from the reading?  With Descartes, you’ll be asked for a quiz on Descartes to show you’ve done the reading and, eventually, you might be asked an essay question on Descartes, Pascal and Bacon.  This is important, because it might save you lots of time.  Do you read a whole phone book if what you’re looking for is one number???  To be successful with college readings, you should always figure out the purpose of your reading assignment so you know how closely to read.  

At the general level ask: Why is this important at all?  Why is the author writing?  And where does this book fit into the great conversation?

What great conversation?  You see, what college is about, at least in part, is to introduce you to a great conversation that began more than 5000 years ago.  The conversation includes every topic imaginable: politics, religion, male and female roles, economics, truth, justice: the whole realm of human experience.  It really is a wonderful conversation (nicely summarized, by the way, in Thorton Wilder’s Skin of Our Teeth. Remind me to read this to you in class).

So how can you be ready to take part in the Great Coversation?  Well, it’s nice to have help.  I got lots of help from my dad and my friends and from some occasional high school teachers—and I hope that I can help you somewhat.  But, no matter who helps you, you’re going to have to do a lot of hard work on your own if you’re really going to get up to speed.

Descartes (and the 16th and 17th centuries in general) is a fairly good place to start because, to a certain extent, the conversation starts over again here.  

•    Survey-skim

It helps a lot to get a quick overview of a reading assignment right at the outset.  Tables of contents, introductions, opening paragraphs, and closing paragraphs often really help.  Notice what Descartes does for you right at the beginning of his essay, telling you exactly where he is going with the whole thing.

•    Question

It’s often very helpful to formulate for yourself a series of questions before you approach the reading.  Notice that I usually do this for you, giving you a series of study questions for each assignment.  Formulating a question helps you focus and helps make sure you get out of the reading what you are supposed to.

•    Read selectively

Most students have a natural tendency to just start at the beginning of an assignment and read straight through to the end.  In the Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Lucy has to approach a magic book in this way—the Duffers having no idea that there is any other way to approach a book. 

Don’t be a Duffer!  It’s not cheating to skip portions of an assignment.  Learn to pick out what you really need.  Sometimes, it won’t be all that much!  There are times when there really isn’t any purpose in doing much more than skimming.  There are times when the author’s contributions to the great conversation aren’t very useful to you.  I don’t bother much with Spinoza, for instance. He’s making assumptions I’m pretty much sure are invalid, I know why he’s making those assumptions already, and there’s not much point in my spending a lot of time here.

Unfortunately for you, with much of what you look at, you’re not yet able to really judge what will be useful to you and what will not.  What are now some of my very favorite works caused me problems at first—particularly Greek drama.  Be very careful at this point not to dismiss great works too quickly.  Better to act on the assumption that there’s probably something really great there that you’re not quite seeing yet!  If a professor is any good, however, you’ll usually be able to tell by the end of the course if a book is worth looking at again.  (And, by the way, don’t sell back your education!  Keep your books!)

•    Recite

With anything you’ve read, see if you can summarize the material (or, at least, answer your initial question) in your own words.

•    Reduce-record

Jot down your recitation, or make an outline of what you’ve learned.  This process really helps you retain what you’ve learned.  Also, it’s very helpful to underline important/striking passages and make marginal notes that will help you remember important ideas.
Discourse on Method is great practice. What should be marked, highlighted, or noted in this book?

•    Reflect

You will remember material far better if you think about it and react to it even in a negative way.  Miranda’s diatribe against Descartes was a perfect way for her to remember what he said.  Or consider today’s lecture: This idiot combined math and history in the same class.  He put a circle on the board that I couldn’t read.  He said some incomprehensible thing about the argument from design that no one could possibly be expected to understand.  And he wanted us to laugh at a stupid joke that said mathematical proofs took a long time, were absolutely right, and absolutely useless.

The point is that you don’t want to be a passive receiver of information.  Complete processing and retention of information requires you do something with it—and waiting until exam time is often too late.

You will, by the way, be amazed at how much better you learn if you’ll talk about readings, lectures, etc. outside of class—even if it’s just to complain about them.

•    Review

Come back from time to time and review your notes, marginal notes, highlighted passages, etc.

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