How difficult should course readings be?

This came up in a Google search of “something hard to do.” It’s vastly harder than what academics pretend is work. 1942 photograph of carpenter at work on Douglas Dam, Tennessee (TVA).  Alfred T. Palmer, Farm Security Administration, 1942.

A friend about to teach his first course texted me the other day to ask, in essence, how hard course readings should be. In particular, when you’re teaching a political science course, should you be willing to assign “best-of-breed” articles to students who might not have the methodological or other technical skills to actually understand them?

There is no good answer to this question, and it depends crucially on two factors:

  • How big is the gulf between students’ preparedness (and willingness to work) and the difficulty of the reading material?
  • How much do you as an instructor plan to work to bridge that gap?

Instructors choosing course materials should be brutally honest with themselves about both questions, but especially the latter, if they care most about students’ ability to get something out of the class–besides, that is, the sheen of “knowingness” that “good” students are adept at performing.

My rule of thumb is that instructors who specialize in a course massively overestimate how familiar students are with their course material. I’ve come to believe that, especially in an introductory course, my baseline shouldn’t be “everyone knows” this or that fact but that “everyone knows” the wrong set of facts–that, in essence, I’m not working with people who have limited knowledge but, instead, with people who might have negative knowledge. The higher up the academic ladder one climbs, the higher the baseline can be, but instructors nevertheless need to always make sure that people they work with have some idea of what a basket is before they launch into Advanced Filigrees of Basket-Weaving. The result of assigning tough articles without the proper support system, however, is to be avoided: glassy-eyed students barely able to pick apart an article–and much less likely to be engaged in subsequent classes.

Consequently, over the years, I’ve rebalanced my courses’ intellectual portfolio to include much more descriptive works. Especially, but not exclusively, when teaching undergraduates, I find that the sorts of brilliant (or stupid) theoretical moves that social scientists move appear to be wildly implausible (or plausible) to students because much of their knowledge of the world derives from remarkably limited experiences. (And, you know, as it should: if students already knew the things I planned to teach them in class, then it would be a waste for them to be enrolled in class to begin with.) The marginal value of high-quality descriptive work is high on its own; in combination with high-quality theoretical work, I think that it is an incredibly powerful interaction, much stronger than either singly.

At the same time, I think that non-economics social sciences do too good of a job in “hiding the scaffolding.” The worst thing for a student to experience is to get the conclusions of sophisticated studies produced as if they were mere recitations of common sense that required no special study, skill, or debate to produce. The lessons that students learn from that sort of experience include a deadly prejudice that social science isn’t that hard and, more perniciously, that any common-sensical position can be held to be as true as any academic research. (See Duncan Watts, Everything Is Obvious.)  Worst of all, refusing to show students how the sausage is made will teach them that all sausage is made equally well–and they will then go off and consume some awfully bad sausage as a result. And this caution, in turn, implies that at least a few times in a semester we should show students how an academic finding or debate implies.

It’s at this point that social scientists should roll out the heavy guns–and even, from time to time, show students some point of reasoning or methodology that they only kind of understanding. (Deep lesson: it’s okay to not understand everything as long as you’re honest about what you don’t understand.) In my case, I’m thinking about whether to give a 200-level foreign policy class a detailed description of some of David Autor’s (transformative) work on the implications of trade-based job losses.

For doctoral students, of course, this sort of deep dive should probably be the bread-and-butter of seminars. For master’s students on an academic track, it should be relatively common. But for professional master’s students–well, they are harder-working and more focused than undergraduates, but they are also deeply practical creatures. In this case, the optimal effort is to probably do more with less challenging work–to pick a handful of articles that are technically challenging and go deep with them, while relying on descriptive or conclusory work (what I call the Foreign Affairs version; Harvard Business Review or analogous journals will suffice for other fields) to give a sense of the contours of the broader debate.

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