When you read something for school or work or just to make it through your daily life, what’s the first thing you ask yourself? I’m curious what goes through other peoples’ minds because here’s what does not go through mine: is this article or book or blog post interesting? When I first begin reading something new, whatever it is, I don’t really consider whether or not it’s interesting, but it seems like this is the very first question many of my students ask themselves. Unfortunately, it can also be the last question they ask.
To be clear, it’s not that I don’t ask this question at all while I’m reading. Once I’m involved in a book or article I may come to the conclusion after a time that I’ve read much more interesting things throughout my life, but it takes me awhile to get to that point. Sometimes, although not always, when I finally realize that an article is uninteresting to me, I’m almost finished and I figure that I might as well read until the end. When it’s a possibility for me, when I am reading simply for my own pleasure, I may put the uninteresting book down in favor of something else. Life is short, and when given the choice, you might as well read the things that interest you. As I say, however, this is only when I have a choice in the matter. Sometimes I have to slog through the boring article for work or because I need to understand how my retirement plan works. No matter what the reading is, however, whether or not it is interesting is never the first matter of importance to me.
We are studying the Great Depression and the New Deal in my college prep history course, and after studying the Depression and FDR’s New Deal in some depth, I asked (Who are we kidding? I required.) my students to read two articles by two different historians with quite different views on the New Deal’s overall effectiveness. Then, I had an assignment asking them to pull out the arguments and compare and contrast the viewpoints of the authors. Here’s what I found the most intriguing part about the students’ reactions to this assignment. While some of my students found the vocabulary, content, and argumentation of the articles challenging, more than anything else my students were challenged because the articles were not “interesting” to them. More than anything else, they found it hard to complete the assignment because they were not immediately engaged from the first sentence or paragraph. Now, in my students’ defense, there was no major strike on their part; they did the work and they did it without openly complaining, but teachers can sense the mood of even a silent classroom. The mood was….not great.
We talked today about why I wanted them to read the articles. No, I explained, this was not a punishment. No, I did not purposely make an impossibly boring assignment. No, I wasn’t just killing time. We talked about how the majority of what they will read for college and career will be nonfiction, informational text and informational text is, perhaps, more challenging than fiction for many of them. Sticking with those texts matters though, and unless they practice now, they will feel more pain later. This is what all teachers say though, isn’t it? Who knows how much actually sinks in?
A few students in different classes asked me after class if I found the articles interesting. When I answered in the affirmative, you would have thought I’d sprouted an extra head. You would have thought I was an alien from another planet. They didn’t disbelieve me. They just could not wrap their heads around the fact that someone might actually find the articles interesting, that someone might willingly choose to read more of the same.
Most of the time, I had to leave it there as the bell for the next class rang and students fled in different directions. Now, however, as I sit here writing this post and thinking about what went right and what went wrong with this lesson, I can’t help thinking that both my students and I missed an opportunity. Instead of focusing on whether or not the articles were interesting to them or myself, I think I should have explored with them whether or not this should matter as much as it appears to do for them. Does an article have to be interesting to be worth reading? And what do we mean by “interesting” anyway? I can find both a short story and a scholarly article interesting but for very different reasons. What happens when we don’t immediately find something interesting? What should our response be?
Was this post “interesting”? Does it matter?