As part of the program for today’s final regular meeting of 478, I asked the students to take a moment and “vote” for their favorite readings from this past semester, including both the texts we read in their entirety and those we read only in part. In the order we considered them, they were

  • Kwame Anthony Appiah’s Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a world of strangers
  • Jamaica Kincaid’s A small place
  • Salman Rushdie’s Two years, eight months, and twenty-eight nights
  • Robert Chambers’s Whose reality counts?: Putting the first last
  • Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the oppressed
  • Jonathan Kozol’s The shame of the nation: The restoration of apartheid schooling in America
  • Michelle Alexander’s The new Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness
  • Mindy Thompson Fullilove’s Root shock: How tearing up city neighborhoods hurts America, and what we can do about it

I asked the students to rank-order these if they could, or at least make piles of “keepers” and “tossers.” In all, seven folks gave a full rank order, four placed every reading into either two or three piles, and two gave incomplete lists, one of which I interpret as a top and a bottom and the other I interpret as a “Top 4.”

As we’ll talk about ad nauseam in my voting theory class this coming fall, there’s no perfect way to compile these data. Knowing this, but wanting to do something anyway, let’s ignore the two incomplete lists for now, do a straight Borda count on the 7 full lists, and do a modified Borda count on the 4 “groupies,” wherein each member of each group gets the average of the number of points that would be assigned to that group. For example, in a list of 3 “tops” and 5 “bottoms,” each member of the “tops” would get (6+7+8)/3 = 7 points, and each of the “bottoms” would get (1+2+3+4+5)/5 = 3 points.

The result?:

  1. Alexander (78 points)
  2. Chambers (65)
  3. Kincaid (57)
  4. Freire (54.5)
  5. Fullilove (50)
  6. Kozol (45)
  7. Appiah (27)
  8. Rushdie (20)

The top two don’t surprise me; students are always floored by Alexander, and their written responses to Chambers were hands-down the semester’s best, authentic and engaging. Kincaid came in quite high, too. I think the students were energized by her brutal honesty, and her indictment of the Western tourist hit home for a number of folks, giving them pause for reflection.

The next three are the three from which we only read excerpts (Freire, Fullilove, and Kozol), and I wonder if all three might have fared better in this vote had we read them in their entirety. I suspect that students placed them in the middle because they didn’t get a really good sense either of where the authors were coming from or where the authors were going. I’ve had students read all of each of these books in one or another past iteration of the course, and both Kozol and Fullilove are usually received quite well, especially Fullilove (Kozol gets repetitive after a while). Freire, cover to cover, overwhelmed students the last time I required it.

Then there’s Appiah. He was roundly indicted for his unacknowledged privilege and his often-sanctimonious tone. His book isn’t my favorite, and I disagree with important elements of it. But then, I think it’s salutary to engage with a reading you don’t agree with lock, stock, and barrel.

Finally, Sir Salman. Several folks felt Rushdie’s novel was disconnected from the rest of the course, which is understandable considering I included it mostly because I knew we’d have a chance to meet with Rushdie in an intimate setting when he came to campus and I wanted the students to have something to talk with him about. (Nevertheless, I think there are connections between the novel and some of the big ideas our course considers, most prominently the themes of “home” and “rootlessness” that pervade the book.) I don’t think it’s the fact that the work is a work of fiction that specifically turned the students off. Rather, it’s that it wasn’t the right work of fiction; it wasn’t chosen intentionally to best match the course’s themes. My colleague Doreen, who’ll be teaching the Honors section of LA 478 in the fall, notes that she’ll consider including fiction in her iteration of the course…but not Rushdie.

Incidentally, the two incomplete votes didn’t complicate the above very much: one student listed only “1. Michelle Alexander!!, 2. Appiah, 3. Kincaid, 4. Chambers,” including three of the top four vote-getters class-wide, and the other listed only “1. Alexander, 8. Rushdie,” matching the class’s aggregate vote exactly.

Food for thought. If you’ve read any or all of these books, please feel free to open it up in the comments.

Soooooooo…what’ll it be when I teach the course again next spring?

 

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2 thoughts on “Rating the readings

  1. I think Freire is an important voice in the 478 conversation, especially as a representative of the (leftist) political advances made in Latin American in the later 20th century. From an academic standpoint, his work is revolutionary in pedagogical engagement with larger societal and ethical questions. On a personal note, I put Pedagogy of the Oppressed in my top 5 most influential books for trying to figure out how to live liberal arts post-UNCA. I still go back to his writing every 4-5 months for inspiration. Regardless of whether to include the entire book (I recognize my philosophy training gave me an advantage tackling the dense text), I submit students will benefit from Freire selections as supplements to another voice in the course.

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    1. Agreed! It would likely make my Top 5 list (if not, my Top 10), up there with Alexander, Alfie Kohn’s No contest: The case against competition, and a small handful of others. I would like to keep Freire, if only in excerpted form. I always think I can do without Kozol until someone makes some comment about the state of public education (generally from a point of sincerely but severely unacknowledged privilege) and I think, “if only I’d assigned Kozol…” Thank you for your insights!

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