When less is more

9th May 2014 at 01:00

During my second year of teaching, the college dean duly visited my classes and summoned me to his office. His advice, though courteous and restrained, was direct enough: "You should cut the number of assignments in half," he said. Every removal was like pulling a tooth, but he was correct.

Imposing an unreasonable workload on students is a sure sign of inexperience. When starting out as a teacher, it seems we want to include everything we have learned. With time, it dawns on us that, as Robert Browning wrote in Andrea del Sarto, "less is more". Focused concentration on just a few works feeds a student's understanding of many others.

In my reading and composition class, therefore, I narrowed the reading from 30 short stories to 15 and the writing from eight essays to four. In my Shakespeare class, I assigned six plays instead of 13. And for literature, I chose representative works instead of trying to cover two-thirds of the anthology.

My criteria for what I kept were straightforward. Will each piece reward a second and third reading? Will it encourage deep, clear thinking and a grasp of critical skills that students can apply as they extend their education throughout their lives? Does it fall within the enterprise of studying what Matthew Arnold called "the best which has been thought and said in the world"?

Yet winnowing down my selections was a challenge. How would I achieve variety? What works would best give students a feel for the whole body of available material? How would I balance the unfamiliar with the familiar, the difficult with the relatively easy?

In theory, we could teach everything a student might be expected to know of a literary period or genre from any classic poem, novel or play. Individual works are almost infinitely rich and layered; we can see the world, wrote William Blake, in a grain of sand.

As an undergraduate I learned much about Renaissance literature from an 18-week course on John Milton's Paradise Lost. In a class on 20th-century British literature, I was able to define the age by devoting minute attention to just three books: James Joyce's Dubliners, A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses.

Quality over quantity means allowing more time for students to attend carefully to the complexities of what they read. It gives them the opportunity to assess their own thinking, to produce arguments on substantive subjects and to engage with peers who may see differently. It helps them to discover that they are enjoying the classroom experience rather than despising it.

I would rather keep my students interested in and involved with a close study of representative texts than risk swamping them by rushing through the sheer mass that textbooks tend to offer. And I would rather have them take the time to develop a few well-crafted essays than crank out a huge number just to show that they've done the assigned reading.

"Students don't need to know what we know," a fellow educator said to me. "They need to know what they need to know. So edit, edit, edit."

Dale Salwak teaches English at Citrus College in California, US

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