On (Not Doing) the Assigned Reading

About ten years ago, one of my creative writing professors was curious about where I learned to write. I had finally admitted that most of my stories were science fiction, and that most of my reading choices were similar. Getting through the assigned readings for my college literature courses was always a real struggle for me — it should be no surprise that I usually earned B's in those classes and A's in all my creative writing classes. For an English major, I wasn't exactly the best reader. So I have a funny story about how my grad school colleagues responded…

From a UDL perspective, this illustrates the importance of adapting classes to meet the needs and interests of our individual students. On the other hand, it raises a question about how far we can adapt a syllabus. For example, I never did read all of Madame Bovary for English 200 my sophomore year of college — it was assigned reading, and I wrote an essay on it, but I never actually read the book. Would it have been more appropriate to allow me to read something else? Or did teaching this class require that each student read the same book so the instructor could illustrate the process of in-depth analysis on a classic French novel?

As an English instructor, I lean toward the latter — I think there needs to be some commonality of reading across a group of students so the group as a whole can see the process of analysis. As a proponent of UDL, I wonder whether I gained enough from writing a paper on a book I couldn't get into.

As a college instructor, however, I am convinced that I could have read Madame Bovary if I had managed my time better…and this illustrates something crucial about UDL. Our job is to make courses accessible, but it's not our job to make the courses "easy." We provide students with the materials and expectations of the real world beyond the semester, and we ensure the materials are accessible in that everyone has an opportunity to fully engage, but that doesn't mean we trade rigor for flexibility. Rigor and flexibility must go together — we offer flexibility as a way for students to produce their best work in relation to learning the essential course concepts. But if you need everyone to read the same novel in order to illustrate the process of analyzing a novel, then that's a situation where flexibility simply wouldn't work.