Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Confessions of a professor

Written by: on October 12, 2017

“If a book is less a book than it is the whole of the discussion about it, we must pay attention to that discussion in order to talk about the book without reading it. For it is not the book itself that is at stake, but what it has become within the critical space in which it intervenes and is continually transformed. It is this moving object, a supple fabric of relations between texts and beings, about which one must be in a position to formulate accurate statements at the right moment.”[1]

Pierre Bayard’s compelling text, How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, resonates with me.  I have to admit, I am THAT professor. I like to pull content and resources from many different places, which essentially requires me to skim a lot but not read all books in their entirety. You may be wondering, “Is she a hypocrite?  Does she expect students to read?”  These are valid concerns.  I think the most accurate answer would be ‘I expect my students to ENGAGE in their textbook – which is very different than reading the textbook cover to cover’.  If I expect a student to purchase a book, it will definitely be used in and out of class.  I will engage case examples, in class activities, require discussion posts on critical thinking questions from the text and highlight important content in the text.  I will expect students to have access to the text to glean resources (when and if needed).  However, I will not test a student on irrelevant information.  I believe my most important role as an instructor is to take students from consumption (of information) to application.  Developing critical thinking skills within each student is my ultimate goal.

As a student learner, I have always aspired to be conscientious.  Through each of my degrees, I made valiant efforts to read texts cover to cover.  What I discovered through the years is that there’s a little bit of content I need to know out of the textbook, but there’s a lot of reading that isn’t relevant to what I want to learn or how I want to engage with the book. Our LGP reading selections the past two weeks have really set me free – free from guilt, and reinforcement of what I already practice.

“To liberate ourselves from the idea that the Other knows whether we’re lying—the Other being just as much ourselves—is thus one of the primary conditions for being able to talk about books with grace, whether we’ve read them or not. In truth, of course, the knowledge at stake in our comments on books is intrinsically uncertain. And the Other, meanwhile, is a disapproving image we have internalized based on a culture so exhaustive, and whose importance is so firmly drummed into us in school, that it impedes us from living and thinking.  But our anxiety in the face of the Other’s knowledge is an obstacle to all genuine creativity about books.  The idea that the Other has read everything, and thus is better informed than us, reduces creativity to a mere stopgap that non-readers might resort to in a pinch.  In truth, readers and non-readers alike are caught up in an endless process of inventing books, whether they like it or not, and the real question is not how to escape that process, but how to increase its dynamism and its range.”[2] 

This quote is brilliant, but I had to read, and re-read it many times to feel like I could speak to its intentions.  In social work, we use the term “the other” to refer to the person who is “perceived by the group as not belonging, as being different in some fundamental way. Any stranger becomes the Other.”[3]  I feel that this quote attempts to address the shame connected to non-readers and their ability to speak to content of books.  I love the creative freedom that Bayard promotes by encouraging an “increase in dynamism and range”.  Academics in Higher Ed are frequently that “disapproving image we have internalized” when thinking about “knowing all there is to know” to discuss a book.  One way I personally strategize when creatively discussing a book or topic is to fervently read journal articles.  Journal articles are new, fresh research where someone(s) have dug into a plethora of literature and collected pertinent and relevant information (and they are much shorter and give great research for counter arguments and rich discussion)!

“The paradox of reading is that the path toward ourselves passes through books, but that this must remain a passage. It is a traversal of books that a good reader engages in — a reader who knows that every book is the bearer of part of himself and can give him access to it, if only he has the wisdom not to end his journey there.”[4]  Bayard makes a profound point when he discusses the concept of traversing (according to dictionary.com the verb transversal is defined as “to pass along or go across something; cross”).  I want to view reading as an act of discovery (the act of detecting something new, or something “old” that had been unrecognized as meaningful).  Truth cannot end with one textbook.  Truth comes from reading further literature which either supports your belief and/or challenges your belief.  Truth is having the wisdom to keep journeying to learn more, skim more, gather as much information as you can from as many sources as you can.  Only then can one be true to oneself and speak well about a book you haven’t read.  AND for all you avid readers who can’t forgo a book in its entirety, CNBC (not the fake news) reports Warren Buffet’s reading routine “could make you smarter suggests science”.[5]  “Read 500 pages like this every day. That’s how knowledge works. It builds up, like compound interest.”[6]

[1]        Bayard, Pierra,  How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read (Bloomsbury: New York), pg 150

[2] Bayard, How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, pg156

[3] http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/english/melani/cs6/other.html

[4] Bayard, How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read. pg178

[5] https://www.cnbc.com/2016/11/16/warren-buffetts-reading-routine-could-make-you-smarter-suggests-science.html

[6] https://www.cnbc.com/2016/11/16/warren-buffetts-reading-routine-could-make-you-smarter-suggests-science.html

About the Author

Jean Ollis

5 responses to “Confessions of a professor”

  1. M Webb says:

    Professor Jean,

    Great introduction into your review of Bayardisms! I think your position of not testing a student on “irrelevant information” supports Bayard’s “brand” of non-reading techniques. This allows you to ride on the periphery so you are not trampled by your metaphorical herd of books.

    Thanks for expressing your freedom from “guilt” position. I have had the same “ah hah” moment, and I am beginning to see our doctoral challenges with a new lens of discovery, purpose, and possibility. I noticed several of our Elite-8 are still facing the traditional reader challenges that we were conditioned to growing up. Bayard is not for everyone, we are all wired in unique and glorious ways.

    Regarding Buffett, a quick internet scan suggests he is agnostic, adopting his father’s moral foundations, “but not his belief in an unseen divinity.” 1

    (1)Roger Lowenstein. Buffett: The making of an American capitalist. (Random House, 2013) 13.

  2. It was great to hear a professor speak to the aspects of reading and non-reading and come out on the side that non-reading can be okay in some contexts. The book does give lots of liberties and permissions that help validate us skimmers to not feel completely less than. I love your statement… “I want to view reading as an act of discovery (the act of detecting something new, or something “old” that had been unrecognized as meaningful)”, this is right in line with Adler’s approach and what will be helpful in our research. Great post Jean, and hope all is well.

  3. Greg says:

    Jean, I hear you loudly and agree strongly with “free from guilt, and reinforcement of what I already practice” I have felt the same about 2 recent books. Have to not hide that I didn’t completely read the books and then feel like I was a fraud had set me free also. I used this in my blog but I love the Bayard quote, “a book stops being unknown as soon as it enters our perceptual field” which to me sets me free to know a book the way I want to know book and not the way I am expected to know it cover to cover.

    I like when you said, “I want to view reading as an act of discovery”. What a challenge. Seeking, gathering, finding new acorns to add to our repository add to our growing knowledge. Thanks for your thoughts.

  4. Trisha Welstad says:

    Jean, your words, “I believe my most important role as an instructor is to take students from consumption (of information) to application” are so right on. I feel the same as a professor and a pastor. I want to see students engage well with content and think critically. Do you have any ideas as to how you will go forward teaching your students to think critically while also helping them to be set free from guilt of reading every page? I noticed my language to my students has already changed a little as they are all approaching mid-terms and are stressed.

  5. Jay Forseth says:

    Hi Jean,

    I am so glad the website is up and running full speed again.

    I appreciated your transparency is saying, “…I am THAT professor. I like to pull content and resources from many different places, which essentially requires me to skim a lot but not read all books in their entirety.” I would bet you are a better Professor for doing this. So I say, well done, and keep on keeping on!

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