Learning to Read

February 20, 2024

Adam Kostko, a humanities professor at a liberal arts college, argues in his article “The Loss of Things I Took for Granted,” what he considers to be a crisis of literacy amongst today’s college students. Kostko is careful to describe the crisis as not the fault of students but distributors of literacy education.
Specifically Kotsko calls attention to students’ alleged inability to gain meaning from readings and even understand the words within reading themselves. Recalling anecdotes from the classroom, Kostko explains that students find even short readings to be “intimidating.” So too, according to Kostko, students struggle to read at all, let alone read and understand. 

As a current student, who reads what I would consider to be 20-60 pages on average for each class, I appreciate that Kotsko understands the importance of reading prior to class, and its significance to college students’ education. However, I disagree with Kotsko on a few points. 

Firstly, I disagree that students find ten pages or more to be intimidating. Certainly, I’ve heard students complain about reading loads but I have yet to meet a student who does not believe in their ability to read or read well. Second, I find that Kotsko’s definition of meaning in reading is somewhat narrow. What is considered meaning in the humanities, is different in languages, or STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). To fail to address such differences means that the reality of student experiences might have been overlooked. 

            Kotsko lists the common explanations for the alleged decrease in literacy. The first of such is the argument that technology, specifically smartphones, are too distracting for any person to read for an extended period of time, thereby corrupting the reading experience. Kotsko does not seem to consider this to be the main contributor for the problem, but they do not discredit this explanation entirely. 

            I do think technology has changed the way students read, however I do not think it is an exclusively negative change. I argue that the way we communicate has changed because of technology. Because there is so much content online, I typically rely on clear and concise information in order to understand what is happening regarding a certain topic. Writings that do not quickly or clearly explain meaning or purpose can be tedious and time consuming. Current college students might be expecting different types of communication from students in the past. So too, on days I find my phone to be particularly distracting, I power it off until I finish my readings in order to focus. I know at least some of my peers do the same. 

            Kotsko acknowledges that the pandemic, and possible gaps in education may contribute to students’ inability to read as well as they did in the past. However, Kotsko again argues that the true cause of students’ declining literacy is elsewhere.

So why might today’s college students be struggling to read? According to Kotsko, its academic policies like No Child Left Behind emphasize students’ ability to test instead of their ability to read and understand written information. Educators have jeopardized students’ abilities, in favor of higher test scores that would bring about better funding.

The problem is so extensive that according to the author, students’ literacy or their ability to read at all, let alone read well, has been ruined, because reading long texts doesn’t help students achieve higher test scores. I disagree with this argument most. Kotsko argues students are unable to find meaning in readings, and read for extended periods of time; however, tests and school require students to focus for extended periods of time. Is it impossible that other types of focus can translate to focus in reading? In addition, I do not think that preparing students for tests is what has jeopardized their education.

            For example, Kotsko gives an example of a student who is unfamiliar with basic vocabulary and criticizes common core standards for failing in students’ phonics education that would help them understand. I do not think vocabulary issues are just issues of  instruction, but also lack of reading variety. I read Lord of the Flies four times during my middle and high school years. In addition, I read The Crucible, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Odyssey at least twice. The lack of communication of works taught in a small town, in schools is astonishing. At the time, I was appreciative of the fact that I didn’t need to reread the novels as carefully, but looking back, I think it would have been good for me to read different authors, in different styles. This isn’t to say that such classics don’t belong in high school classrooms. I’m simply arguing that a specific set of classics is taught, but often students get little other literary exposure that not only could have bolstered their education, but also have made them interested in reading itself. Indeed, most of my vocabulary comes from reading science fiction and fantasy novels during free periods in high school. If we are to focus on failures within the humanities, I would consider this to be a major one. In highschool I was never taught to appreciate alternative written works such as journalism, academic reports, etc. All of these styles, though, I interact with regularly in my classes. Indeed, it was a sharp learning curve during my freshman year of college trying to understand writings that were not in the form of a novel.

Therefore I appreciate Kotsko’s concern, however I think he missatributes the sources of such problems. In addition, the problem Kotsko describes seems somewhat overstated, and is framed in a highly contextual way. Indeed, how I do my readings for class is dependent on how I will be interacting with the text in class and in my assignments. Meaning each time I read, I apply different techniques. 

Here is the article if you are interested in reading: https://slate.com/human-interest/2024/02/literacy-crisis-reading-comprehension-college.html

If you disagree with my critiques, or have an experience that differs from mine feel free to share. I am a student, not an educator, so I do not doubt that there are factors to this argument that I am missing.


February 18, 2024

Prompt:  Taking the concepts of self and other, think about your community (your home, your college or university, some other community in which you are involved) and consider who belongs and who is an outsider. 

This prompt reminds me of a conversation I had with a student who had grown up in Carlisle, and prior to their time at Dickinson College considered the students to be outsiders who came and went, but were relatively disconnected with the community. In my current community at Dickinson college, I consider similarly situated individuals to be a part of my community. This generally means I perceive students to be my community, and those who inhabit Carlisle to be “others.” This conversation made me question what specifically makes me consider someone a part of my community.

To me, those who share experiences with me, such as  studying, finals, school dances, and student jobs are similarly situated, and therefore are a part of my community. They likely share my needs, desires and frustrations.

Those who I experience as a distinct individual are usually people I interact with. Even if such persons are acquaintances, I consider them to be individuals, with specific interests, and habits. Plural others are more likely to be people I know of but don’t interact with, such as those on the Dickinson sports teams. Based on an interactive approach, I don’t usually form perceptions about people I know as plural others. However narratives about plural others, without any other contextual or historical information, can be influential, in possibly dangerous ways. So for example, if one hears a rumor about  a specific team, and they have no contextual knowledge to explain or refute the rumor, inaccurate or incomplete perceptions can be formed. 

Narratives can be tools used to create inaccurate perceptions by those who have no interaction or knowledge to rely on to counter such narrative. In this sense, from an international politics perspective, “othering” can be harmful. If a politician, state or the media, tells citizens a specific narrative to justify their actions, then it can perpetuate such narrative. It also can serve as an explanation for harmful behavior when applied to public opinion. States can also bolster nationalism on a large scale, and perpetuate a narrative of a greater state or national community in order to explain harm or othering. However, that is not to say that nationalism as a source of community or pride is necessarily bad in policy, it is just that it, like many other things, can be twisted to perpetuate harms. 


In another sense, othering compromises the ability of people to be understood as multifaceted communities or individuals. Simple narratives or othering can be reductive to the reality of people or individuals. In this sense, othering is tempting as a descriptor of a group because it is easy to accept and move on. To have better understanding means to address personal bias, learn about others, and possibly make your own community uncomfortable by confronting their understanding of people. This dynamic of reducing individuals to the narratives that accurately or inaccurately describe them likely shows up in international politics, in the news media and in policy choices regarding regions. However, because of the failure to take communities and persons for face value, there is risk of inaccurate policy that perpetuates harmful narratives. It is, of course, impossible to completely understand each person or community in their whole, but it is important to let people dictate their own self narratives, instead of narratives created by “others.” We can interact with group we consider to be “others” by listening, and understanding.

Dr. Najat Aoun Saliba’s talk on her research and activism gave me insight into the challenges and techniques of change. 

Saliba began her talk by summarizing her academic research on air pollution in Beirut and the dangers of smoking different types of nicotine. She explained the methodology behind the projects and why she and her team at the American University of Beirut received international recognition for their findings. 

Dr. Najat Aoun Saliba ran for parliament to change smoking, inhalant safety, and air pollution policy. She wanted to apply her research findings to Lebanese society. However, corruption and stagnation within the parliament have hampered her attempts. 

Saliba created a system of local solutions instead to combat environmental decline and address humanitarian needs. She considers herself an activist and scholar whose work is based on social justice. One such example of scholarly activism is the international response by scholars to the outbreak of COVID-19 and the search for a cure. 

Dr. Saliba described what she considers to be three pillars or steps to sustainable social change. The first is community and contextual research that can be applied to bring about change and given recognition by widespread communities. The second is community-driven solutions. For the solutions to be sustainable, they must work well within communities. The third pillar, which, according to Saliba, has yet to be achieved, is an international change that would bring about social and environmental change in a way that creates accountability. Saliba described that the source of many of the social and ecological problems she has faced is greed and corruption by political officials in Lebanon. Corruption permeates the governing system, making any change that would be costly and difficult to bring about.

Her organization, called the Environment Academy, seeks to bring about sustainable change, such as stopping illegal tree cutting or overgrazing of forests. Her methods include empowering local government authorities to participate and co-create change with the organization. 

Dr. Najat Saliba https://www.aub.edu.lb/articles/Pages/Najat-Saliba-For-Women-in-Science.aspx

According to Saliba, success is dependent on the analysis of the problem in the context of individual towns and communities. To bring about such change, the organization must connect scholars, lawyers, government authorities, and the communities. With such strong support in different areas, fighting against corruption can be more synchronized. Patience and small steps towards big change are considered to be pillars of change as well. 

The talk “Turning Tough Choices into Scholar-Led Transformation” made me think about how this method of scholar and community led transformation can be applied to Carlisle. First students and educators should identify issues within the area that we think can be addressed through policy and community engagement. It seems to me, that the most important factor for change, atleast for Saliba is cooperation and participation from people from different disciplines and domains.

First and foremost, it seems crucial to mention that often the places we live, and the places we call home are different. This factor came up frequently in the two discussions this Tuesday with the AUS students. Students often placed markers in places where their family lives, or where their family is from instead of the places they currently dwell. A common theme throughout such discussions was family and community. Often people selected the places they did specifically because they identify closely with communities there. Though we did not discuss culture a lot, people were able to talk about societal customs such as talking politics at family gatherings. I found this particularly interesting, as my family makes a point to avoid talking politics at family gatherings. In addition, we found that shared objects brought questions about cultural differences such as discussions regarding uses of incense. 

Environment seems particularly relevant to our conversations, though it was never directly addressed. Often students mentioned outdoor recreation as a common extracurricular activity. It seems to me that outdoor recreation looks different around the world. For example, in the Winter I enjoy the snowy weather. However, some students may not live in areas with snow. Likely outdoor recreation may look entirely different. In addition, one student and I discussed agriculture. Specifically through olive trees. They mentioned that they have a family member in Jordan who grows olive trees, which reminded me of my grandmother who lives on an olive grove in California. I Imagine growing olive trees might be different in each area of the world based upon climate.

Through our shared objects, I discovered a few universal values. One of which is family. Often the objects were those that were gifted by relatives, or those that reminded us of relatives or friends. We were also able to talk about what se

emed to be universal desires, such as a commonly held desire for better food options on or near our campuses. 

Particulars, such as love of reading, sports, or travel also became apparent through students sharing personal objects. When showing objects that are important to them, students demonstrated their values. It seems there was not a single student that chose an object for an entirely superficial or meaningless reason. For example, I didn’t pick the necklace I showed to my peers because I think it is pretty. Instead I chose it because it was gifted to me by my grandmother, and therefore holds familial and sentimental meaning. 

Other objects, such as an alarm clock, appealed to shared experiences, such as the need to arrive in class on time. Regardless of what the object was, it seems there were many ways that we were able to connect to each other through our values, needs, and desires. I am glad I was able to connect so well with the other students. 

If I did not get a chance to talk with you in our groups, feel free to comment what you brought in as your object! Do you think it demonstrates a particular or universal value? If the object has familial or cultural value, please feel free to share about the object and what it means to you!