When I walked into my first year gender studies tutorial I was expecting some of the lively, politically controversial discussion for which Sydney University is infamous. Instead, I was stuck in a tutorial about “neurosexism”, which sought to prove that biological differences between men and women were the cause of inherent gendered inequality.
Rather than a conceptual discussion about science’s role in the oppression of women, or the distinction between sex and gender, the focus was on a 26-page long 1915 neuroimaging study. At first, I wondered whether the tutor had made a photocopying error, by about a hundred years…
This experience was emblematic of an ongoing struggle with my 200-page reader throughout the semester. Esoteric at best, and utterly useless at worst. It also doubled as a doorstop.
There has to be a better way.
Unlike courses such as science or engineering to which the subject matter is more integral, the primary purpose of readings in the humanities should be to inform students’ understanding of a topic, and encourage a broader discussion.
This could be accomplished by a three-page fact sheet, or a summary of relevant arguments, rather than excessively intellectual readings. These academic papers cater to the private school elite that USyd is so infamous for attracting, but are often inaccessible to students without that privilege. And even for the most dedicated, upper middle class student, the 100-page per week reading load across four subjects can sometimes be overwhelming.
For many students, readers aren’t touched after the first two weeks or we find ourselves madly scanning through a 50-page document before a tute to inefficiently create our own top-level executive summary.
The effect of this is self-evident. The focus on readings unnecessarily shutters discussion in tutorials. Instead of a genuine debate that is accessible to all students, tutors often focus on the specifics of a particular academic’s opinion. Aside from being exclusionary, this approach to tutorials also discourages students from forming their own opinions, and from thinking about the contemporary implications of the issues being discussed.
All Arts students have also had that experience of walking into a tutorial near the end of semester that is half empty and stonily silent. Lecturers and unit coordinators need to be more discerning in their choices of coursework in Arts. Sadly, readers are often reused year after year with little critical evaluation or change. I’m not saying you should never do your readings, but I do think it pays to be selective where staff are not.