Slow reading with J.Z. Smith

A few days ago I wrote about how I’ve realized that guided questions aren’t doing what I hoped they’d do. By this I mean I would assign reading homework for the week (it’s my tradition to do a single homework assignment per week) that would be accompanied by a document that asks questions about the reading. These documents served as checkpoints to make sure my students weren’t just reporting that they had read but were showing they had done so. Unfortunately, there’s a dual temptation for students:

  1. Scan (not skimming which is like speed reading but scanning which is just looking for key words or phrases) for the answers in order to hit the checkpoints without actually reading the textbook/article.
  2. Since guided questions have a limited range of answers it’s easy to ask a classmate for their responses, alter those responses a little, and then submit your stolen answers.

Neither of these approaches pushes the student to learn from the reading. Now, part of my problem may have been that while I give students a week to do the reading, we know students don’t spread that work across a week. Instead, they wait until a couple hours before the deadline. This puts pressure on them to hurry meaning that if I assign 20 pages with 15 questions and they wait until an hour or two before the deadline they’re going to be tempted to take one of the aforementioned shortcuts.

Jonathan Z. Smith (Photo by Chris Salata/Chicago Maroon via

I’ll be discussing some of the solutions I’m testing in the next few posts. I begin here with the first couple assignments I’ll be giving to my ‘Religion in the United States’ class in January. I’m asking them to read the famous essay by Jonathan Z. Smith, ‘Religion, Religions, Religious’. It’s about 13 pages long. The first week they’ll read 6 pages and the second week they’ll read the last 7. I’ve divided each week into small sections. As they read a section (their homework tells them where to start, stop, and resume) they’ll be asked to write a two-sentence summary in their own words. Since a page to a page and a half being summarized in two sentences can take many different shapes, it’ll be hard for student B to ask student A for their answer because their answer will be unique. Additionally, when you’ve got to read, write, and explain, it’s not wise to wait until the last couple hours before a deadline, even when the reading load is light.

Each of the weeks that Smith’s article is being read have class periods set aside for my class to discuss what they’ve read. This will mean (1) they’ll share their summaries and (2) they’ll try to answer each other’s questions. How exactly I’ll conduct this process over a 45 minute class period is TBD.

If you’re interested in the Docs themselves that my students must complete and turn-in, here they are:


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