Part of the assigned readings for my course in American Government includes some fifteen of the essays in the Federalist Papers, which are really indispensable to understanding the making of the Constitution. I know, I know, they’re often more than a little partisan, and I could balance them out with similar essays penned by opponents or critics of the Constitution. But there’s only so much that can be included in a one-semester syllabus, right?
Anyway, since I’m inclined to suspect that many students wouldn’t otherwise complete these assignments – just cynical, I suppose – I also require them to submit a written summary of about half of them, in hopes that they'ell actually do some reading. The combined reading and writing might just improve their comprehension as well, I reckon. The stately, Latinate prose of the essays isn’t immediately familiar to most students (although many eager foreigners from West Africa or Southeast Asia seem to fare just fine), but if they’re required to summarize them, they’ll at least need to read them first.
That doesn’t always happen, of course. Many students fall quickly behind or simply skip the assignments altogether. A recent episode, though, really struck me uniquely. As I collected the papers for #51, I noticed that a significant part of the class hadn’t prepared summaries. Why is that, I asked. Well, came the reply, we really had trouble with this assignment. How so? Why, they told me with some indignation, there were a lot of words in the reading that we didn’t know. Do you have dictionaries, I asked, somewhat surprised. Yes. Did you look up the unfamiliar words? No, they replied unashamedly. Why should we have to do that?