Thoughtful Thursday: Fake it ’til you make it

I am a college professor.  Yesterday, I asked my students who had actually completed the reading for class.  One person raised their hand.  Just one. It’s a theory class, so we read the actual theorist. Another student said, “I’ve read about the ideas in the reading, so I didn’t think I needed to do the actual reading.” At which point I actually bit my lip to keep from losing it.

I’ve been wondering how prevalent this idea is among students in general, and then I started thinking about the purpose of what I do as a reviewer.  One of the functions of a review is to help you decide what to read.  I wonder though, if people ever use reviews to fake having read the book. Can you fake having read Robin McKinley? Or Brandon Sanderson?  Do you have strong opinions about authors you have never actually read yourself, because you’ve read enough reviews to make up your mind? Hopefully you are not using reviews as cliff notes, not just because we typically leave out the major plot points, but I wonder sometimes if the giant increase in easily accessible reviews, not just in fantasy but in all forms of literature and commentary, leave a lot of people having opinions about opinions, rather than actual informed stances on issues, from the quality of Sharon Shinn‘s prose to the proper role of government in providing a social safety net.

So ‘fess up readers: Have you ever faked reading or knowing something, either in school or in society? Did you get caught? And why can’t we just say, “I don’t know anything about that’?

The most entertaining anecdote will earn the confessor a book of their choice off of the stacks.

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RUTH ARNELL (on FanLit's staff January 2009 — August 2013) earned a Ph.D. in political science and is a college professor in Idaho. From a young age she has maxed out her library card the way some people do credit cards. Ruth started reading fantasy with A Wrinkle in Time and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe — books that still occupy an honored spot on her bookshelf today. Ruth and her husband have a young son, but their house is actually presided over by a flame-point Siamese who answers, sometimes, to the name of Griffon.

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  1. I was 11 when Tim Burton’s Batman came out. My parents went to see the film and ruled that I was too young to watch it. Trouble was, the movie was all the rage, with people sporting tons of Batman gear and talking about it constantly at school. So I convinced my dad to tell me the plot so I could pretend I’d seen it.

  2. I don’t recall ever having done it myself and can’t think of a reason that I would.

    One area where it is fairly obvious, though, is when you look at book ratings on a site like GoodReads or Amazon. Upcoming books by well known authors can have hundreds of ratings before the book is even published…and these aren’t mostly ARCs as some defenders claim…many of them will have hundreds of ratings before the book is even *written*!

    For example, George R.R. Martin’s “A Dance with Dragons”, which is famously not completed yet (as anyone who follows his blog would know), already has 743 ratings, over half of which are 5 stars. Since the book isn’t even completed, not a single one of those ratings is based on anyone actually having read it. They’re based on anticipation, love of the series as a whole, etc. The negative ratings are largely driven by those who are frustrated by how long its taking to write, giving it 1 star because they’ve been waiting so long for the next book.

    Once a book is published you have to assume that most of the ratings are based on people having read it, but the above has to make you really question. All you can do is hope that the true signal of ratings by those who have read the book will wash out the noise of fakes.

    Can I have a strong opinion about a book because of what I’ve heard without having read it myself? Yes. I’ve heard enough about the Twilight series to have rather strong feelings about it, without any inclination to ever read it myself.

  3. @Mike–I’ll admit to the same thing about Twilight. I’ve only read the first book; I found it ok but not great. Having read reviews of the later three books, I know based on those reviews that they include plot elements I have no desire to read.

  4. Chris Taylor /

    I appreciate it’s a mild deviation from the core subject in mind but; myself and a friend have perfected a system for answering the questions on ‘University Challenge’. Whereby the answer to the question is often simply embedded within the question. The key is to concentrate on the key words and say the first thing that pops into your head!!
    Trust us, it’s works, and it makes you sound really intelligent!

  5. When I was in high school and college, I had many classes that required tons of reading, with essay tests on them. If I liked the book I was assigned to read, I read it all the way through. However, if it was a dull book that didn’t spark my interest at all, I would only read the first two chapters, the middle two, and the last two – giving me enough info to pass the test.

    I can see though how easy it is for someone to fake reading a book based on reviews. It gives you enough of the information you need to fake it.

  6. I think there was one book on my list in school I hadn’t actually read (out of 15 for Dutch and 10 for English). Not too bad I guess.

    Slightly related and something I find very amusing. Ever check the keywords people punch in to Google to end up on your site. There’s quite a few people who actually try to Google the questions that go with reading assignments. I’ve see quite a few in the last year or so. This one is my favourite:

    “how do the important characters in the novel hummingbird tree by ian mc donald action and attitiude change over a period of time or over the course of the novel ”

    Apparently this person had an awful lot of faith in Google :P
    I see stuff like this too:

    “what ship first picked up prendick at the beginning of the story?”

    A question on H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau. The answer is in the first few pages so reading it would probably have been faster than trying to Google the answer.

    My advice: read the ******** book.

  7. Haha, yes, I’ve noticed that often, Val — It’s pretty funny! I like your blog, BTW.

    Kelly — I did the opposite with a movie. I told my mom I was going to see something she approved of but I went to see something forbidden instead. I read movie reviews of the approved movie so I could accurately report the plot to my mom. She never found out.

  8. Oh, and I forgot to say: I teach college too. I have been astounded at how many students have either asked me if they need to read the textbook or have just said straight out that they don’t read their books. When I was in college I never considered that it was an option. It never occurred to me NOT to read the textbook!!! Now I put in my syllabus: You must read the textbook — you will do poorly if you don’t.

  9. @Kat: You might be surprised at the number of classes where it’s not necessary. I had several bad professors and teachers whose tests had more to do with their own political or personal opinions than the subject matter; the way to get a good grade on their tests was to tie in whatever their pet subject was! Didn’t matter if you knew anything about the ostensible subject of the class. LOL.

  10. @Kelly: Okay, but it’s kind of hard to work my political opinions into classes about brain function. It seems like it’s obvious that you have to read the book! :)

  11. Heehee! Yes, if I were taking your class, I’d definitely read the book. :D (And maybe pick your brain about your opinions of the effect of brain function on world economic policy or something. LOL)

  12. Having completed 3 undergrad degrees, my experience is that students typically do the least amount of work possible and that reviews such as cliff’s notes are less intimidating than the actual texts.

    I’ve done my best to read everything assigned, but there were a couple of semesters where that simply wasn’t possible (taking 18 hours of upper level English courses in one semester was not a great decision).

    I’m applying to grad schools and hope to teach at the university level eventually, so this is a very relevant question. Some of my professors have indicated that part of college is learning to read fast and accurately as well as to make decisions about which assignments must be read and which may be skimmed or quickly researched elsewhere.


    I have very mixed feelings about this perspective; on the one hand I am all over reading every single page assigned and thinking deeply about them before the class discussion, on the other hand, my experience has been that this is rarely possible if one is taking more than two reading intensive courses. It is extremely difficult to balance 100-200 page assignments per class per session with a job and/or a life beyond classroom reading.

    That being said, my last semester one of my professors had us turn in typed up page answering discussion questions each class session. This didn’t guarantee that we ALL had read each text in its entirety, but it did guarantee that each of us had read enough to know what we were talking about and could contribute to the discussion (because the prof made it clear that she would beneficently call on people at random since we all should have had enough awareness of the subject to have completed the assignment). This “short assignment” model was the most effective I’ve seen.

  13. Emily has a good point. I never had a job while I was in college or any other responsibilities (and I’m a fast reader). I was able to study for 6 hours per day at least (outside of classes). Many of my students have jobs and kids and have a different experience than I do. I still expect them to read their textbooks, but it must be more difficult for them than it was for me.

  14. I think my favorite is when my brother was in high school. One of his friends asked a group what a word meant. My brother laughed and said ‘you don’t know what that is?’ and then hit the guy he was standing next to and said ‘tell him what that means’. My brother didn’t have a clue what the word meant either, but he faked his way out of it pretty good.

  15. I was about to act all high and mighty in this regard because I have never not read a book that was assigned – a combination of being a fast reader and a bonafide completist so I find it difficult to not actually finish a book or series that I’ve started.

    But last semester I signed up for a second year anthropology class – despite not having any previous experience with the subject or similar fields – merely because I loved the subjects it was covering. Whilst I loved the subject itself I often had difficulty completing the assigned readings not being used to the style at all, however I was luckily not alone. In one class only one other student had completed a set reading despite the whole class trying. I quickly stumbled on a pattern – the readings most unread were infact the ones that had been originally written in french and then translated to English. Not only was the style harder to understand but in some instances the language used made it all but impossible to interpret what they author had meant. Luckily when I raised this issue my lecturer agreed that he too had problems with them and tried to stick to those originally written in English for the rest of semester

    In high school though it seemed that the kids who hadn’t read the books always got the best marks as they could churn out expected responses with appropriate quotes whilst others who had read the book but interpreted it differently were left with mediocre grades no matter how hard we tried.

  16. I’m kind of baffled that people actually do this, but then, I’ve always been a real goody two shoes about that sort of thing.

    That’s not to say I’m perfect. But at the very least I skim the reading material. Of course, with some things you can do that. I skimmed almost the entirety of Return of the King and still managed to miss absolutely nothing.

    Well, with the exception of why the orcs ran off when Aragorn and Co. showed up, but in my defense, you don’t learn until later that they had a thousand men with them.

  17. @A:

    That’s why I learned how to bulls*** on essays. Basically I listened to what the teacher wanted us to get out of the book and wrote the essay on that. Of course, I had to actually read the book for it to be successful, but still.

    What can I say? I guess deep down, I’ve always been a fiction writer. ;)

  18. P. Bayard wrote something that would translate as “How to speak of books you didn’t read”. He is right on many accounts. As a matter of fact I never could read russian authors past page 50 (too many people with too many names for someone who read too fast and generally “jump” over the names) but I do know a lot of things about russian novels and could speak about them a bit. I could because… I read a lot of other novels and non fiction books.
    When I was a student, we used to read a lot. But it seems that isn’t actually necessary to succeed nowadays in university (at least in France).

  19. Samantha Pugsley /

    When I was in high school I very often didn’t read the material required for class and then pretended that I had during our classrom discussions. There is one instance that really stands out in my mind even today.

    In my 11th grade AP English class we were required to read Frankenstein. I didn’t read it and made no effort to find out even a little bit about the book. Before class I turned to a random page and found a passage that I could talk about in case the teacher called on me. Of course, she did.

    So I made up an analysis on the spot and decided to talk about how the above mentioned passage had homosexual undertones. My teacher was so taken aback by the idea that the remainder of our class period was spent talking about how the novel Frankenstein could in fact contain instances of homosexuality.

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