Back in golden days of yore, when everyone walked ten miles to campus in whiteout conditions (barefoot!), professors assigned a different Victorian novel every week. And the students (they were real students then, in golden days of yore), smiled gratefully and read. Every. Single. Word. In fact, they read every single word while walking ten miles to campus in whiteout conditions (barefoot!).
This utopian vision has been provoked by a thread at VICTORIA--see #5, 6, and 7--on students' inability, or sheer unwillingness, to read long novels. Some contributors have already offered their own skeptical observations, noting that students have resisted long books since, if not the Dawn of Time, then at least most decades in recent memory; indeed, some faculty of my parents' generation (including, come to think of it, my parents) have confessed that while different books often were assigned every week, many students (dare I whisper it?) failed to read them.
To be somewhat less snarky, I'm going to offer up a depressingly dull observation: confronted with, say, Bleak House or Middlemarch, my undergraduates tend to dig in and read. I'm sure that they grumble when safely out of earshot--but yet, the reading gets done. I've never yet had anyone come up with a creative (or merely dishonest) explanation for his or her inability to finish a long novel; if anything, some of the students seem to feel as though they've actually accomplished something by getting through nine hundred pages of Victorian prose. These undergraduates are surely as TV-, film- and web-oriented as any other undergraduates in the USA; shouldn't they break out in hives when confronted with The Way We Live Now? (Not that I've ever confronted undergraduates with The Way We Live Now, but you get the idea.) This is not to deny that other people have students who try to wiggle their way out of anything longer than a short-short--merely to note that not all students respond to the Great Visual Age in the same way.
It's true that I don't expect students to exist solely on a diet of Bleak House-length fiction. When teaching any Victorian novel-related course, I do my best to vary novels according to length and difficulty. For example, Mary Elizabeth Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret--besides being a good example of Victorian sensation fiction--reads so quickly that students have reported finishing it off in a couple of nights; it thus offers a helpful breathing space before, say, Middlemarch. But the students know perfectly well that they're getting into something that will require anywhere from 150-300 pages of reading per week, and most appear to survive the experience. This cannot be all that unusual. (Either that, or I'm just so intimidating that students tremble at the thought of the vengeance I might wreak should they fail to do the reading on time. Granted, at 5'3'', I'm not really capable of wreaking anything especially drastic, but one never knows.)