I happened upon this article by Laurence Musgrove (I can't remember how) that neatly ties my last post to what's been concerning me, increasingly, for the past few semesters: the difficulties my students have with reading. When I first started teaching, it didn't take me long to realize with dismay how little (most of) my students enjoyed reading, but it has been a little unnerving to come to understand how badly they do it. In "On Reading to Oneself" William Gass offers a few of his own learning-to-read metaphors (page refs from Original Text-Wrestling book):
But the metaphor that comes to mind when I consider my own students is this one: they read like seagulls, winging high above a nearly blank beach, swooping down only for the familiar sparkly flash of crushed beer cans and foil hotdog wrappers.
Background. In the first writing classes I taught, in the rhetorical mode days, students mostly read model essays. Read a process essay, write a process essay; read a comparison/contrast, write a comparison/contrast. The idea, I suppose, was that dissecting these forms in class would enable students to better control the structure of their own essays. But because I probably ended up doing most of the dissecting myself in those classes and because the readings were mostly quite short (so as to better approximate the essays students would write, though there was still the problematic issue of using professional writing as a model for more inexperienced writers), many shortcomings in student reading skills were camouflaged. Or at least that's my current hypothesis. Because I was dissatisfied, for various reasons, with the essays students were writing and because the rhetorical-modes approach started to feel artificial and confining, I searched for alternatives.
I'm not sure how I found the University of Massachusetts's Text-Wrestling book (I think it was through web-surfing for colleges with hefty comp-support sites), but I decided fairly quickly to order an exam copy, then to give it a try. I liked the reading list (which included a number of authors I admire: Dillard, Gass, Percy, Sontag), I was pleased with the under-$30 pricetag, the wrestling metaphor seemed particularly apt, and (of course) the book was framed by Peter Elbow's sensible and wise voice (foreshadowing: spatial/temporal commingling). Though I have only used that particular book one semester, I have incorporated a text-wrestling assignment into my courses from then on, and I continue to be amazed at how difficult students find this summary-response assignment, which to me had seemed so basic and straightforward. (And if they can't manage this assignment, how in the world can I expect them to even begin that requisite staple, the freshman research paper?)
The symptoms: an attempt at analyzing reading problems.
- Last semester I asked students to text-wrestle an article titled "Technology and Happiness". I was amazed by the number of students who included in their summary a minor detail about an experiment in choosing from among 24 jam jars, a vivid detail to be sure but only tangentially connected to the main concerns of the article. Generalization: Here's an example of the seizing-the-sparkly-bits variety of reading.
- In conjunction with this, for some students it's not just that they can't understand the difficult bits, it's that they can't locate the difficult bits (or the significant passages either). They have little feel for what I think of as the density of a text, its centers of gravity.
- This summer (with student-selected course theme of sports and health) one text-wrestling option was Malcolm Gladwell's "The Physical Genius". This article seemed to me to split in blatant fashion into the several factors that contribute to the extraordinary physical abilities of such people as Wayne Gretsky and YoYo Ma. But rough draft summaries were scattered messes, picking up one thread from one section, another from another, the students seemingly unable to recognize the signposts that made visible (to me, anyway) the skeleton of the article. Even when I sent small groups off in search of structure, giving them broad hints ("The three/four factors are..."), they still had difficulty.
- Gass further describes reading with this analogy: As we read we divide into a theater: there is the performer who shapes these silent sounds, moving the muscles of the larynx almost invisibly; and there is the listener who hears them said, and who responds to their passion or their wisdom. Such a reader sees every text as unique; greets every work as a familiar stranger. Such a reader is willing to allow another's words to become hers, his. (132-33)
Many of my students, it seems, act as performer but fail to listen. They seem uncomfortable, not at ease, anxious, as if too much energy is absorbed by the effort of attending to the sound and meaning of individual words.
- Maybe this is just another way to look at it, but they seemed to be reading sentence-by-sentence, without stopping to consider whether they understood the present sentence, how that sentence fit in with what had come before, what expectations had been set up for how the text might unfold. The reflective aspect of reading, the gathering up and connecting and reconsidering, was in too many cases too slight. In Peter Elbow's article in the latest issue of CCC ("The Music of Form: Rethinking Organization in Writing"), he compares the reader to an ant crawling over a painting, limited in perspective, able to see only one bit of pigment at a time. There are ways, he claims, that "readers compensate for the way that language is trapped in the glue of time," for example, taking notes that "transform a long temporal experience into a visible representation that we can later take in quickly" (629). But he is rather more optimistic than I am about claims that readers naturally produce coherence, or strive to produce coherence: Research in cognitive science indicates that readers naturally tend to produce mental representations of a text, mental hypotheses of what a text is saying and how it's structured. As we start to read something, it's only a tentative hypothesis, but as we go further, we get more data and often revise our hypothesis. Perception itself works this way. With our first glance at something, the mind makes a hypothesis based on the first input and then continually checks and revises that hypothesis based on further input. As long ago as 1967, Ulrich Neisser gave a classic account of how different vision is from photography. The eye may have a lens that throws an image on the retina, but this is not "seeing." For one thing, the "camera" keeps jiggling: the eye continually jumps around and throws a welter of different images on the retina. Most importantly of all, the brain gets nothing like an image. Our understanding of what we "see" comes from a welter of electrical impulses that constantly change through time. The brain gets data in which there is no "resemblance" to the nice coherent chair we see. It has to construct and then confirm a chair hypothesis from nonvisual electric data. (629)My students, often, seem not to be taking this step, like the blind in Annie Dillard's essay "Seeing," who when vision is restored to them see only color patches, not sensible objects, and plead to be returned to comfortable darkness.
I have no training as a reading teacher. I was impatient myself with the explicit reading-strategy instruction I got in fourth, fifth, sixth grade: picking out topic sentences from workbook pages full of paragraphs, filling in those roman-numeral-capital-letter-Arabic-number outline forms, answering multiple-choice questions on the back of turquoise SRA folders about the invention of the cotton gin or the domestication of the horse (lucky to find one interesting folder among twenty). It all seemed laborious busywork. I can never remember whether it's SPQRR or SSPQR (and I'm not entirely sure what those letters stand for). But I started to feel the need to spend writing-class time talking explicitly about how to read. I kept it pretty simple: read texts over more than once (scan, then read more carefully); read with a pen in yr hand (throw out yr highliters! mark up that text!); use a dictionary (not necessarily for every word you don't know, but for ones that seem important); look for the main parts of the text, for summary paragraphs, for places you don't understand, or places that connect to yr experience or to other reading.
I tell them it's like exercise class. You won't get any benefit from watching me do jumping jacks, or listening to me describe how sit-ups should be properly done. You can't just come to class and listen to me and others talk about what the text means or how it's put together. You need to struggle with it yourself. But the analogy doesn't quite fit. As athletic trainer I would be able to see their form, count their reps, measure their growing strength and flexibility; as reading teacher, unable to see exactly what processes are going on inside their brains, I have to rely on more indirect measurements.
A question to consider: what purpose(s) does (or should, or could) reading serve in a writing class?
- In the Donald-Murray classroom, where student writing is the primary text, reading establishes a community of writers as students form an audience for each other�s work. In addition, it is hoped that looking at a colleague's work-in-progress will help the student develop the requisite objectivity for revision of his/her own work.
- In the reading-text-as-model school of thought, the student transfers organizational strategies from the professional (or student) model to her own essay.
- Though I've yet to be convinced that this works in FYC, with so many other pressing concerns to worry about, it seems theoretically possible that reading might help students develop sensitivity to language and style. (And I'm not sure the best way to accomplish this. I'm not sure how any of those style-imitation exercises might work. I've never really tried them myself, though my own responses to a text generally come first at the stylistic level, which is perhaps not the most useful predisposition for someone teaching comp. But a daily does of poetry might not be a bad idea, even in a comp class.)
- Reading can be an important source of information and evidence for expository and argumentative writing. (I remind students how much of the raw information about the world they get in written form--not only from those bulky $120 textbooks they tote around) and try to get them to imagine the limitations of knowledge in the prehistoric era, when sources of information were confined to experience and oral/aural transmission.)
- For those who see FYC as a rite of initiation into the academic discourse community, reading is the "listening" that's required for conversation to occur.
- And, finally, one of my favorite purposes for a skimming sort of reading is invention, or idea-generation, a process somewhat akin to eavesdropping on yr fellow passengers when riding the bus. (A recent find that might be useful in this sort of reading: Harper's Connections.)
The possibility of translation from reading skills to writing skills. The question of how large a part reading should play in the writing classroom depends, in large part I would think, on how well the skills translate. Is it possible to be a gifted (or competent, shall we say) writer without being a skilled reader? In what sense is one skill dependent on the other? The thing that's struck me lately is the parallel between readers and writers who proceed sentence by sentence, shuffling their feet ahead in the darkness of an unfamiliar space, the pressure of anxiety in their chests, if it doesn't paralyze them entirely, making it nearly impossible for them to remember the sequence of steps already taken. This shared difficulty in establishing coherence had made me suspect that there are underlying critical processes common to both activities.
- It seems to me a key question is through which avenue might it be easier to develop these thought processes. Writing is more visible, but at the same time (perhaps as a result of this visibility) it's fraught, for most students I think, with more psychological baggage, ingrained habits of procrastination and blockage.
- Another key question: if acquiring this skill represents a cognitive leap up from the foothills of Bloom's taxonomy, can a teacher do anything to hoist the student up this incline or motivate him to take the leap on his own power?
So I stopped going to classes. I gave up doodling the beginnings of proofs I could never seem to finish, assumptions I could never connect to their assigned conclusions. Instead I took up needlepoint. I slept in each morning. In the afternoons I sat cross-legged on the floor in between the stacks in the art library, oversized books heavy across my lap, paging through the paintings of Matisse and Mondrian, Seurat and Chagall, Klee and Van Gogh. I copied a few paintings into my sketchbook with light pencil strokes, favoring simple shapes and patches of clear color. At the craft store I bought canvas, tapestry needles, Persian wool. Late at night, after my roommate had turned off the light, I sat in the dorm lobby working on my needlepoint version of Picasso's fractured faces. I pulled the stitches taut, interlocking stitches up and down the diagonal like plump kernels of corn. I waited for the end of the semester, serene in the certainty of failure.
Jump ahead five years. After flunking out of Big Ten college, transferring to Hometown College, switching from math to English major, I have raked up BA, MA, MFA in fiction writing. With no publications to speak of and thus afraid, I suppose, of risking the job market, I end up working in a college library and, courtesy of free tuition benefits, start taking a few math classes again. Now here's the important thing: this time I get it, not just real analysis but abstract algebra and topology as well. For the life of me I can't pinpoint what changed in my brain, but something has. This sense that cognitive development happens (or not) almost independent of the external influence of teaching or the internal motivation of ambition makes me wonder what I can do, if anything, as a writing teacher to foster my students growth within the confines of a fifteen-week semester.
An aside in the form of an eventual parade of analogies, occasionally undigested. Though Elbow's article focuses on temporal strategies for achieving what he calls "dynamic cohesion" (a fascinating analysis that rewards vigorous text-wrestling, maybe a topic for a later post), he also talks about strategies for the spatial organization, in particular various sorts of sign-posting and mapping:
I have been thinking about the sufficiency or necessity or desirability of such sign-posting and map-making in the service of coherence, from both a reader's and a writer's point of view. And to make my bias clear, I share Elbow's belief that, although spatial organization may be important,
- To what extent are maps a matter of personal preference? Why is it that some people need to travel under the guidance of a rigid itinerary, while other travelers are more free-wheeling.? Is comfort with the unfamiliar a quality to be fostered? If we are journeying to get to one predetermined destination, do we notice the scenery that flickers past our window? Or is it possible/desirable to meander toward our goal?
- In my twenties I visited a friend who lived in Manhattan. Arriving midday, I had four or five hours to kill before she got home from work, so I wandered alone around the city, stumbling across places I'd only read about: Rockefeller Center, Barney's, the Russian Tearoom. I felt alive and open in an unexpected way I've never forgotten.
- A breed of mountain-climber known as the peak-bagger focuses on the number of summits attained (the notches-on-the-bedpost or entries-in-the-little-black-book sort of mentality,or am I making sexist assumptions?). The common example in my native state of New Hampshire is the climber whose goal is summiting the 46 NH peaks with elevations over 4000 feet. One of my brother's friends expanded this to climbing each of these 46 peaks in all four seasons from all four points of the compass; another of his predilections was to design a White Mountain climb that involved 29,028 feet of elevation gain in a period, as I recall, of 24 hours (he termed it a "Mount Everest").
- At the Museum of Modern Art last spring I watched visitors slide from one picture to the next, stopping for only a moment to snap a digital photograph of each one. I hadn't been to the museum in twenty-five years and had forgotten how many very famous paintings it displayed in its collections. I found myself keeping tally: The Persistence of Memory, Christina's World, The Red Studio, Starry Night, Girl before a Mirror (the painting I had copied into needlepoint thirty years ago). I found myself repeating the names of artists and paintings identified so that after a time I realized I was not actually looking at the paintings themselves. When I got home, I checked the museum's collections online, to verify my recollections, and took notes for a poem about a museum guard who imagines stealing a painting so that he can restore it to life, removing it from the museum-context that made it invisible or worse.
- For a science project in eighth grade, groups of us went out behind the school, past the soccer field and down the hill to Beard's Creek. Each group marked off a six foot by six foot square of ground. My group picked a nice plot, varied terrain, cut through by a trickling stream, boasting a few mature trees and some suitably interesting underbrush. For weeks, as I remember it, we went outside during class-time to collect data (temperature and other weather conditions, soil type), to identify the land's plant and animal inhabitants, to note ecological interdependences, one afternoon to rig up a sort of surveyor's transom to plot a grid of elevations we sketched into a contour map. That's the type of writing I'm drawn to: a small area marked out for exploration.
In "The Loss of the Creature" Walker Percy writes about how to see things freshly, to preserve the "sovereignty of the knower," which is really at the heart of student-directed, active, inquiry-based learning, where the task of the teacher is to create conditions somehow for this to take place:
In truth, the biography of scientists and poets is usually the story of the discovery of the indirect approach, the circumvention of the educator's presentation: the young man who was sent to the Technikum and on his way fell into the habit of loitering in book stores and reading poetry; or the young man dutifully attending law school who on his way became curious about the comings and goings of ants.[...]I propose that English poetry and biology should be taught as usual, but that at irregular intervals, poetry students should find dogfishes on their desks and biology students should find Shakespeare sonnets on their dissection boards. (226-27)
Last (as always): the pedagogy. I have for the past few semesters talked about reading strategies, then assigned the class a common text to summarize. The next class students would compare their summaries in groups, or I would Xerox a few for whole-class discussion (sometimes slipping in a summary I'd written myself, which often took me three or four hours to write, I would later confess, in one of those smarmy, self-congratulatory teacher-moves). Sometimes I gave different length requirements to different groups of students (explaining that the shortest was often the most difficult, a claim they never believed). This summer, when they brought in their summaries I asked them to revise, handing out first a blank page for notes, then an index card on which to collapse notes down to the skeletal structure. I'm not sure of the effectiveness of any of these techniques.
I have been thinking lately that perhaps I should assign lots more reading, try to carefully choose a progression of essays, but that's a hard thing to say when time is limited and time reading is taken from time writing. Maybe relatively short articles might work. In considering what such assignments might look like, I've come up with the following, trying to keep some of them short in terms of writing required:
- What is the densest paragraph?
- Mark the paragraph that contains the core of the author's argument.
- Locate the "disposable" supporting detail, the liquid that needs to be boiled away to thicken yr stew.
- Draw a diagram that reflects the structure of the piece. In what sense is the article circular or progressive?
- Look at a given section of the piece. What generality do the specifics in the section support? Alternately, what's the purpose of a certain section?
- Into how many sections does the piece split? What logic governs their separation?
- Write about why the article is difficult to understand (cf. Michael Arnzen on "The Difficulty Paper)