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.