gall and gumption

Friday, December 28, 2007

Since You Asked...

Email from Tom yesterday, asking me my thoughts on teaching reading. A friend of his is preparing to teach an ethics course and wonders how to teach students how to read older texts – such as you might find in, say, 18th century literature – that may discourage students because they are a little foreign in style and not quite what they’re used to.

He sent some samples of material that was about teaching reading.

Here are the links:

The first one is I.A. Richards.


This is a collection of impractical tips based on Richards -- impractical tips! That seems like an idea with some fun in it!


OMG people! Remember “close reading?” Note that none of these suggestions can be implemented by any student unless that student already knows, i.e., has been told, what he or she is looking for. But it is very impressive at conferences and department meetings. Shows that the person is acculturated into the academic environment: stay up all night producing something like this that shows how organized your mind is.

and here’s another, remarkable because it links to the mythical Sven Birkerts.


And here is what I wrote, after a speedy run-through.

My thoughts are that these all rely too much too on apparatus that is cumbersome and distracting from the act of reading. People learn to read by being interested in what they read. If that happens they will get the thing that they read, as opposed to whatever anybody tells them they should be looking for.

It's odd that these are about teaching reading, but they are all instructions for students. It seems to me that Phil's friend needs instructions for teachers and not for students.

So.

Teacher needs to ask self:

Am I interested, excited, moved by what I have read, enough to think it is important for my students to understand it?

Really? Sincerely?

Can I locate the source of my excitement, of what is important, of what has meaning in what I and these students just read?

Can I explain it to my students so that they understand something of what it means, of why it is important, why it moves me?

If the answer to any of these questions is no, do not teach.

If the answer to all of these is yes, here is how you teach your students to read:

You select for discussion a passage or a text that you care about, that you see as important, and you talk about it truthfully, candidly, thoughtfully, and you show them how you got what you got out of it. If they follow you, they will get more out of it than you gave them, because they will learn from and make use of your example of how to read. Oh, and by the way that means you have to know your way around the text.

You ask open-ended questions, none of that "Socratic Dialogue" bullshit.

You encourage students to try to form their own questions about what they read -- to define their own problems n their own words. You don't tell them this necessarily, but defining the problem you are having with a text can solve about 80 percent of it. And then you answer their questions.

You don't judge their words. You respond to them with thoughtfulnes, care, and respect, establishing a lucid relationship between their question and the text. Because when they tell you they don't understand, that is the frontier of the humanitiies.

If you make this conversation interesting and rich, if you give a sense that the material has untapped riches and **that they have as much of a right to get at in their way as anybody else**, they will learn to read.

Give them permission to skim over the hard parts if they must, and urge them to make note of anything interesting -- page number, phrase, written out passage, comment on it, just so they can find it if they need to talk about it or write about it. In discussion, keep referring the conversation back to the text: as in "Well, let's see again what XXX actually says." Because it's good to remember that the actual text is different from your idea of it at any given moment.

Honestly I do not think it is necessary to do more. If you don't believe you can teach the material on the merits of its inherent interest you just should find something you can care about or get out of teaching.

Everything else just gets people tangled up in all the apparatus and then they feel even more cut off from the author and his/her material. All you are doing is giving it to them as a gift, not even as a gift, as something they already own.

Reading is experience, it is an activity like thinking; it isn't a method. There is no system for getting it, just reading one thing after another.

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15 Comments:

At 7:15 PM, Blogger L7 said...

. . .stay up all night producing something like this shows how organized your mind is.

Shows how boring your life is!

P.S. "Close reading!" Baloney!

 
At 11:05 PM, Anonymous phil said...

Thanks, Kia. I will pass your post on to the friend teaching the class. Humbling to read your passionate remarks. Makes me miss teaching and great teachers.

 
At 9:53 PM, Blogger buckner said...

Thanks also from me. I'm getting ready to teach a Writing About Art class (Van Gogh's Letters, Robert Henri's Art Spirit, A Giacometti Portrait by James Lord, and Harold Rosenberg), I haven't taught this class since the late 90s. Your words give me encouragement and remind me how to proceed.

 
At 7:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good list. And maybe you'd like to teach again?
That would be a gift.
Happy New Year, m'dear.
--BB

 
At 8:36 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

“In a leaflet, How to Read the Gospels (1896), Tolstoy tells us:--‘A great teacher is great just because he is able to express the truth so that it can neither be hidden nor obscured, but is as plain as daylight.’ “ ‘And, indeed, the truth is there for all who will, with a sincere wish to know the truth, read the Gospels without prejudice, and, above all, without supposing that the Gospels contain some special sort of wisdom beyond human reason.’” --Aylmer Maude, Tolstoy and His Problems: Essays. Grant Richards: London. Second Edition. 1902. 27-28. “Read them, putting aside all foregone conclusions; read them with the sole desire to understand what is said there. But, just because the Gospels are holy books, read them considerately, reasonably, and with discernment, and not haphazard or mechanically, as though all the words were of equal weight. “To understand any book one must first choose out the parts that are quite clear, dividing them from what is obscure or confused. And from what is clear we must form our idea of the drift and spirit of the whole work. Then, on the basis of what we have understood, we may proceed to make out what is confused or not quite intelligible. This is how we read all kinds of books. --Aylmer Maude, Tolstoy and His Problems: Essays. Grant Richards: London. Second Edition. 1902. 28.

 
At 9:59 AM, Blogger Kia said...

buckner
(Do you mind if I call you buckner?)

Take a look also at Fairfield Porter's art criticism. He wrote these short reviews, sometimes just two short sentences. I always thought that was a great idea.

Also Ben Shahn's The Shape of Content (the one about how he made a painting about a fire that killed some children, and there's also an excellent one about art education where he talks about how education has to be integrated in the student)is another one that I liked. And also, on your recommendation, ages ago, I fell in love with Delacroix's Journals and used to give them out like Gideon Bibles. I still have a copy to give to Mary P. around the house somewhere.

BB
I'd like to -- I do miss teaching, though it was a nice change not to be doing it for a while and I still prefer writing. But if I'm going to do work that prevents me from writing by eating up my time then yes, teaching would be my non-writing lifestyle of choice. I'm not sure I can, though. I mean I've been out of it so long I don't know if I can pass as a candidate anywhere. But you've met me before, God knows, and you know I tend to think the worst.

 
At 12:10 PM, Blogger buckner said...

I thought about including Delacroix--I've taught it in this class before. But...frankly, I'm teaching art students, and they aren't known to be great readers. I was afraid of overloading them. I'm planning to offer it as extra credit for the zealous ones.

I've known about Porter and Shahn, but never read them. I'll take a look. Those are great quotes by Tolstoy!

 
At 4:58 PM, Blogger buckner said...

Also: "Anything that is worth studying should be read as slowly as it will let you."

This reminds me of Mudrick asking students to read the Life of Johnson, Decline of the Roman Empire, and about five other books in one semester. He expected the first half of Boswell to be read by the first class meeting. Slow down indeed! What about appetite?

I also think of Al Stephens describing a boring lecture as like watching a small pea being rolled down a very long road. A well-organized pea no doubt.

 
At 5:11 PM, Blogger Kia said...

Oh God! I love the very small pea!

 
At 9:58 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"... you read something, one side of your mind comprehends it, but another thinks abut it and in general lines imagines to itself whole poems, novels, theories of philosophy."
--Tolstoy to his cousin, letter of 1865
(cited in Alexandra Tolstoy's "Tolstoy: A Life of My Father")

--BB

 
At 1:53 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Last Tolstoy quote, I promise.
--BB

"Intelligibility, comprehensibility, is not only a necessary condition if people are to read willingly, but is, I am firmly convinced, a check which prevents what is foolish, inappropriate or untalented from appearing in a journal. If I were the editor of a popular journal, I would say to my colleagues: write what you will, preach communism, the Flagellant faith, Protestantism, what you will, only in such a way that every word should be intelligible to the carter who takes the copies round from the press; and I am certain that the journal would contain nothing that is not honest, wholesome and good. I am not joking, and I don’t wish to talk in paradoxes, but I know this well from experience. IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO WRITE ANYTHING BAD IN COMPLETELY SIMPLE AND INTELLIGIBLE LANGUAGE. {emphasis added.} Everything immoral will seem so ugly that it will be discarded at once: everything sectarian, whether Protestant or Flagellant, will appear so false if expressed without unintelligible phrases; everything would-be educational, popular-scientific, but not serious and for the most part false, which popular journals are always full of, also expressed without such phrases but in intelligible language, will seem so stupid and impoverished that it will also be thrown out. If a popular journal seriously wishes to be a popular journal, it only has to try to be intelligible and it is not difficult to achieve this. On the one hand it has only got to filter all the articles through the censorship of yardmen, cabmen and kitchen cooks. If the readers don’t stop over a single word which they don’t understand, the article is fine. But if after reading an article none of them can tell what they have read about, the article is useless."
--Tolstoy’s Letters. Edited by R. F. Christian. New York: Charles Scribners’ Sons. 1978. 276. [Feb. 10-19, 1875.]

 
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