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.
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?
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.