[image from BritLitWikispaces]
As a follow-up to Laura’s latest post on students’ responses to assigned fictional texts, I began thinking about the problem of student reading in literature classes, and how it affects our teaching. This is an issue that I regularly discuss with my colleagues both in- and outside the English department, because we generally feel at a loss about how to contend with our students’ struggles with reading.
The dilemma is as follows: the English major is supposed to be the place where disciplinary instruction in literature begins, but students’ reading skills, like their writing and research skills, are not strong, widespread, or consistent enough throughout the program for us to assume that they are working at a college or major level. Yet we often feel that our professional identities are threatened by the amount of non-disciplinary, skill-building instruction we must engage in, if we wish to reach our classes in a comprehensive way.
The reading problem seems to underlie many of the unpleasant interactions we have in the classroom: students not doing the assigned reading, or complaining face to face or in evaluations about the heavy workload of a particular course. At the same time, faculty grow impatient with the sludgy pacing of the course, the students’ slow uptake, the necessity of devoting greater and greater amounts of classtime to quizzes, even while assigning ever-briefer and simpler texts to students. Compounding the problem is the fact that the only solution we have for students’ spotty prior knowledge or lack of reading skills is yet more supplementary reading, a time-consuming add-on whose impact may be minimal because of the poor skills in the first place.
This generally results in two faculty responses: a resentful decision to let students “sink or swim,” teaching to the upper 30% who already possess the skills, while letting the rest work up to their level (tacitly accepting the idea that most of these fail or withdraw); or anxiously working back and forth between skill-building and disciplinary work, accompanied always with the guilty feeling that one part of the course is always stealing time from the other, equally necessary part (though only the disciplinary part of our teaching gets recognized).
For all these reasons, I mentioned Fred Hamel’s article, “Teacher Understanding of Student Understanding,” in the last thread, which talks about secondary school lit teachers’ difficulties conceptualizing their students’ reading. I think in many ways lit professors either don’t want to know about our students’ struggles reading, or have trouble responding productively to what they tell or show us in their work.
So here are a few takeaways from Hamel’s piece of ethnographic research about teachers’ attitudes toward student reading:
- Secondary school teachers, and the literature professors who train them, often conceptually detach student reading from literary instruction, treating it as a generic and predisciplinary “skill” to be take care of at some earlier stage of the curriculum by nameless others. This decision makes it more difficult for lit teachers to confront the problems that do arise in students’ reading. (I would also add that this disciplinarily-enforced curricular problem resembles the ongoing tension between writing instruction and literary instruction in many English departments, as Richard Haswell, for example, has discussed). My suspicion is that it would be more productive, and certainly more realistic, to see these efforts as mutually reinforcing throughout the curriculum; students and experts are continually working to improve their reading at every level, whether at beginning or advanced levels of the curriculum.
- While students’ first experience of texts often represent what Hamel and other experts term as “configurational” efforts (54), entailing a sense of exploration, dislocation and confusion regarding what they are reading, more advanced literature professors instruct through “memory-based readings” that direct students towards more integrated, coherent interpretations of the various elements of the text.
- The movement of the student from novice to experienced reader of literature involves a transition from the fragmented first-time reading experience to the fluent rereading and reconstruction of a (cumulative?) memory-based reading. However, the teacher’s immersion in the remembered coherence of an earlier reading experience may make it that much harder for her to communicate with the still-struggling novice.
- The real value of strategies like “talk alouds” (recording or observing students saying out loud what they’re thinking while they read or discuss a work of literature), as well as low-stakes writing, is that they give teachers access to students in mid-process, so that they can help students construct a more coherent understanding of what they are reading. However, because teachers have already arrived at coherent readings, their notions of what Hamel calls “reading-as-reproduction” (69) may cause them to dismiss the students’ attempts as inaccurate decodings rather than as “healthy strategic configurations” that could eventually produce their own coherence (72).
- Ultimately, Hamel is advocating that teachers work toward a Gadamerian “fusion of horizons” between their own expert practices and the more inchoate strivings of their students, but this approach necessitates maintaining some degree of curiosity about students as learners, and some engagement with their learning-process as they struggle to read and understand what they find. In essence, this gesture means that whatever content knowledge we might have, we remain “partially knowledgeable” about how our students are receiving and processing what we teach. In Gadamer’s terms, we must position ourselves as those “knowing that we do not know” (79).
And here are a few of my own observations, tacked on to Hamel’s discussion:
- Though Hamel doesn’t mention this, I suspect that simply showing a student a single coherent literary reading is much less effective than breaking down the complex process by which we make our readings coherent. This process includes not just reading a primary text in a coherent manner, but reading and integrating into one’s understanding a variety of secondary and now theoretical texts as well. It also involves knowing a variety of historical and methodological frameworks, all of which could produce a coherent reading, and choosing one from an open set of alternatives. The pedagogical question then becomes: how best to reveal this complex process to students, and how best to break it down so that they may practice and master it themselves?
- I would also note that because this process of making-readings-coherent involves reading not just primary texts, but secondary and other kinds of texts, literature professors should also be teaching students how to read a variety of texts, including scholarly monographs, articles, along with the searching skills necessary to locate emerging scholarship. As an example of this kind of instruction, an annotated bibliography assignment teaches students how to produce coherence among a self-selected group of secondary texts.
- The crucial pedagogical question that remains for me is what kinds of practice in reading reliably yield the most useful insights for novices. What I have learned is that we all have limited time, so I still need to figure out the most effective ways to make their reading strategies both more efficient and more comprehensive, both faster and more capacious. There are times when they need to select only the most critical pieces of information, and other times when they need to retain a more holistic and rich sense of what a literary text is “about.” Having outlined this, I’m still unsure about what kinds of teaching help to produce or extend this more dynamic sense of reading.
UPDATE: Here’s the full cite:
Vol. 38, No. 1 (Aug., 2003), pp. 49-84
But I ask you — how can assessment be meaningful if we spend as much time teaching students to be students as we do our subject? and how can the teaching in our subject not suffer if we are taking so much time away from it to give students the skills they need to succeed (to a point — if students really are clueless and hopeless, I will ask them to drop). I have colleagues who simply fail such students, but there has to be a better resolution.