Category Archives: Reading

teaching reading and teaching literature, take two

As with my group-work post, I was surprised by the persistence and vehemence of this thread about teaching reading skills, though I suppose I shouldn’t be.

What I learned immediately after posting on this topic was that for many higher ed literature instructors, the distinction between teaching “skills” and teaching literary content was not clear at all.  For many of us, students commonly arrive in our classrooms unable to retain any formal features of the works they read, unable to distinguish between genres, styles, or literary periods, and lacking any significant independent reading previous to their arrival in college.

I don’t have any ready answers to these problems, but in this follow-up I’ll mention some texts that have helped me deal with this issue at UH, which I think has a student body that is fairly typical for a large, urban public university.  Here are the works that have influenced my thinking about teaching disciplinary reading in our English major:

First of all, the absolutely invaluable McKeachie’s Teaching Tips, now in its thirteenth edition, has a few choice pages in its chapter, “Reading as Active Learning,” The best insight is right up front: “The main reason why students come to class unprepared is that they don’t see what difference it makes” (31).  So how can we make the reading make a difference in our students’ experience of the class?  For one thing, this means that much of the summary we do in class, however well-intended, can have the effect of reinforcing the notion that students can come in unprepared and hear the professor’s own summaries instead.

One alternative strategy, according to McKeachie, is to open class by asking students to produce a one-minute paper explaining one or two major ideas from the assigned reading; if you feel that that task would be too challenging, ask them to produce one or two discussion questions then and there to lead in to your discussion, and see if other students are able to answer those questions (32).  Or sequence it so that students are first asked to produce questions, then later the one-minute writings, as they grow more familiar with the course and the readings.

Another source I’ve used is a still-useful review of reading research, “Instruction for Self-Regulated Reading,” by Annemarie Sullivan Palincsar and Ann L. Brown, in a collection called Toward the Thinking Curriculum (1989).

The key insight here is that “reading” in an academic setting is not simply running one’s eyes over the page, but an active, self-regulated process of learning.  As the authors indicate, “self-regulated learning” means the ability to draw reliably upon three kinds of knowledge in the course of, say, reading: knowledge of learning strategies (what is the most efficient way to learn this?), metacognitive knowledge (how well am I learning this?), and real-world knowledge (how does this connect to what I already know about the subject matter and the world?) (20).

Palincsar and Brown’s essay is designed for K-12 researchers and teachers, but many of the insights work fine for higher ed teachers, especially in their summary of the major reading strategies necessary for students to both “monitor and foster comprehension.” Here’s their list:

  1. clarifying the purposes of reading to determine the appropriate approach to the reading activity (e.g., skimming, studying);
  2. activating background knowledge to create links between what is known and the new information presented in the text;
  3. allocating attention so that the major content, not trivia, becomes the focus;
  4. evaluating content critically for internal consistency and compatibility with prior knowledge and common sense;
  5. using monitoring activities (e.g., paraphrasing, self-questioning) to determine if comprehension is occurring;
  6. drawing various kinds of inferences (e.g. interpretations, predictions and testing them (20)

In other words, are students clear about the purpose of their reading assignment?  Do they know how the assignment connects to the course’s previous readings or their own background knowledge?  Do they know how to identify the most crucial parts of the reading?  Can they read critically enough to recognize its internal inconsistencies or violations of common sense?  Can they monitor themselves to evaluate whether they comprehend the material?  Are they able to draw good, workable inferences from their reading, and then test them against the reading and their prior knowledge?

It is unlikely, as the authors admit, that any teacher could emphasize more than a few strategies in a teaching, but it would be interesting to know what kinds of strategies worked with which kinds of reading assignments.

Finally, Maryellen Weimer, editor of the Teaching Professor blog, has another useful set of tips in a report hosted by the Faculty Focus newsletter, 11 Strategies for getting students to read what’s Assigned (free, but reg. req’d).

There’s lots of different ideas in this report, but the one observation I’d make is that, while reading skills generally, and textbook reading especially, are common problems throughout the college curriculum, literature classes need to focus in very specific ways on student reading.

To wit, a literature curriculum needs to introduce and reiterate to students the difference between reading literary works (which demand the retention of formal features like diction, style, genre, character-types, setting, description, narrative and argumentative organization, point of view, etc.) and reading other kinds of works, genres, or disciplines, which may very well have their own complexities.  Even in a cultural studies course, this only means using literary-style reading techniques for texts and genres that usually don’t receive such treatment.  So what does it mean to read, think, and write like a literature scholar (for they are all intimately connected with one another)?  That is what we should be trying to convey to our students, from the major on upwards.


if we read literary histories, why should we be afraid of machine-reading?

After reading D.G. Myers and the Little Professor on the timeliness of literary history, especially in light of Mark Bauerlein’s discussion of the “diminishing returns” of literary criticism as performance, I’ve been thinking a lot about the way literary scholars read each other’s books.  And one of the things that struck me was the (obvious?) fact that scholars routinely read literary histories about books we’ve never read before, because we want to learn more about them, and possibly read them ourselves.  Not so, I suspect, with the conventional close readings of literary critical monographs, which I’m assuming are pretty well useless with authors or works we are unfamiliar with or uninterested in.  Am I wrong about this?  Because my intuition tells me that close-reading monographs are books that are only useful for those who are already committed to the value and interest of the works studied.  And this might account for the decline of such single author books, in the absence of a clear consensus about which books to focus on.

Although I usually disagree with Bauerlein, I think he has a point about the overproduction of literary criticism, and think that LP and Myers are probably correct to focus on literary history.  (That’s why I’m writing one myself)  But while I was mulling over this, I realized that I’d just read an entire series of exchanges on EMOB and on this blog about the allure of “machine reading” books for literary criticism.   And I myself get nervous about being led through a huge database without reading everything myself, and allowing the machine to do the searching for me.  But then I realized that we often read literary histories for exactly this kind of searching/sorting through of possible leads for our own research.  So why not use such “finding aids,” especially when we have an entire category of scholarship devoted to producing such “aids”?  Or is this too deflating a description of our own scholarship?


Cultural Studies and the BABL

The 18th-century cultural studies panel from MLA provided an excellent discussion about the opportunities and limitations of cultural studies as pedagogy, especially in the undergraduate classroom, and has got me thinking about ways to solve, or at least massage, some of the problems discussed on the panel, using some of the resources that are cropping up for instructors as guides for my students. The main problem that emerged during the cultural studies panel and the ECCO panel that morning was the lack of a guide to navigate the wealth of contextualizing sources available to our students, many of whom lack the research experience and intuition necessary to decide what is relevant to the study of a historical text and what may not yield a fruitful contextualization.

One of the resources I’m excited to have accessed is the Broadview Anthology of British Literature’s Instructor’s Guide, which I contributed to last summer. I got a passcode for these materials at Broadview’s display at the convention, and am very pleased to see the materials assembled there, which I can see using quite actively in the classroom. The guides generally provide a series of critical approaches to the authors, a few thoughtful readings of their major works, some questions for discussion, some material on critical responses to the works, and often a nice section of texts that provide some cultural context for the work. Although not all of the authors are covered yet, the ones that are provide a sort of roadmap to criticism and historical sources for many of the authors and texts we teach at the undergraduate level.

Obviously, the guides provided by BABL are limited in that the historical sources they suggest are those chosen by whatever scholar wrote the draft of the guide, but they do offer, at least, positive suggestions (i.e., something like “Try looking here”) as opposed to the negative suggestions we often find ourselves making to undergraduate researchers (“No, that’s probably not going to be a good source; try again”). My own guide, on Swift, reflects my personal interests in popular print culture and political economies, and is therefore quite limited, beyond some suggestions about other topics to research. However, I hope it offers something like what I offer students in class who simply don’t know where to start—a suggestion of a few leads that have the potential to produce an exciting research project, leading to further research more specific to that student’s interests.

One of the most exciting things, pedagogically, for those of us who encourage historical research in literature classes, is that our students may find wonderful sources that we’ve never encountered before, and make excellent connections we haven’t thought of. Those who have a knack for sussing out sources and making interesting conclusions can respond to an open-ended research assignment with passionate inquiry. However, at the undergraduate level, these open-ended research assignments can result, as Dwight Codr suggested during the panel, in a kind of despair.

In my own historical-research wiki assignment, in which I offered 70 narrow topics for research to my students, the results were either inspiringly brilliant or depressingly nonexistent. Quite a few students chose to take a zero for the assignment rather than complete the work, and a great number did only cursory and often inappropriate research (citing other student-made websites rather than primary sources, etc.), despite a great deal of class-time devoted to discussion of how to find and use primary sources. I eventually had to make the assignment extra-credit, so as not to fail a third of each of my classes. I assumed at the time that the project itself was doomed, but now I wonder if the problem was that one must not just teach students to do primary source research; one must model it for them by guiding them to examples of appropriate sources first, not just topics and suggestions for where to look.

What I hope to use the BABL guide for next semester is to mine it for historical sources that I can assign directly to students who do not readily come up with sources of their own, and to assign them the contextualization work suggested by the guides and by my own previous reading experiences. Once they have followed a path that previous scholars have found fruitful, perhaps they can then be more attuned to the kinds of sources they might look for in future assignments. After all, most of us learned to do contextualizing research by reading professional historicist criticism, not by slogging blind through special collections or databases. We learn to do this work largely by example, not by trial and error.

The problem in the past, for me, has been that my reading of primary sources outside of literature has largely been in special collections that my students do not have access to, and little of it has been the kind of stuff that interests my students. While I’d love to get them all interested in the Gentleman’s Magazine or in Coke’s Institutes of the Lawes of England, I can’t necessarily expect them all to travel from their homes on Long Island to midtown Manhattan to spend four or five hours trying to decipher typefaces totally unfamiliar to them, and expect them to find something critically interesting and relevant to the class, and expect them to then draw knowledgeable and well-written conclusions about those sources that their classmates will then read and use. Out of the past 200 or so students I’ve urged to go use a special collection for their research, exactly one student actually did it, and she ended up citing almost nothing she read there.

Although the BABL guides don’t tend to reproduce entire sources, they do often provide a few pages of contextualizing sources, from which a student could at least get a hint of whether she wants to spend time looking further at that source or not. On a larger scale, one could imagine a resource like the BABL guides, except perhaps in a wiki form, with suggestions by scholars of possible contextualizing sources for major authors or genres and short excerpts, as well as lists of places to find these resources on the web, on EEBO or ECCO, or in special collections. This would take a great deal of time and energy on instructors’ and scholars’ parts, but, if Wikipedia has taught us anything, it’s that human beings are glad to expend energy in a collective way if there is the promise of an output greater than their individual input.

Do we think it’s possible for literary and cultural-studies scholars, a turf-warfare bunch if ever there was one, to cooperate in some kind of project like this? Would it be best to run it somewhat like Wikipedia, with mostly pseudonymous authorship and editing? Would it be a gigantic disaster?

-Carrie Shanafelt

What is a wiki for?

Many of you have asked for an update about my wiki experiment of last year, and I held off on responding because it didn’t go very well, and I don’t really blame the wiki itself as a medium.

To review, what I did with my British Literature survey wiki was to ask students to research a topic of cultural, political, sexual, or economic history in Britain between 1600 and 1800. They were supposed to find a few good sources and sum up what they found in a brief and informative wiki article with citations, so that their peers could easily glean a great deal of interesting information about, for example, Restoration fashion, the Gunpowder Plot, or the social position of Jews in London in the mid-18th. If we had time, we could have revised, sharpened, and interlinked the articles to create a very interesting and useful resource.

I chose that assignment because I had done something similar when I was taking Nigerian Lit as an undergrad. The course was so packed with novels and plays that the professor did not really have time to lecture on the entirety of postcolonial Nigerian history and culture, so each member of the class developed a one-page annotated summary of a particular topic, which we briefly presented and provided for our classmates. It was an excellent wake-up call to me as an English-centric student that What We Do is so deeply tied into matters of history, political science, religion, and philosophy that we have to be able to do research in other fields just to be able to understand what we’re reading. We can’t just wait for a professor to give us all the context we need.

With a similar purpose, I asked my students to go to the library and look up things about their topics. I gave them names of books I knew might be good. I helped them get access to primary sources from the special collection I worked in. As far as I knew, everything was going swimmingly.

But when the time came for me to check in on the wiki, I was dismally disappointed to see that only a handful of them followed the directions. The ones who did produced interesting, lovely little summaries, often with visual aids and excellent sources. But most of them cited only websites (which I’d explicitly banned so they’d go to the library), simply copied paragraphs out of encyclopedias (again, banned, and, well, plagiarism), or did not do the assignment at all.

Grades plummeted. What happened here? I gave explicit directions, which several people were able to follow without incident. But when 2/3 of the class simply cannot do an assignment at a passing level, I have to assume that there is something wrong with the assignment. Because the resource they created was so poor as a whole, none of them read their classmates’ work, and no one bothered to create links between articles. As a wiki, it was not functional.

The following semester, I made this assignment extra credit, and, again, several of the articles I received were excellent, but many received no extra credit at all. In the end, the extra credit only ended up benefiting those who were sure to receive A’s anyway, which was proof enough to me that it was a failure as an assignment.

I asked, both semesters, what had gone wrong. The main answers I got were that they had no idea how to summarize (not surprising, given that an analytical summary is a pretty sophisticated rhetorical skill most students aren’t asked to do until grad school) and that they had no idea how to skim sources. I got many emails asking the repeated question, “Are you saying I have to read three 500-page books???” I’d say, no, you have to look in the index or table of contents, find the relevant information, and figure out what would be important for your classmates to know, regarding your chosen topic. Many of my students did not know how to find information in non-fictional texts. They are English majors, and they’re used to reading every word.

In addition, I fear that asking them to post to a website was just one more hassle on top of scholarly/rhetorical hassles that created an inappropriate amount of stress. All of these skills are important, and I wish I could say that I could teach all these skills in my class, but in the context of a Renaissance-to-Modernism survey, I just don’t have time to teach rhetoric, research, and reading at that level.

When I taught the class this summer, I dumped the wiki assignment, which was clearly going nowhere and was not helping the students it was designed to help. I refocused my efforts on getting my students to practice analytical summary (which, by hook or by crook, I’m going to teach them) and research. This time, I asked them to write a three-page summary of a significant critical article on a poem or poems from the syllabus, and another one on a prose work from the syllabus.

This assignment got them to isolate for themselves (a) what literary criticism is, and (b) what a literary-critical argument does, as well as (c) how that relates to their own reading of a work. I know this sounds very basic, but I’m not sure it’s something they think about when they’re writing run-of-the-mill research papers. Many of my students have somehow gotten through most of their coursework without really seeing that literary criticism is not about “facts” and “opinions” but about arguments that open texts up for more interesting and engaged reading.

The responses I got from this assignment were, on the whole, really magnificent. My students said they struggled with the summary mode, but the assignment was do-able, and they were happy to see how this would improve their research papers at the end of the semester. A few students turned in summaries of study guides on the literature, which was depressing, but depressing things in isolation are not as depressing as an entire class of depressing things. Most of them found really fascinating articles, and many of my more excellent students developed a strong attachment or aversion to the article they found, which often became the basis of a fabulous paper at the end of the semester.

This is where the wiki comes in. I was so thrilled by the work they were doing this summer that I’d like for them to turn their summary essays in to the wiki. This would create a genuinely useful resource for the class, helping them to see what kinds of literary-critical work is out there, and what a broad range of journals they could dip into. Of course, there is the mild concern that they will merely read a fellow student’s summary of an article and not look into the article itself, but there are easy ways of making sure they know that is not sufficient.

The point of a wiki, after all, is to get my students to have an attitude of collaboration, rather than competition, which is extremely difficult to instill in a population like Queens College, which doesn’t have dormitories or a “campus” mentality. I often fear that many students show up to school every day thinking about how they can beat out another student for a grade, as if it worked that way, mostly because they then get in their cars and drive home, out of the city. I feel like much of my work as a teacher, throughout CUNY, has been trying to convince my students that the sea of camaraderie raises all ships, and that I’m not interested in just focusing on a few brilliant students in the front row and leaving the rest behind. With the wiki, I’ve been hoping to allow them to see their classmates not just as personalities, but as other minds in the classroom who have something to offer them.

We shall see, we shall see. I’ll let you know how it goes. I’m not ready to abandon the idea of my class producing content for one another, so I will keep trying.

Summer teaching

How do you get from the Renaissance to postmodernism in three and a half weeks? You teach a summer session course!

It was my full intention, of course, to begin posting with a fury again here, and I am excited about doing so next week, when I’ll finally have the time to think once more about the eighteenth century without it merely serving as a brief and beloved stopover between the Restoration and Romanticism. From Monday through Thursday for the past three weeks, I’ve been teaching one group of 25 students from 9 am until nearly noon.

Obviously, this is insane. Students barely have time to get through the readings for each day of class, which represents a full week of coursework during the regular semester, and nevermind any chance to teach analytical methodologies. I’ve had to replace all the writing assignments with research summaries just to make completion of something possible for them.

But although I am exhausted by the daily commute, lecturing, answering frantic questions, and hunting for lunch on a campus that is mostly shut down, I really love teaching like this. I only have twenty-five students, so it’s easier to get a feel for who they are and what their needs are. Classes are long and intense, and we can have more connected conversations, as the students and I are unlikely to forget who said what last week. Best of all, they know that there is no way to slack off; the work cannot be put off until later because there is no “later.”

It seems odd, but I am far more confident about my summer students keeping up with the reading than I am about my regular-semester students, who may be under the impression that they can catch up right before the final. And the emotional involvement they create with the texts seems so much more communal to me. One summer, for an “Intro to Lit” class at Hunter College, I taught Les Liaisons dangereuses, and nearly all of my students started showing up half an hour early to pick fights with one another about the book. This summer session, when I’ve shown up five minutes early for class, half of them are already in their seats, giving one another suggestions on their written work. I have rarely seen that kind of voluntary engagement outside of a summer class, especially in CUNY colleges where the students have no opportunity to forge academic friendships in dormitories.

I look forward to sleeping in during July and August, as waking up at 5am every day takes its toll. But for the next two days, I’m happy that I’ve had the opportunity to watch 350 years of British literary history flash by between June 4 and June 27.

Is anyone else out there teaching a summer session course? Am I the only person who gets a kick out of it? It has also made me wonder about how block scheduling works for the study of literature. There are certainly drawbacks to the logistics of it, but the intensity of the classroom experience is remarkable.

Where did you get that Grandison?

On Tuesday, I was having a chat with David Richter about his upcoming ASECS paper “Postmodern Pastiche: Jane Austen in New York and A Cock and Bull Story,” about films based so loosely on eighteenth-century texts that one would need to have fairly intimate familiarity with those texts to understand what they’re doing in the film. Jane Austen in New York is especially difficult for viewers, as it depicts a theater company putting on a rarely-seen theatrical adaption by Austen of Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison, a book so out of print that even bad, stained, and incomplete copies of it go for $75 to $2000 online.

This reminded me that Grandison is on my orals list, but I have never actually held a copy of it in my hands.

The only remedy for this problem seems to be saving 50-page PDFs of it from ECCO, which is how I’ve gotten to read many of Johnson’s more rarely reproduced texts. However, I am not above begging.

Does anyone here know of anyone who would part with a Grandison? I am willing to pay something reasonable for it. Email me at carrieshanafelt at gmail if you have a lead for me.

Also, if you get the chance to see Richter’s presentation (Session X), I’d love to hear how it goes!

Johnson and Fideism

Although the previous chapter was titled, “The Fideist Reaction,” there were several earlier hints of a “Protestant reaction” extending forward into the nineteenth century. That complete history does not appear in this chapter, as Parker analyzes Samuel Johnson’s works as part of the initial return of fideist art. Although the concept of a divided Samuel Johnson is not new, Parker provides us with new terms for that split in naming the two halves of Johnson’s literary nature—one part is Humanist curiosity about the world (and literature in particular), and one part is fideist skepticism about the value of earthly activities (literature among all others). This latter impulse is seen most strongly in The Vanity of Human Wishes and Rasselas, in which diverse human activity leads to the same sense of futility and exhaustion (with Solomon the representative, non-classical figure of spiritual weariness). This chapter really should be read with the previous chapter for full appreciation of the fideist motifs that Parker identifies in Johnson’s work. Among other motifs, Johnson’s work emphasizes futility, meditation, and stasis. This fideist element extended to Johnson’s perception of his own activities; his literary output stimulated and amused him, but could achieve for him no higher value: “For Johnson poetry (and every art) is a diversion, a toy…and a bauble” (238). Likewise, for Johnson private devotions, though a necessary and sober duty, could provide no sense of certainty, no knowledge of divine intentions. Parker argues that Johnson’s relationship to God, and hence to God’s works, is fideist in a specific and limited: “the form of imagination in which the divine is understood is infinitely remote from sensation, analogy, and all discursive knowledge” (231 n. 3). To seek, or rather linger patiently, is pious, but to expect certainty outside of the promises of the Bible is foolish.

This image of a fideist and un-analogical Johnson affirms the thesis of the book, which is that analogical representations of God became impossible after the Augustans had done their work. The contrast between Johnson in this chapter and the account of Edward Young in the previous chapter is meant to be instructive: one incorporates modes of inquiry despite pessimism about its relevance, and the other is meditative to the point of total absence/departure. The other part of this argument is that Johnson, by systematically (dialectically?) opposing his Humanist influences to his fideist beliefs, was in fact two—creating and sustaining a paradox, to the point that “Johnson was not a man of his time” (248).

This last assertion should be closely pondered for its historical implications. If Johnson combines all of these Augustan, Humanist and fideist influences, yet is not of his time, then how does he come to appear at the end of this book? It seems strange to conclude a historically situated reading with this kind of flourish, which shows respect for Johnson as a thinker and writer but leaves us in an odd place. We are told that “Johnson solved the problem that divided the literary culture of his day”—that is, the problem of reinstating religious expression in art—“by dividing himself” (249). The last time we saw such a division was in the account of Abraham Cowley, of whom it was said “He was one of the first to feel the failure of analogy. …one of the first to reckon with the problem of a necessary revision of consciousness” but also one who “left behind an indecipherable legacy” (78-9). If Johnson represents a solution to the problems created by the Augustans, where should we look for a continuation of that solution? If he is not of his time, what is his relevance? To put it another way, is Johnson a transitional figure like Cowley, a representative figure like Pope, or a revolutionary figure like Butler? This account seems in some ways to lean towards a transitional definition: Johnson looks back to Humanist authors “now obscure” and presides over the revival of “fideist art,” albeit without being able to fully occupy the fideist mode in the manner of Edward Young. I find myself wondering what might be the relationship of this final figure to subsequent fideism in Parker’s account.

Finally, I’d like to add on to Kirsten Wilcox’s final question in the previous post by asking frankly what our own assessment might be of the relative readability of Night Thoughts and The Vanity of Human Wishes. Wilcox asks whether Johnson and Young are “united in their turn against the Augustan empirical project”—if they are/if they are not, how might readability (or familiarity—the degree to which either is read these days) affect our ability to judge the similarity or difference of the impulses behind the two poems? And what then would be the relevance of such a comparison?