Reading: A Short Guide to Contemporary Practices (and Problems)

Steve Volk, March 27, 2017

Susan B. Anthony, c. 1900. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Public Domain

Susan B. Anthony, c. 1900. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Public Domain

Three articles on three different aspects of reading caught my attention this past week. One argues that before students can “read to learn” they need to “learn to read,” and that among the various reasons that students aren’t doing their reading assignments is the fact that they “cannot read well enough to understand the texts many faculty assign.” The second, a short essay by the distinguished Princeton scholar Peter Brooks, uses the so-called “Torture Memos” written by Jay S. Bybee to argue that some readings of texts are carried out with such “bad-faith, distorted interpretation” intended that we would be well served by developing an “ethics of reading” in response. Put in other terms, the reading “problem” encountered by Brooks was not a question of inability to understand, but a willful desire to misrepresent what was written. The final article, “The Rising Tide of Educated Aliteracy,” goes one step further, suggesting that “we” (by which the author means students, literary critics, and the educated elite in general) have stopped reading. This is not the if-they-are-reading-online-it’s-not-really-reading argument. Rather, as the author argues, we are witnessing “the growth of a population that can read but simply doesn’t want to.” Doesn’t understand; willfully misinterprets, doesn’t read. What’s a teacher to do?

Let’s take these articles in reverse order, starting with the Alex Good’s “Rising Tide” essay which appeared recently in The Walrus, a Canadian online journal. While previous centuries have been marked by mass illiteracy, this century, Good argues, is the first in which “aliteracy has come out of the shadows, encouraged by its public, sometimes even proud, display—not just among our vulgar celebrity classes and undereducated young people but among the very people (the intellectual gatekeepers, tastemakers, and cultural elite) that previous generations looked to as role models.” One finds in the article some curmudgeonly grumbling about students who aren’t doing the assigned reading, and of syllabi that have slimmed down considerably since, well, whenever one got one’s degree. Or, as a weary grey-beard put it: “Why bother making Tom Jones a required text? They aren’t going to read it anyway.”

4th grade students at Oneida School in Schenectady, New York, 1943. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, 1943. Public Domain

4th grade students at Oneida School in Schenectady, New York, 1943. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, 1943. Public Domain

But that’s not really the problem Good is addressing. It’s not students but professors (and the literary class writ large) who are troubling his waters.  The attitude Good worries about was summed up by the professor of Canadian literature he met recently in a bookstore. When Good asked him if he had read a new Canadian novel he could recommend, the professor replied, “I never read anything unless I’m paid.” I will resolutely avoid any Canadian angle here and wonder, instead, if neoliberalism and its totalizing transactional nature isn’t to blame. Perhaps, but there’s more.

Franco Moretti, an Italian literary scholar and founder of Stanford’s Literary Lab, advocates what he calls “distant reading,” understanding literature “not by studying particular texts, but by aggregating and analyzing massive amounts of data” about the texts. In other words, the new reading is … not to read at all. To quote at length from a 2011 New York Times article by Kathryn Schulz on what “big data” is doing to reading,

We need distant reading, Moretti argues, because its opposite, close reading, can’t uncover the true scope and nature of literature. Let’s say you pick up a copy of “Jude the Obscure,” become obsessed with Victorian fiction and somehow manage to make your way through all 200-odd books generally considered part of that canon. Moretti would say: So what? As many as 60,000 other novels were published in 19th-century England — to mention nothing of other times and places. You might know your George Eliot from your George Meredith, but you won’t have learned anything meaningful about literature, because your sample size is absurdly small. Since no feasible amount of reading can fix that, what’s called for is a change not in scale but in strategy. To understand literature, Moretti argues, we must stop reading books.

Oh, my.

In its place the Stanford lab uses “computational criticism,” in all its forms, to study literature, looking for meanings by aggregating and analyzing massive amounts of data. I’m hardly in a position to question the method – but the thought that literary criticism is best carried out by not reading texts is, not to put too fine a point on it, depressing. Still, maybe what Moretti and the Stanford lab are after is a technology of criticism and so its disassociation from reading is at least understandable. We could ask if they still read for pleasure if not for insight?

American Library Association, United War Work Campaign, Week of November 11, 1918. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. Public Domain

American Library Association, United War Work Campaign, Week of November 11, 1918. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. Public Domain

Other conditions encourage abstinence from reading. Geoff Dyer, the British novelist, prolific writer and perceptive critic recently observed that he found it “increasingly difficult to read.” He noted that,”This year I read fewer books than last year; last year I read fewer than the year before; the year before I read fewer than the year before that. The phenomenon of writer’s block is well known, but what I am suffering from is reader’s block,” a condition which seems to be shared by any number of writers – Philip Roth comes to mind – as well as critics such as Chuck Klosterman, who have abandoned reading altogether. Is this quantitative reduction in literary intake rooted in the same malady that has taken its toll on me? Does he fall asleep three pages in? No, not that. Instead he offers a characteristically charming, if somewhat suspect, interpretation, of a condition I’d call ARRB, age-related reader’s block:

…my declining ability to read is itself the product of having read a fair bit. If reading heightens your responses, shapes your idea of the world, gives you a sense of the purpose of life, then it is not surprising if, over time, reading should come to play a propor-tionately smaller role in the context of the myriad possibilities it has opened up. The more thoroughly we have absorbed its lessons, the less frequently we need to refer to the user’s manual. After a certain point subjective inwardness becomes self – rather than textually –  generated. Of course there is more to learn, more to read, but whereas, when I was a teenager, each new book represented an almost overwhelming addition to what I knew and felt, each new book now adds a smaller increment to the sum of knowledge.

Alex Good is more concerned, on the other hand, with the arguments of Pierre Bayard, author of How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, a text whose levitation to the Amazon best seller’s list must be the height of postmodern irony. (Or maybe customers just purchased the tome but didn’t read it.) Bayard is a professor of French literature who admits to frequently commenting in professional as well as social gatherings “on books that most of the time I haven’t even opened.” As the stunned Good writes, “Not reading, Bayard believes, is in many cases preferable to reading and may allow for a superior form of literary criticism—one that is more creative and doesn’t run the risk of getting lost in all the messy details of a text.” I’m willing to accept Dyer’s argument, but with Bayard we’re getting into a territory that sounds disastrously familiar. (“Who knew that health care could be so complicated?”)

Student reading, c. 1890-1920. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. Public Domain

Student reading, c. 1890-1920. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. Public Domain

Which brings us back to students in our classes. I don’t imagine that many of us, regardless of discipline, would breathe a sigh of relief that our students hadn’t lost their ways in the “messy details” of whatever text they were assigned because they never bothered to crack open the text in the first place. But (to return to curmudgeondomness) what about Sven Birkert’s narrative in the Gutenberg Elegies, of students who “don’t get” Henry James, or Joyce or Woolf or Shakespeare or Ellison. “The collective experience of these students,” he argues, “most of whom were born in the early 1970s, has rendered a vast part of our cultural heritage utterly alien.” Tom Bissell, standing up for his own generation, offers a more utilitarian riposte for students’ reading choices in an essay in Salon:

What has changed, I suspect, is the size of the average college student’s sense of entitlement. Thirty years ago, a student unresponsive to James may have swallowed “Brooksmith” like spinach, afraid of what a public dislike of James might have revealed. Since many students today regard their role as that of a freely discerning consumer, disliking James is as easy as sending back an overdone fillet.

If the student is a consumer (discerning or not), then reading becomes effectively a commercial transaction: I’ve paid my money, I’ll tell you what I want to read – or even if I want to read. And if their literary role models are saying the same thing (“I never read anything unless I’m paid”), well, there you have it.

An Ethics of Reading

Peter Brooks’ call for an “ethics of reading,” published in Diversity and Democracy (20:1, Winter 2017, 22-23), was not written in response to what Good describes as the upsurge of uninformed discourse, where “ignorant bloviating or, even worse, the manipulations of self-interested parties,” rush in to fill any void left by the absence of informed commentary. But his essay serves that purpose admirably. Brooks was appalled by Jay S. Bybee’s ability to read a set of prohibitions on torture as if they were endorsements of such practices.

A bit of background for those who have forgotten: In 2002, John Yoo, then Deputy Assistant Attorney General of the United States (now a law professor at Berkeley) and Assistant Attorney General Jay S. Bybee, head of the Office of Legal Counsel of the United States Department of Justice (and now a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit) prepared a set of memos at the request of President George W. Bush to answer the question of whether the administration’s “enhanced interrogation techniques,” such as waterboarding, were consistent with legal practices prohibiting torture. (And to remind us further, the United Nations [Geneva] Convention Against Torture describes torture as “severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, [which] is intentionally inflicted on a person.”) The Bybee memos came to the conclusion that acts which were “cruel, inhuman, or degrading” did not “rise to the level of torture,” and therefore could be ordered by the President. (In 2005, the dean of the Yale Law School called the Bybee memo “perhaps the most clearly erroneous legal opinion I have ever read.”)

If Good protests against those who don’t read but still feel entitled to criticize, Brooks takes on the ethically shameful practice of a reading that is predetermined to produce a single interpretation (and, in the case of the Torture Memos, an interpretation whose consequences go far beyond the banalities of a harsh critique).

Brooks claims no particular moral virtue for his fellow humanists, only that they/we are trained to actually read texts, whether literary, artistic, legal, historical, or commercial (who knew reading could be so complicated!). As he writes,

what has most often been called ‘close reading,’ and sometimes by which I think is the better name, ‘slow reading,’ teaches us to bring our full attention to what is before us on the page, to explore its ways of making meaning as well as what we may ultimately see as its messages. In practicing close reading, we learn to stay within the world of the text without foreclosing its possible implications. Ideally, we exchange our understandings of what and how the text means with others, in a collective interpretive enterprise that is largely self-correcting, by which I mean that it prevents aberrant understandings form gaining traction.

While communities of interpretation may not arrive at uniform understandings, they can nevertheless “generally reach consensus on what counts as valid or not” (emphasis added).

Staying “within the text,” as Brooks suggests, is the beginning of a process of ethical reading, not its end point. “Teachers of literature,” he stresses, “ventriloquize voices, from the past and from other cultures.” The reading of texts therefore is a process of opening oneself to a “trans-personal and tran-subjective enterprise, one that teaches you about your own condition only if you are willing to allow yourself to be temporarily alienated in otherness.” The lessons of close reading and interpretation, when posed as an ethical practice, suggests that we take texts seriously. Not only does this demand that they (actually) be read, but that, as required, they be read closely. This is an act of responsibility which accepts that there is no canonical interpretation to be “imposed ex cathedra,” but also admits that the act of reading is an inherently empathic process. Paying attention to the ethics of reading, Brooks concludes, can “make us more skeptical and self-aware.” And, he adds, it even “might prevent us from falling into the moral abyss of the Torture Memos.”

Stereo card, Williams, Sophus, photographer, ca. 1867-1873, Berlin. Library of Congress. Prints and Photographs Division. Public Domain

Stereo card, Williams, Sophus, photographer, ca. 1867-1873, Berlin. Library of Congress. Prints and Photographs Division. Public Domain

Learning to Read

So, if intellectual elites have abandoned reading, and political elites are willfully reading against all interpretative consensus, how do we animate our students to read purposefully, intelligently, empathically, ethically, closely? These questions are taken up in “Reading to Learn or Learning to Read? Engaging College Students in Course Readings,” a new article in College Teaching (65:1, January-March 2017: 28-31) by Mary Margaret Kerr and Kristen M. Frese, both in the Psychology in Education Department at the University of Pittsburgh. Earlier studies have suggested that there are four primary reasons why college students don’t complete assigned readings (although, judging by the emails I’ve gotten over the years, the competition for the best excuses is fierce!): 1) they are unprepared to do the reading (i.e., they don’t have the skills to understand what they are reading); 2) they’re not motivated (either extrinsically, by quizzes, exams, or other feedback mechanisms, or intrinsically, because of the what they’re asked to read); 3) they lack time (too much work, an unrealistic amount of assigned reading, competition from other obligations, including paid jobs); and 4) they underestimate the importance of reading (i.e., they feel they can do well in the course by only attending the lectures; they figure they can learn about the readings by listening to others discuss them; or they think that college reading is somewhat equivalent to more typical high school reading: find facts and memorize them).

The authors offer a variety of approaches designed to address each of these reasons. For example,

  • Engage students in a discussion of why being prepared for discussions by doing the reading is important not just for their own learning but as part of the students’ responsibility to support the learning of the class as a whole;
  • Give frequent, low-stakes quizzes based on assigned readings to insure that students are not just finishing the reading, but understanding it;
  • Make sure that readings are linked to course lectures, and that students are required to respond to the readings in exams or papers.
  • Use quick in-class surveys (e.g. “muddy point responses”) to find out what students found most confusing (or compelling) in the readings;
  • Ask students to summarize reading notes through word clouds, short podcasts, illustrations;
  • Employ “just-in-time teaching” methods: pose one brief question online (via Blackboard or other media) before class that students need to respond to in writing prior to the start of class — or do the same thing at the start of class — regarding the reading assignment as a means of understanding what needs to be covered in that day’s class;
  • Have students send in specific questions they have had on the reading prior to the start of class.

Utamar Kitagawa, "Kobikichō arayashiki koiseya ochie," 1780s. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. Public Domain

Utamar Kitagawa, “Kobikichō arayashiki koiseya ochie,” 1780s. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. Public Domain

Other “Articles of the Week” have considered what is the correct amount of reading to assign (here and here), ways to scaffold students’ reading skills, and how to encourage students to write their own textbook. One of the more difficult issues in terms of reading to understand is identifying when specific students are having such broad difficulties understanding the reading that they actually can’t formulate useful questions about the reading, leaving the instructor with serious questions on how to help. This is certainly a moment to turn to the Learning Assistance Program or similar office for advice and consultation.

But what these articles together suggest is that there are arguments to be made about the value, ethics, and technology of reading, not to mention its pleasures, that we can no longer take for granted. Falling into a defensive crouch about students who just aren’t doing the reading doesn’t seem to get at the full nature of the issues involved, and so engaging in discussions both with our students and among ourselves about the practices of reading can be useful and relevatory.

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