Reading again

The new academic year starts in a little more than a week and once again I will inflict reading on a batch of students. Some of them will do it, some of them won’t, and some of them will devise various strategies of PITA and strategic incompetence to cope with it. Eventually through a long, recursive process we may all actually get something out of the process, although I know from experience that it will rarely be the same something. That doesn’t bother me except when I’m trying to explain the value of what I do to people whose goal-process-outcome model is more linear than mine.

I should say that I’m in many ways sympathetic with students in their disgruntlement with the reading-mediated process of education, but their first strategy of resistance to reading, that it’s just ‘book learning’, is not persuasive to me. Try figuring something good out and then just letting it die with you. Books are one of the good ways to record experience, and thus to learn from other people’s experiences, not just our own. They are broadening and potentially transformative. To cut ourselves off from the accumulated experience and reflection of others is, in Mead’s sense, self-defeating.

OK, but reading is an odd thing, as Mikhail has been pondering. Maybe we don’t read as carefully as we think, understand as thoroughly as we should, retain as much as we’d hope. Then there’s this old question of the ‘difficult text‘ and strategies for engaging with it. In some cases you might not want to start where the author did. I often open a book at random and see what happens, but there may be substantive reasons to skip and retrace. Not to mention that behind writings there are authors and behind authors there are more writings, so good reading never ends.

In the margins of more substantive posts Rough Theory and What in the hell… have reflected on reading, reading in order, and reading again. In the margins I’ll note that the theory of reading I subscribe to suggests that we must always read twice: the first time for familiarization, the second time for understanding. When we ‘understand’ something in the ‘first’ reading it’s because it is, or seems, already familiar to us. And that, of course, is a trap: familiarity is easy to ‘read in’, and we may never get beyond the horizons of our preconceptions, or learn anything new, if we always stop at that first reading.

I explain this to students and they are often comforted by it. Many of them have been trained to read (or not read) in bulk, driven by content and coverage. They are assaulted by all manner of new and unfamiliar stuff and, not surprisingly, they don’t understand it. Their folk reaction is either “I’m stupid” or “this book is stupid,” either of which will settle into “reading is stupid” over time. I’ve taken to looping through readings over and over in class, settling them into increasing familiarity and leveraging that to get at richer understandings, then expanding coverage with similar recursivity. It’s perplexing at first but works really well, and knocks out a lot of resentment. I get much better papers. And the best assessment I get is the one where the student says “the class made me feel smart.”

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2 Comments

  1. Thanks Nate! The hardest thing for me is to relax about the infinite coverage ideal most of us have had drilled into us. Every time you read something a second or third time is a foregone opportunity to read something new. But I find I get better conceptual coverage because I can look at readings from different perspectives and through different lenses. The students develop a gratifying confidence and competence. And honestly, the papers have gotten so much better across the board, it’s almost a pleasure to read them.

    Lately I’ve been working with historical documents rich with nuance and layered with subtexts – e.g. one of King Afonso of the Congo’s famous letters to the King of Portugal, a lineage document of the Miu family from southeast China – but I’ve also taught theory and I think the idea is portable.

    Cheers!

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