Thoughts on Reading, Academic and Otherwise

Just as I suspected, working full time and being back in the classroom has left me with little energy for reading. But I have been thinking a lot about reading both professional and personal, and how those two kinds of reading intersect.

For years I’ve started my Academic Writing class by talking about reading. I explain that most academic writing begins with reading: the writer is entering into an ongoing scholarly conversation and drawing on the work of others in making her contribution. I show them how I’d highlight, take notes on, and ask questions about a short text. I assign reading questions to help them focus on key points.

Increasingly, though, I have felt that I haven’t backed this beginning up by spending enough class time on the reading material to show them it really matters. That feeling was reinforced by reading about The Citation Project, “a multi-institution research project responding to educators’ concerns about plagiarism and the teaching of writing.” The project is discovering that plagiarism stems not so much from students’ failure to understand rules of citation as from their failure to understand the sources they are citing. In other words, students are “underreading” or reading shallowly, and thus don’t have enough understanding of the readings to synthesize and make use of them in their own arguments. I’ve tweaked the class to emphasize these skills more.

This professional problem intersected with my personal reading when Read React Review‘s Jessica did a post linking an academic discussion of underreading and overreading to on-line reviewing and some of the recent kerfuffles over controlling what “counts” as a review, what kinds of reading and responses to reading are “valid.” Jessica pointed out that the line between “overreading” (an interpretation not supported by the text) and experienced genre reading can be hard to draw: for instance, early in a romance novel, the hero and heroine may not act like a potential romantic couple, but the experienced reader expects them to get together because they are the central male and female characters.

Is that person “overreading,” or picking up on subtle structural cues? I’m thinking here of how often readers comment on Dear Author “first page” posts that you can’t start a romance from the point of view of a character who is neither the hero nor the heroine, or at least if you do so, you’re going to confuse your reader. I’d say a reader picking up on those cues is skilled, not overreading. In some ways, the kind of reading I want to teach my students is no different from the attentive, nuanced reading done by a devoted genre fan, though it is usually driven less by love of or, unfortunately, even interest in the text.

Much recent rhetoric and composition theory has focused on academic writing as a genre. (Like most people in North America who teach introductory academic writing, I am not a specialist in the area. Whether or not this is a problem is, in my view, open for debate). Unlike some of my colleagues, I don’t overtly introduce my students to this theory or to technical language of the field. But I am much less hostile to such an approach than I used to be, partly because becoming a genre reader made me more interested in the ways that any text conforms to or subverts certain conventions and guides a reader’s interpretations by doing so.

The risk of introducing the language of genre theory into a first-year classroom where many students are still struggling to write clear sentences is that taught at a basic level, it can come off as implying that academic writing is merely a series of rhetorical tricks a student needs to master rather than a process demanding deep thinking. In darker moments, I fear that students are frequently rewarded for demonstrating a shallow grasp of the rhetorical moves common in a field even when higher-level thinking is missing.

I do, though, talk to my students about the fact that they need to master certain rules and conventions of writing in an academic context because academic readers (their teachers, for instance) expect them to. The reading we do for class is partly a model of those conventions. In some ways, academic writing is hardest in the first two years of college, when students are taking a wider variety of courses that may have quite different writing expectations. I’m upfront with my students about the fact that I can’t be expert in all the disciplines they study, and that they need to read assignments and ask questions to understand how the rules differ from class to class. As they move further in their studies and focus on a major or professional program, they will increasingly master the narrower set of rules required for that particular field.

I thought about reading and genre expectations from a different angle when I reread Georgette Heyer’s Sprig Muslin last week, spurred by Sunita’s review at Dear Author. I’d say that rereading appealed to me at this moment because it allowed me to underread, to pay only partial attention and rely on my familiarity with the text to fill in any gaps (in the same way, I chose to listen to Elizabeth Peters’ Crocodile on the Sandbank, the first Amelia Peabody book and an old favorite I’ve probably read almost once a year in the two decades I’ve discovered it. If I doze off while listening, no big deal). And it’s true that as I read I was often skimming sleepily over the words.

Ironically, though, I also noticed the way the book requires overreading. Although Heyer is an inspiration for many a Regency romance writer,  her novels often don’t conform to current romance conventions. Sir Gareth and Lady Hester, the hero and heroine of Sprig Muslin, don’t get a lot of page time together. At the novel’s beginning, Gareth proposes to Hester, and she rejects him because marrying a man she loves but who merely respects and esteems her would be “anguish.” By the end–no surprise to a romance reader–he’s come to see a side of her that he didn’t before, and when he proposes again, she accepts, recognizing that this time it’s different.

Almost all of that change of heart, though, happens off stage. Heyer’s omniscient narrator doesn’t enter deeply into her characters’ points of view, and we have to infer Gareth’s change of heart from very few cues. I think that for readers not familiar with the genre, this could make the novel frustrating: does this love come out of nowhere? How and why did his view change? But readers of Heyer, and of romance generally, fill in the things she doesn’t say because we’ve seen them so many times before.

Those interpretive assumptions serve someone reading for pleasure just fine. But if you’re an academic reader and writer, you’d better be ready to back them up!


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4 Responses to Thoughts on Reading, Academic and Otherwise

  1. Merrian says:

    I have also been thinking about the reviews and the conversations we have about books via blogs and twitter as still reading the story; that reading goes on even when the page isn’t directly before my eyes. The reviews/conversation may reinforce a perception or open my eyes to new ways of thinking about the text but it is part of the process of making the story mine. ‘Mine’ means that I have an understanding and experience of the text that makes sense to me.

    The under-reading and over-reading notions that Jessica shared have been very helpful to me in understanding my own reading process and a real reminder of how much Self I bring to reading a story.

    • lizmc2 says:

      Jessica’s post, and even all the conversation about reviews going on, has really made me reflect on different ways we read and respond.

  2. willaful says:

    “I’d say that rereading appealed to me at this moment because it allowed me to underread, to pay only partial attention and rely on my familiarity with the text to fill in any gaps ”

    I became aware of how much I did this when I started replacing my worn-out favorites with new editions. With different placements on the page, the books actually read differently. It was startling.

    • lizmc2 says:

      I don’t know if I’d feel that way about reading a different copy. How interesting! I suspect it depends on how visual your memory is.

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