Saturday, August 6, 2011

A Minor Musing About Reading And The Classroom

The Chronicle of Higher Education contains an excerpt of Alan Jacobs's The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction.  Jacobs, a professor of English at Wheaton college, makes several provocative assertions that are relevant to high school classrooms.

Jacobs begins with an allegation that will be anathema to many literature teachers.
While virtually anyone who wants to do so can train his or her brain to the habits of long-form reading, in any given culture, few people will want to. And that's to be expected. Serious "deep attention" reading has always been and will always be a minority pursuit,  . . .
I was once told that my goal as teacher should be to make "students love literature."  If I am to be judged by the number of students who leave my class loving literature because of my instruction, I am an abject failure.  Needless to say, I found affirmation in the introduction and the following paragraph
For lovers of books and reading, and especially for those of us who become teachers, this fact can be painful and frustrating. We love reading, we think it's wonderful, and we want other people to think so, too. "What we have loved,/Others will love," wrote Wordsworth, "and we will teach them how." A noble sentiment! Inspiring! But what if, after great labor, we discover—this often happens—that we can't teach them how? Whose fault is that?
I may be deluding myself with the cliche "misery loves company," but I am comforted by the fact that failure to get students to love literature and reading "often happens" to others as well.

Jacobs goes on to point out that reading in a school setting is an "alien" experience.
Perhaps it isn't anyone's fault. Steven Pinker once said that "Children are wired for sound, but print is an optional accessory that must be painstakingly bolted on." The key here is "painstakingly": There can be many pains, in multiple senses of the word, for all parties involved, and it cannot be surprising that many of the recipients of the bolting aren't overly appreciative, and that even those who are appreciative don't find the procedure notably pleasant. So it's important to dissociate reading from academic life, not just because teachers and professors make reading so much more dutiful and good-for-you than it ought to be, but also because the whole environment of school is simply alien to what long-form reading has been for almost all of its history.
At the risk of committing sociology without a license, I believe the fact that students who "are wired for sound" now have immediate access to personally chosen, pleasing "sound" instantly available through an mp3 player increases the alien aspect of spending quiet hours reading.  Add uncomfortable desks to a silent classroom and reading becomes a chore for all but "the most extreme reader," a wonderful phrase some will undoubtedly apply only to teenage girls enamored of the Twilight saga.

Jacobs correctly asserts that "teachers and professors make reading so much more dutiful and good-for-you than it ought to be."  On the other hand, many students seem to buy into the idea that school is something that must be dutifully endured and that doing one's duty must be rewarded.  I have lost track of the number of students who have asked what work will accompany an assigned reading and then followed up with, "How much will this affect my grade?"  I can't speak for the university, but high school is indeed an alien landscape that perpetuates the ills its denizens rail against.

Later in the excerpt, Jacobs writes,
The academic study of literature is a wonderful thing, and not just because it has paid my salary for most of my adult life, but it is not an unmixed blessing, and teachers will rarely find it possible simply to inculcate the practices of deeply attentive reading.
Over the past 150 years, it has become increasingly difficult to extricate reading from academic expectations; but I believe that such extrication is necessary. Education is and should be primarily about intellectual navigation, about—I scruple not to say it—skimming well, and reading carefully for information in order to upload content. Slow and patient reading, by contrast, properly belongs to our leisure hours.
I'm not sure that I have ever told my students that the reading they do for my classes "properly belongs to our leisure hours,"  but I believe they know it intuitively and strain against reading for that reason.  Students and their parents believe that school should have a practical purpose.  In fact, students' favorite question might be "When will I ever use this stuff?"  That question is, of course, followed by "How will this affect my grade?" or "Will this be on the test?"

Jacobs draws an important distinction between "hyper attention" and "deep attention," arguing that the latter is necessary to read literature.
There is a kind of attentiveness proper to school, to purposeful learning of all kinds, but in general it is closer to "hyper attention" than to "deep attention." I would argue that even reading for information—reading textbooks and the like—does not require extended unbroken focus. It requires discipline but not raptness, I think: The crammer chains himself to the textbook because of time pressures, not because the book itself requires unbroken concentration. Given world enough and time, the harried student could read for a while, do something else, come back and refresh his memory, take another break ... but the reader of even the most intellectually demanding work of literary art would lose a great deal by following such tactics. No novel or play or long poem will offer its full rewards to someone who consumes it in small chunks and crumbs. The attention it demands is the deep kind.
 Again, the high school classroom is a difficult place to instill the "raptness" Jacobs says is necessary to read and love literary texts.

In the excerpt's most disconcerting paragraph, Jacobs writes,
I don't know whether an adult who has never practiced deep attention—who has never seriously read for information or for understanding, or even for delight—can learn how. Some current college students will not have had those experiences, and it would be futile and painful to expect them to read as most of their teachers have read.
I frequently encounter students for the first time when they enter one of my classes for the second semester of their senior year, a few months before they leave for college.  Like the students that Jacobs has encountered, they will not not have read seriously.  Several years ago, I asked a senior to name the last book she had read; she responded with the question "Do you mean a chapter book?" before admitting that that she hadn't read a book since elementary school.  Given what Jacobs has written, I am certain that not all students will want to have those experiences or will take the opportunity to undertake them.

More importantly, I am unsure how to help students who want to read.

I have not read the entire book so Jacobs may offer some insight to address my concern in the full work.  (Teaching in South Dakota means I need to wait until my August paycheck comes in even if the book is less than $15 on Amazon.)

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