School-reading; School-writing

I’m engaging in a little avoidance writer here (blogs are clearly great for that).  I had two experiences yesterday (actually four) that have to do with my subject here, so I want to get them down.  The two that I’m not going to write about were my experiences with my classes, my English 2000 (the second of our required writing classes) and my English 4023 (Life Writing).  Both were very pleasant experiences and they have a lot to do with using personal writing in the classroom, but I’m going to move to two other experiences: a dissertation defense and my telephone conversation with a friend, who is also blogging about writing, although from a different perspective than mine.

I was the dean’s representative in the dissertation defense.  The candidate is a very good teacher–she’s been an elementary school teacher for some years.  Normally, I’m kind of cool-headed in a defense, but I became progressively irritated as I sensed in the discussion a less-than-critical perspective on the ethics of teaching school-reading (which is the same as teaching, to my mind, school-writing).  Actually, I got angry, but I kept my anger within and (I think) only displayed a kind of mild irritation.

The research (dept of education) focused on the use of a Commonplace Book, as it has been used by Denis Sumara.  Sumara has students reading a text multiple times and each time writing their thoughts in the margins of the text–and underlining and highlighting.  The candidate had teachers replicating this practice while reading YA “memoirs” (I am scarequoting because of the general practice of calling autobiographies memoirs just as many like to call diaries journals–for obvious and somewhat silly reasons).

The first reading is a traditional school-reading–teaching fifth graders to read for plot, character, language use & so on; the second, I gather, is a more free-form intertextual act, writing back to the book.  I call all of this school-reading and really, just a bunch of junk.

Let me start with Dewey (Experience and Education).  He claims what should be obvious: a fundamental educational objective should be that students learn how to learn, the life-long learning project, or put in my terms, fall in love with learning (reading/writing).  I imagine (what Carra was quick to critique as a false dichotomy) an opposition between natural (ok–authentic) and school reading.  This dichotomy (which, in my defense, I imagine as a continuum) is genre-based.  Let me be personal: the degree to which I engage in intertextual reading (writing in the text) depends on what I’m reading and why I’m reading.  When I’m reading academic articles and books that I think I’ll be using in my academic writing, I write like a madman in the texts, doing the Bartholomae act, writing with and against the writer.  Later, I review the text and put my comments in a database of notes (I use InfoSelect) for easy retrieval.  But when I read for pleasure (ok–these are the extremes of the reading act), I read to get out of my skin, to disappear in the text, and the last thing I would do would be to underline or highlight or write in the text–which would be to pull myself out of the disappearing act.  Reading for pleasure is how I learned to love to read.  It’ s why I’m a reader.  It’s why, in a rather weird kind of extrapolation, and how I became an academic, discovering a profession I have loved for decades.  It’s why I have not spent my life as an autoparts salesman, as my father was (I’m not derogating the profession of autoparts salesmanship, but I know I have loved my job two thousand times more than my father loved his).

I think in that last paragraph, if you are still reading this, you will find the source of my anger.  This practice of school-reading kills the love of reading.  It interrupts the flow of reading, the magic of being elsewhere, of being someone else, of not being me.  In the ensuing conversation (me doing my best to keep my coat and tie on), we explored the link between school reading (why, after all, do we want to teach students how to read like English professors?) and assessment, having a way of proving that we are teaching something.  I’m getting irritated now as I write this–and I know I am getting down only an outline of what I mean–and I hope that you will be able to read the link between school reading and school writing.

Ok, so I griped about all this to Carra on the phone.  She likes to challenge me on just about everything.   She said she likes to read novels like that: annotating, writing in the text, pulling out of the magic of the text.  She told me about her thrill when she first understood what a symbol was–she was reading The Glass Menagerie and in an epiphany understood what the glass menagerie signified beyond itself.  She pushed against all my reasoning, and I pushed back.  Thankfully, we came out of the conversation remaining close friends.  I still think she’s wrong, and she’s sure I am.  I thought later, she’s much more of an intellectual than I am.  I think I’m a pseudo-intellectual.  I pretend to be an intellectual so I can keep my job.  But basically, I just like to read and write for fun, as I am doing here and as I am increasingly doing in the classroom, now that I know I can no longer be fired.

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