Panel 3: “Reading in a Writing Classroom”

How–and how well–are our students reading? What can’t they (or don’t they) seem to do, with their reading, that we wish they would? What strategies might we use to support them learning to read the way we want them to?

These were the questions I wanted to use to frame our third panel discussion. They were questions I’ve heard surfacing everywhere, since arriving at Mount Royal. My colleagues in English talk about their literature classes, and the types of enduring, disciplined, disciplinary, critical reading they try to encourage. Friends from sociology or history talk about their challenges trying to motivate even their senior seminar class students to work through all the material for a given day’s class. And the questions keep surfacing for me as I follow the work of my colleague Karen Manarin, who, along with her co-investigators here at Mount Royal, has recently done a substantial empirical study of student citation practices. Their study sheds some sharp light on the ways students use–I’m not sure I can say read–scholarly articles when they’re asked to cite them. Karen has also published a dynamite article about her work teaching reading strategies in her first-year writing class. In the article she points a way forward and exhorts colleagues to take the teaching of reading seriously, closing with this chilling and motivating final note:

What we are talking about is the ability of people to learn, the ability of people to sift through various forms of rhetoric, the ability of people to participate in a democracy. What we are also talking about is the possibility that we are partially complicit in this failure to learn, if not by action then by omission. We need to recognize that if indeed reading comprehension skills are eroding, we need to do something about it, even if we think students should know this material before they reach the postsecondary classroom, even if we are not trained in literacy instruction. The stakes are too great for us to do nothing. –Karen Manarin (294)

So questions about teaching reading were on the table, when we met for the third discussion in March, 2014.

The first speaker, Julie, is a Writing and Learning Strategist at Mount Royal. Her work with students allows her to see things instructors can’t: students approach her and her colleagues with questions they’re not willing to disclose to their instructors, including questions about what on earth an instructor means when she says, Read this. Write this. I often find W&L strategists’ perspective a bracing reminder of my own assumptions and blindspots, and I appreciate that they offer that reminder so gently: “We understand,” Julie said on the day, “that faculty came to writing intuitively.” We were rarely explicitly taught to do what we do, and hence we can’t quite see the thresholds we had to step across in order to figure out how to write and read in certain peculiar ways. W&L strategists often can, because they’re following current pedagogical research, and because they see so many different instructors’ assignments–through students’ eyes. The picture they see is a little bleak: “Most students don’t quite understand what’s being asked of them,” Julie revealed. For starters, they don’t understand they difference between the different types of texts we’re asking them to read, and the different types of reading strategies that each one assumes.

Julie pointed out that W&L strategists can come to our classes; they can integrate into our courses; they can work with our students, and they’re happy to. They help students tackle texts, by encouraging them to undertake a set of reading activities before, during, and after scanning the text. (See Karen’s article for her comparable approach to this problem.) They help students perceive the distinct genres we ask them to work with — “journal article,” “academic encyclopedia,” “edited book,” “textbook — and help students see what we mean by the direction to Read. There is a whole umbrella-full of activities and purposes involved in this business of reading, and the activities differ depending on the genre at hand.

If Julie’s reminders–and Karen’s research, which was invoked in her absence (she was ill that day)–were bracingly uncomfortable, Jane’s and Janice’s presentations were lovely instances of the variety of things faculty are doing in their efforts to engage and train student readers.

Jane is a senior professor of English (now retired), and an energetic advocate for students; for feminist, anti-racist, anti-bullying, and pro-queer politics; and for people power in general. Her approach to teaching reading in the writing classroom connects with a tradition of critical pedagogy that’s long been strong in U.S.-based composition instruction: it’s an approach to getting students reading that draws on their lived experience and their deeply felt (if sometimes unarticulated) responses to the power differentials and identity questions that shape their lives. Jane’s emphasis is on “generating incentive to read” by getting them engaged in ideas via narrative. She tries to make possible “an empathetic match” between the students’ perspectives and the texts they read. Using the textbook Pens of Many Colours: A Canadian Reader, she steps them into a discussion by inviting them to read about an issue in a sequence of different genres: a poem, then a short story, then an essay. Like Julie, Jane commented that sometimes, “even getting students to identify the different genres is difficult,” because they’re not used to navigating the different rhetorical purposes of different types of text. But gradually you can build comfort with genre difference, she said, and start encouraging students to develop rhetorical strategies of reading that accompany each type of text. They start flexing their “inferential muscles,” drawing inferences that allow them to forge the “invisible links” between dispersed ideas. And this development, Jane says, can begin with engaging, approachable narrative.

Janice, our last speaker of the day, is a professional journalist and a full-time faculty member. Working with her on committees and meeting her at various fora around the university, I’ve seen firsthand Janice’s ability to “read” discussions and sift all the paraphernalia of university debates: at meetings, in email conversations, she’s always actively noting, questioning, gathering, synthesizing, and passing on what she’s hearing. A true journalist! I think, as an outsider to that profession. Janice spoke about her experiences teaching writing for online audiences in a senior journalism course. The context for her students’ reading and writing was dramatically different than that in Jane’s class — but (as ever, on these panels) there were neat links between them.

Janice’s students, like Jane’s, are reading texts that engage them, and allow them to participate in their world, as citizens. Her students slog through dense texts, gradually coming to figure out how to read–and eventually how to write–for a particular set of rhetorical purposes. What Janice’s students are reading, though, is municipal government documents; they’re covering the City Hall beat. Despite that these documents are supposedly written in “plain language,” Janice commented, they’re dense and even painful to plough through. But her students get there, and learn on the way a style of professional reading that allows them to serve their readers and editors: Janice asks them to distill the documents, to pick out what’s happening here, what’s the political agenda, where’s the research, whose opinions are we getting? Her students write documents that selectively take up what’s being said by City Hall and translate them into a journalist’s version of plain language. They write synopses–a form of written reading, we might say–and analyses. They ask questions of what they’re reading. They read, Janice says, to assess credibility. They read for story ideas. It’s not so much a reading that dedicates itself to hefting the “cognitive burden” of the documents’ content, but an efficient, common sense-making, functional reading practice specific to their discipline.

* * *

Here’s the poster image I used to advertise this panel discussion. Looking back at it now, I realize I like this image. It’s still posted on my office door, almost a year later. But what a difference, in some ways, between the reading that’s pictured here — comfortable, confident, absorbed, domestic, on paper — and the variety of demanding and diverse sorts of reading we were talking about that day, and that we must keep talking about. Here’s a reader who’s got her strategies well in hand. May we give the gift of this sort of self-sufficient textual mastery to many a student to come!

Miss Auras by John Laverys
“Miss Auras” by John Laverys (CC licensed for non-commercial reuse and sharing)

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