New Course

For me it’s a new year, a new quarter, and a new course.  I spent much of the break designing a graduate seminar I haven’t taught before, “Pedagogies of Reading.”  These days the campus bookstore insists that you order the books months in advance, so with a new course you often have to order books without a chance to think deeply about how they will fit together.   You look at the tried and true, get recommendations from colleagues, search through new offerings, and ultimately go with your instincts.    Now you have a pile of relevant books for your students to read.  How do you chart a course through them?

Now that I have worked through the plan I think my process worked and my instincts were on target.  This course is going to work.

My 17 students are in three options: Rhetoric and Composition, Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL) and Literature.   They have different interests and backgrounds, but I know about half of them from previous seminars.   I know that they will need guidance on what to attend to in the readings, practice with analytical tools and concepts, texts with interesting features to analyze,  and activities to help them think about applying theory to teaching.  My goal is this course is to enable students to evaluate reading pedagogy at all levels from a theoretical perspective, and to design  new curriculum that is both coherent and effective.

I decided to start with Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolfe.  Wolfe is a neurologist, but this is a popular book that focuses on “the reading brain.”  Wolfe points out that the human brain is not designed to read, and that reading as an activity integrates a number of cognitive and perceptual systems that evolved for other purposes.  In discussing these issues, she gives us  a history of writing systems from pictographic to logographic to syllabaries and alphabets, and describes the cognitive demands of the various writing systems and the pedagogies used to teach them.   This is a wide-ranging and fascinating book.  It opens up for reflection and inspection many things that we take for granted.

Next we will read James Gee’s Social Linguistics and Literacies.  This book is an introduction to discourse analysis and what Gee calls “New Literacy Studies.”  Discourse analysis will provide important analytical tools, and although Wolf’s perspective is neurological at heart, she acknowledges the social basis of much linguistic behavior, so these two books complement each other.  Another connection between them is that both offer different readings of Plato’s Phaedrus, an important text in the history of literacy.  Many of my students have read the Phaedrus thoroughly and will probably disagree with both Wolf and Gee.   That will prove interesting.

From there we will move on to Reading Rhetorically by Bean, Chappell, and Gillam.  This is actually a textbook for a freshman course, but we use it in the 12th grade Expository Reading and Writing course (ERWC) that we developed for California State University as a teacher resource.  The book is full of highly usable but sophisticated reading strategies.  My seminar students will use their newly won understanding of reading theory to evaluate the pedagogies deployed in Reading Rhetorically and the ERWC curriculum.

From there we move on to a more difficult book.  Glen Stillar’s Analyzing Everyday Texts also teaches discourse analysis, but his method combines a linguistic approach derived from M. A. K, Halliday, a rhetorical approach modeled on Kenneth Burke, and a social perspective influenced by Pierre Bourdieu.  I think they will be ready for this, but we will spend two weeks on it.  The key, I think, is to present the right examples for them to analyze, and to walk them through some of it.

At this point, in part to engage the literature majors, we will explore pedagogies of teaching literature, using Louise Rosenblatt’s The Reader, The Text, The Poem and Jane Tompkins’ collection, Reader-Response Criticism.  Both of these books are part of movement away from treating the text as an objective source of meaning, locating meaning instead in the transaction between the text and the reader.  The discussions should be interesting.

Designing a seminar is an interesting and exciting activity.  It should have an arc, a beginning a middle and an end.  You have goals and plans, and you follow them or change them on the fly as reality intervenes.  It can be an intellectual roller coaster of your own design.  I am looking forward to seeing if the plan works.

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About guitarsophist

I'm a guitar-playing rhetorician professor.
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