The first meeting of “Pedagogies of Reading” went well, at least in my view. No one complained about the reading load, all the assignments were accepted without groaning or moaning, and students participated in discussions with some engagement and enthusiasm. These days, graduate students are a tough audience. I taught my first seminar at this campus in 2003. I was teaching some difficult books: James Crosswhite’s, Rhetoric of Reason, The Bakhtin Reader, and Glen Stillar’s The Rhetoric of Everyday Texts which I am teaching again this quarter. Of the Crosswhite book, one student said, “Reading this book was like having hot wires stuck in my eyes. This is an English course, not a philosophy course. Why are we reading this?” I was stunned. When I was a grad student, no one would have thought of raising his or her hand and announcing that the text was incomprehensible. We were all trying to be cool and intellectually serene, even if we had no idea what the book was about.
This particular student actually emailed Crosswhite for help. He was puzzled, to say the least. However, when she took the comprehensive exams she told me that she had used Crosswhite in one of her answers. She was smart enough to get it and use it. The problem was that she was used to being smart and getting it the first time around. She was not used to struggling with a difficult book, even a book that was worth the struggle.
In a ten-week quarter, it is often the case that the material doesn’t come into real focus for the student until a month after the course has ended, long after evaluations and grades are over. My response to this problem has been to continue assigning difficult books, but also providing reading questions, hands on activities, group discussions, even quizzes, all in a graduate seminar. It is not like any seminar I ever took, but they learn and use more concepts, and my evaluations are higher.
They do use the concepts. When I go to our annual “Graduate Symposium,” where students present the best papers submitted during the year, I hear students using terminology and analytical concepts from my courses in papers for other courses. That’s nice.
At this first seminar meeting, after going over the syllabus, I gave them James Gee’s “What is Literacy?” and showed a powerpoint that summarized the main concepts in the article. Gee calls the language we acquire and use in the family the “primary” discourse. All discourses we use in institutions outside the family are “secondary” discourses. He invokes Krashen’s distinction between conscious learning and unconscious acquisition. He notes that acquisition is necessary for mastery, but that learning is necessary for metalinguistic critique and analysis. The closer a student’s primary discourse is to the secondary discourse he or she is acquiring, the easier things will go. He points out that many non-mainstream students in the classroom are using the teacher’s speech to acquire the the teacher’s discourse, not to learn the content.
After this presentation we had small group discussions on two questions: 1) Does Gee’s analysis fit your own classroom experience, and 2) If Gee is right, what should happen in the classroom?
After these discussions, in preparation for Proust and the Squid, I gave them two pages from Feersom Endjiin by Iain M. Banks. This section is written phonetically with some features that look like text messaging, and the narrator is a young man who lives in a monastery and has a pet ant who can talk. It is a difficult text on first reading. I asked them to read quickly and make a mark in the text whenever their reading was disrupted in some way. This worked, but I had to admit that their first readings were more successful tham mine. Because they were more familiar with text messaging, they quickly figured out the rules of this writing, and read with a fair amount of ease. One student said that in text messaging, you think in concepts, not words. If true, that could mean that at least one form of English is moving away from alphabetic literacy back to a logographic system like Chinese. Very interesting.