Alicia Gleason: Blog Week 2

I’m moved by the connection between Bean’s “Teaching Students to Read…” and Salvatori and Donahue’s “The Elements (and Pleasures) of Difficulty.” In my classroom, students often regard a difficult passage, assignment, or question, as a kind of institutional hazing effort rather than an earnest learning opportunity. The morning after a difficult reading task, when I solicit reactions from the group, I often get responses like: “Why would you give us such a hard article?” OR “This didn’t make any sense.” OR “I couldn’t get past the first two pages.”  Part of this struggle to work with difficult texts is, as Bean mentions in Engaging Ideas, that our students are highly efficient, and seek economy during study time (“how little can I read and still get an A?”). But I also agree with the idea that Bean and Salvatori/Donahue assert, which is that many novice readers see struggle as a marker of their own incompetence rather than a normal obstacle in any reader’s process.

As a Comp 101 instructor, I’m very interested in the way my students read. Not just because good readers make good writers, but because many of the texts I assign in the class require “deep reading,” or ask students to think about how the text is constructed, rather than merely what it says (Bean, 163). I introduce “Reading Like A Writer,” (a really accessible article by Mike Bunn) early in the semester. I often assign “Says/Does” charts and “Reverse Outlines” to help students ask questions or think about the structure of an article as they read. I often have students profile the audience, or describe the rhetorical context of the piece to place it in the larger conversation. I regularly model the use of graphic organizers as a way of reflecting on texts. I also often talk about my own process as a reader.  But something I don’t do (yet) is talk to students about what difficulty should mean in a college course. Salvatori and Donahue cite the example of Kim Woomer’s conclusions about difficulty, and watch her work to understand that difficulty is an obstacle rather than a road block (4). This is something I’ll ask my students to think about as we begin reading more difficult texts—in Composition, and in my future Literature courses. Why is reading sometimes difficult? What would make it easier? Is it necessarily supposed to be easy? What can I do to help? Challenging some of these preconceptions may help students get on board with a difficult text, and may simultaneously help them feel comfortable (instead of incompetent) as novice readers.

I should mention that I STILL shy away from difficult passages (I struggled through Pope’s “Textual Intervention” for this week, and I’m never amused when an MFA prof puts a text like “Ulysses” on the syllabus—and allots a week to read it). I see this as normal. But something I do worry about is how to help readers who develop something akin to Shulman’s fantasia? That is, readers who, in an attempt to “translate [meanings] into ideas that they are comfortable with,” end up misinterpreting a text’s goal, or on the more basic level, a text’s information (165). It’s these students I struggle most to redirect. It feels as though I correct their misinterpretations in class, but don’t push them to determine why/how they came to their incorrect conclusions in the first place. This is absolutely something I plan to spend more time thinking about as I move towards teaching Literature next fall.

One thought on “Alicia Gleason: Blog Week 2

  1. Professor Sample

    I like reading about the student who works through the meaning of difficulty too. But I also wonder if Salvatori and Donahue’s example is too facile. In their recounting of the case, the student seems to realize what difficulty is too easily. I have trouble imagining my own students suddenly having an epiphany about “difficulty” based on reading the OED. I’m left wondering, what other ways are there to lead students to a more nuanced and productive vision of difficulty?

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