Meaningful Readings

Each of the readings this week bounced me around between theories on how to approach and teach reading.  Showalter’s chapter on “Teaching Poetry” had me convinced that the best way to approach reading (poetry) is through emphasis on student interaction—reading aloud, making connections to one’s personal life/emotions.  Then, Rabinowitz’s “Who is Reading?” article had me scrap Showalter’s theory in favor of approaching a text armed with historical and biographical information in order to understand the “actual audience” or “authorial audience.”  By this theory, a reader cannot understand a text without understanding the precise conditions under which the intended and historic audience received the text.  Otherwise, nuances of the text will be wasted on an uninformed and modern audience.

I think this dialectic – reader response v. authorial audience – is what fascinates me most about this week’s reading.  Is it best to allow students to jump in to a text and draw personal significance?  Is this a true understanding of a text?  Or must one take the historical route to understanding a text?  Should one abandon personal emotion and its influence on comprehension?  Certainly there must be a give and take.

I can speak from experience in my teaching of high school juniors and seniors that when I frame a text in a historical context and present background information on the author, the students have an easier time of getting into the story.  For example, Camus’ The Stranger is much easier to interpret when one knows what existentialism and absurdism are.

However, asking them to read something through the theoretical lens of reader response is very difficult for them.  Some can appreciate texts for their personal and emotional connections, but given such fluid and organic guidelines terrifies the majority of the class.  The way they’ve been taught each year leading up to my class has been with an emphasis on context, searching for very specific symbols, allegories, personification, metaphors, and the list of literary devices goes on.  They’ve been conditioned to search for devices before they are allowed to (God-forbid) enjoy a text for the text’s sake.

To bring back the enjoyment of reading poetry, Showalter says teaching must “select from a fuller range of [texts], and we should present them in a way that encourages readers to connect the poems to their lives” (64). In this way, the text becomes “most directly meaningful to them” (64). I like this idea, but it is a struggle to fit this into a curriculum so driven by standardized tests and checking off the boxes.  Where does reading for personal meaning fit in?

Rabinowitz also comments that there are “multitiered” models of reading and the reader will engage in different strategies based on the purpose for the reading (20).  I think this is important to remember.  As a teacher, I must emphasize that different assignments dictate a different approach to the reading.  I know the Virginia SOL tests are moving in this direction with their new emphasis on non-fiction texts.  With that genre, there are clear purposes for each text and a student must learn to adjust to each.