Deep Reading vs. Casual Review

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I’ve been addressing, here, students’ preparedness for their first-year composition course. No longer taking for granted that they have been reading regularly for school or personal interest and that they at least have some experience in questioning–analyzing–their materials, I have actively asked them to question their relationship with the course essays and assignments. Ordinarily, I would get right to work on assigning their writing projects and the planning and brainstorming for their essays, but this cannot be the starting point anymore. I need to find out what they truly understand or find of interest in the text before they can even begin to formulate their own work.

For the most part, very few are aware that they have prior personal experience or knowledge that they could apply to understanding their materials. They see each essay as a separate entity that stands alone from all other assignments in other classes. They often don’t relate the subject matter to experiences and choices from their everyday lives. It’s hard to fathom for me because I’ve always been asked to relate the now to the past and to future possibilities. I assume everyone has done the same.

That does not make for effective teaching. This is not to say that I am leaning in the direction of trigger warnings and the like. I still feel that adults must be able to face multiple and possibly uncomfortable subjects without filters. It’s up to them to decide what they can handle–not up to me to shield them. But, positive or negative, they still need to be clearly engaged.

Very few have been interested in reading with true depth rather than reviewing for class time. Some come to me having struggled with understanding the writers’ overall viewpoint and even the vocabulary level. Personal essays are simply narratives without perspective to some. Overt argument is distilled into basic summary. Class time has become about how to read in general rather than how to write at this level. But, if that is what I have in hand, that is what I work with. And, coming to this with empathy makes me more effective and creates a particular safety zone that I am ok with providing. Some call it remedial work, some call it developmental, some call it refresh and review. Regardless, I call is a necessity for students from community college to private universities these days. I can’t reform K-12 education but I can accept what that produces  and do my best with what I inherit.

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Literature and the Writing Process

orwellAs I continue to look through the essays in Deep Reading, it has become more apparent that the choice of using fiction or nonfiction for the classroom is a topic that many professors remain obsessed over and still debate on a regular basis. I’ve often argued this topic with colleagues and find that many composition professors are absolutely against bringing any form of fiction into their classroom. They feel that students need to be exposed to particular formats that they can follow and apply for themselves for their assignments. How could a work of fiction assist them in their own expository writing?

Yes, they should read works of nonfiction for examples of the modes of writing (e.g., argument, definition, process analysis), organization, research, citations/references, etc. But what about students’ interests? What about being engaged creatively? Not that nonfiction is boring, but sitting with an anthology of (sometimes outdated) essays by writers who may be unfamiliar to them is not a promising recipe for enthusiastic class discussion or original essay theses.

There is much to find in many novels that will engage a student and encourage complex analysis of important topics. One of the scholars whose work was most interesting to me is Sheridan Blau of Teachers College. He makes a succinct and logical argument in favor of (some) fiction as a catalyst for writing: “[M]ost serious novels . . . are interlaced throughout with passages that are themselves not narrative, but that are important to the experience of the novel as a structure of meaning and drawn from the discourses of philosophy, theology, ethics, and the various social and natural sciences.” In other words, students can get more than entertainment when they read fiction—if they are guided properly. Why not focus more on the overall topics students would like to investigate and argue rather than obsessing over the genre from which these topics are derived?

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Always Learning, Always Improving

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The fall semester, for me, is one of the busiest of the year. I tend to have the most classes to teach, multiple writing and editing projects, and added travels on the weekends. It’s all a good dilemma of time allotment, but it does make me have to reprioritize and I must move some interests, obligations, and enjoyments to the background for a bit. As you have noticed, updating my posts has been one of the enjoyments/interests that has had to gather a bit of dust.

Still, does this mean I’ve stopped writing? No. Have I forgotten about this page and this amazing community? No. In fact, I often imagine having a moment to write to you and share thoughts and observations. It’s a bit like keeping a friend in mind even though you can’t see them often. You plan what you will say or write when you have the next chance. And this is what has been happening while I’ve been “away.”

Over the fall, I joined a Faculty Interest Group (FIG) at Raritan Valley Community College (RVCC) where I teach composition. Some of our questions: If students have weak reading comprehension skills and remain passive recipients rather than active participants in the content that they must engage with, how can we expect them to formulate their own writing with any coherence or authority? But, if we assume students have weak reading skills, we do risk denying stronger students the chance to step right in to active discussion and emulation, leading to independent writing style. So, for our winter-break we chose the text Deep Reading: Teaching Reading in the Writing Classroom edited by Patrick Sullivan, Howard Tinberg, and Sheridan Blau.

As I begin this book, I think that it would be important to share my findings with you as well as the FIG. So, over the next weeks, I’ll be posting my observations here. Please feel free to correct or question me during this process. I’d love to know your thoughts.

Keep Reading, Keep Learning, Keep Growing

Some ideas and observations are worth a revisit. This entry was originally posted about 3 years ago and I find that it has relevance still today. I’ve  changed the title and did a bit of editing but the essence remains:

Perfection is an inaccurate term to use for a human being, I believe. There is a positive force to embody in our lives regardless of the term we apply to it. As I continue to savor random moments alone with How Yoga Works by Geshe Michael Roach, I find myself kind of floating emotionally in a soft cocoon. My head hums a bit, my chest alternates between tightness and the most clear and weightless expanse of breath I can ever remember having. Realizations and fear, regrets and hope all ebb and flow. It’s like having a misty aura pulsing around me. Very spiritual. Very new. Very different from the reactions to the texts I usually read and write about.

A current passage that has insinuated itself into my thoughts contains references to the dilemma of pride. Pride is especially troublesome when it has installed itself within a student and the master or teacher must find a way to refocus it. One of the pending titles for my blogging is Teaching People How to Learn. I still may use it later on, but for the moment it serves as a better example of the trajectory of this post rather than a guide for a separate entry. As the narrator tells us, pride must be hit or beaten with a figurative stick until it becomes “a healthy kind of confidence” ( 135). One holds onto pride jealously but confidence is flexible. It can be shaken, it can be restored, and it does not begrudge change.

Confidence is what many of us lack when we endeavor to write. Pride is what stops us from learning. Those of us that have allowed rejection letters or the disinterest of influential people or difficulty with insecure bosses  to define our worth have allowed a perception to dominate our overall sense of ability and worth. That is not to say that there is a ceiling to learning and that writing is a static medium. The negative must be analyzed closely to find the realities within that collapse of hope or momentum.

This leads me back to teaching people how to learn. I have students who go into throws of anxiety and confrontation when they get a C rather than the expected A (Read: grade earned for simply producing the work). I see them as people with potential to evolve if I can assist them in realizing that earlier grades came at earlier periods in their education. Perhaps the standards were lower as well–let’s be frank about that. Many do not know how to evolve from the platform they have rested upon and refuse to find that there is more work ahead. Their pride is blocking the growth of their knowledge base. I am the wall they hit or the stick that beats the barriers down if I can.

What overcomes the obstacles? Reading of course. The text is life. Each text is a portal into a new perspective on life as it was or is if you see it for its potential rather than only its concrete form. How Yoga Works teaches us that things are not “themselves” or, rather, don’t have an unyielding unchangeable identity. Our engagement with the world creates or molds the nature of what we behold and that nature “itself” is not static. Roach offers us an example when the narrator engages her jailor in a discussion about a bamboo pen on his desk. Is it a pen? To him, yes, but is it only a pen? He comes to realize that it is also  a tiny piece of nourishment: “I mean that impression, that sense of division is so strong . . . I simply never realized that I make the pen itself ; my mind takes the pen a pen, just as the cow’s mind draws the same green stick as something good to eat” (118).

Now, I don’t  believe that our perceptions are an illusion or that people do not create texts, art, or even meals in an unconscious state that only others can give concrete form to as they engage with them. We are not passive vessels nor are our accomplishments eradicated by lack of witnesses or missing accolades. What this text brings to me and what I take from my interaction with it is that we can change our perception so that pain and discomfort do not concretely define an experience. If someone is cruel, the unhappiness is real, but the root cause of our pain may be suppressed or veiled by the surface actions. What is truly cruel in the moment?  The actions or the causes of these?

For a non-spiritual on non-philosophical example, think of the “kick the dog” syndrome. Someone is raked across the coals by his unhappy boss who is looking for someone to abuse because his wife made nasty comments that morning. The employee, feeling victimized and powerless, then spits profanity at someone who accidentally bumps his arm causing hot coffee to burn his hand. The person soundly abused for an honest mistake cuts someone off at a turn feeling the need to assert her authority and presence. The person who narrowly misses hitting that car comes home shaking and, as the dog trips him in his glee at finally having someone to play with, kicks the animal for also being in the way.

These examples and questions are not meant to confuse your sense of order or make you doubt your eyes or heart. Doubt is not the goal. Doubt is real at the moment you feel it, but it should not be a  manipulative tool for preventing the emergence of self-assertion and confidence. The key here is that self assertion must be based in awareness and tempered by acceptance of the changeable nature of what Roach calls “universal powers” and of perception.

The text I am reading is life. What you are reading is life. As it should be? As you agree? Does it matter? We are experiencing the opportunity to learn and grow from the nourishment that is found in the narrative.

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Let’s Weigh in on Fan Fiction

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As I sat with a friend of mine on a recent evening, we started talking about these last posts about the Memoir and the subject turned to other genres that I had not spent time reflecting on. Then she said, “Write about fan fiction!” Hmmm, I don’t really know much about fan fiction actually but I am definitely in favor of any medium that gets writers writing and finding their own voice.

I actually have the button  you see pictured here. I used to work in a comic book store in Baltimore and we had these as promos for an issue of a Wolverine comic. It cracked me up in general but I never really thought about who the fans were and why they were dedicated enough to earn so much ribbing. After all, aren’t fans the only thing that keeps you in business?

When you think about it, we’ve all been inspired (or annoyed) by the authors we read when in school or that we found in our excursions to the library, or Amazon, or the bookstore (remember those?). I just never really thought about the concerted effort so many people have put in to developing entire stories and lives around existing characters. To write a vampire story is not new. To create an entirely new planet is not new. But to write about existing vampires or colonies in other universes is very curious to me. But I do know what it is to feel lost or lonely when a story or trilogy or some such ends. I have often missed some characters and wished they would return somehow. I remember when Anne McCaffrey died. I was faced with the end of her dragon riders. Even if she were not planning to do more with Pern, the possibility was open as long as she was here. Now, even with her son carrying on, it’s still not her. BUT this is where the fans come in right? They keep the legends and the people alive and offer a continuation of the world she created or let this one branch out to the next, much like the originators of Pern did when they arrived on this new planet. Why not stay in touch?

Basically, everyone has a story and it’s important to tell it. Is it for family? I have worked for year for my dear friend Ruth Wolf as she compiled a family history for her many grand and great-grandchildren. Is it for the public? An in-group of other avid fans of particular authors who all feel connected through particular stories? Is it for the love of writing alone and you allow what boils up from inside to guide you?

You are interesting. Whatever you want to write is up to you as long as you hone your craft and never feel that you are done learning and observing. If emulating a stye is what drives you to experiment, great. If writing fan fiction and staying within the existing world that another created rings true with you, great. Are you a Memoirist who shares your experiences for those who could learn from your life or be inspired by it? Great. Maybe your memoirs work for personal as well as professional goals.

It’s all what truly resonates within you and never let anyone tell you your choices are not marketable or timely. You decide what you create and then decide how it will live on. If you reach enough people, maybe your own tales will continue on when you’ve stopped or have moved on. So, write on Fan Boys and Girls!

Memoirists: My Educators

I was so pleased to read the comments and see the “likes” that appeared in response to my last post. I am always trying to stay in learning mode and keep from atrophying intellectually or creatively, so the feedback I get is always of interest and importance.

Through my newfound colleagues in the blogging community, I have learned even more about the Memoir.  I find myself enlightened as to the fact that a Memoir’s value should be gauged by each reader and their preferences or needs rather than by a preconceived idea of who the Memoirist should be or what their “qualifications” are.

Because I focus my blog content on the pursuit of inspiration for writing in general–rather than in one particular genre–and because I frame my work in relation to the principles and patience of yoga, I cannot remain inspired if I don’t investigate my stubbornness or even snobbery about the varied aspects of these disciplines. To look critically at the place the Memoir holds in my academic background is the first thing I needed to do. The Memoir or an Autobiography, in my literature studies, has always been part of a larger pattern of investigation that helped me to understand a particular writer’s process in life and art. The texts brought to me an understanding of their methods and moods as well as their social or historical influences (I’ll not argue theory here). I adore the work of Edith Wharton, but, without reading about her, I don’t feel that I could claim to begin to understand her work and I would be more passive in my engagement of her books. How is it that she so adeptly censures the suffocating world of the New York aristocracy of her time? How does she so aptly understand the poor or extreme choices one makes when in love or in need of status?

But what about non-academic studies? What about the study of the immediate world around me? What are other people doing with their lives right now and what are the events that shaped them or that must have been navigated to survive or thrive? Can’t they be of interest? Can’t they be included in the Humanities? If I am going to be a reliable teacher of writing, I must understand the modern reader and not just my literary predecessors of both fiction and nonfiction. This is where the modern Memoir comes in to play and takes me out of my institutional sense of propriety. This is where I continue to learn: By letting the discussion or debate happen around me and letting the new voices, the current thinkers and writers tell me about their standards. Let’s face it, unless I need to get a grant or need to gain tenure, do I really have to subscribe to one way of approaching my studies? Yes, this is going to be related to yoga but only briefly: There is no one way to practice. There are many ways of learning and progressing. It’s only up to you if you choose one path of study. That is fine. But do know it is a choice and that there are other paths for other people! Maybe a stroll down one will bring you closer to your own goals!

The Memoir: A Saturated Trend in Publishing or Beneficial Genre for All Readers?

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In last April’s edition of The Atlantic, Leslie Jamison defended the Memoir and other forms of published personal reflection as being effective tools for readers to use in order to understand or investigate ways of being. She argues that books in this genre need not be trendy and vacuous or narcissistic and confessional outlets. Alongside “Self help” or “How To” types of texts, the Memoir connects the audience with a journey or a path that someone else has followed and that the reader may be about to embark upon or is in the process of experiencing in some form. For many, to sit quietly and privately with another person’s viewpoint on an odyssey through an illness, a pursuit of spiritual and physical healing, or a path to success or failure and redemption is enlightening and empowering. The reader is anonymous. The reader does not need to ask questions or share their own experience. They can simply be with the words.

I must say that I have, for a long time, been skeptical of the current popularity of the Memoir. Of course, someone who has had an impact on the world or in their field is someone who should write a Memoir or an Autobiography. Scholars and fans alike want the inside story in the individual’s words. Even if rhetorical authority is in question, the entry into this person’s world is at least a lead that can direct you to other research or leads. But what about the Memoir that is from a person who does not seem to have accomplished anything substantial except that they were published? I hear Terry Gross from NPR often interviewing someone whose just published their Memoir. Someone who may not have written anything previously and has been obscure otherwise. Or, perhaps this person has not been writing long enough or prolifically to have much to offer in the way of life experience yet. Why in the world do I care what they did or when or how? Jamison enlightened me.

We can take from these writers’ reflections what we need or want to know. We can adopt for ourselves a person’s approach to life or feel less alone in our own dilemma. Overall we engage and respond rather than just coming to their texts as voyeurs or passive audiences. Jamison writes that “[l]ife is evidence. It’s fodder for argument.”

I still choose to read about someone who has lived at least 50 years or who has been in a business or discipline for at least a few decades, but that is my preference. I want to read about long-term events and experiences. Someone else may need timely events mapped out and have access to immediate answers. Ultimately, I am converted. The Memoir is of value and the wider the variety of authors and discussion points, the more people who can benefit from the wisdom imparted.