Sunday, July 12, 2009

Reading Academically

For some reason, they never teach you in high school there are different ways of reading. The trouble really starts, though, when they typically fail to mention this fact in college, too. Oh sure, you might take a class where they’ll distinguish between giving a Marxist reading, or feminist or deconstructive reading, but the verb switch says it all—when did reading become something you give?

It is a commonplace in post-English class social events, organized by outgoing students who could never pass up the opportunity to meet new drinking partners, that much of the discussion, should it revolve around the class, typically be aimed at how difficult it was to read the assignments, even if they’d already read them before. What is usually left out, because every undergrad class will be a hodgepodge of majors and req-seekers, is why this occurs. More interesting than that, even, is the fact that most English majors don’t even like what’s happening to them through the class (though they do typically know it has something to do with the writing—the “giving”). The crown jewel in this anecdotal survey, however, is my chance encounter with a former grad student in UW-Madison’s English Department, one of the top programs in the country. When I asked her why she was “former,” she said that it was destroying her love of literature. Why on earth would literary critics destroy a person’s love of literature?

I don’t think they’re doing it on purpose, but it would certainly help matters if they became a bit more honest and said up front that the loving of literature swings free from what they do professionally. To make matters worse, even if we leave aside those who do professionally what they don’t love (which occurs in every profession), we might also reflect on the difficulty we all have in expressing our own, often incommunicable love to other people. So when a professor earnestly fails in this expression and accidentally tramps down on the potential of others, we shouldn’t be that surprised. The professors we remember best from college are those who were eminently successful in expressing their love, typically through the performance of that love, which we call the lecture.

An undergraduate (even high school) English class has two primary functions: 1) Exposure and 2) Exploration. The first function is simply the exposure of different books. To succeed in this function, one does not have to have any particular way of reading in mind. You just shove books in front of peoples’ faces. To explore a book, however, requires a specific way of reading in mind. When one sits down to explore a book on paper, you aren’t writing a book report—we already know what the book says, we want to know what it means. You are not writing a book report. (This is a distinction easy to maintain for non-assertoric prose, but difficult for assertoric—why would someone making an argument say something other than what he means? Why, indeed. Though on the one hand assertoric prose has proven quite handily that the distinction founders as a theory, it has also shown how it can be used heuristically on itself, no less than non-assertoric, too.) In what follows, I will try and draw the most basic distinction between two different ways of reading, between reading academically and not.

I’d like to begin by literally describing how I read—we might describe the difference between academic reading and not by saying it’s the difference between reading with a pen and reading without. The first thing I do when I start reading is to begin underlining words and phrases (and starring passages) that pop out. Since one typically doesn’t know what meaning is being created by the text yet, you won’t know ahead of time what the important things are that you’ll need to remember later. So you have to trust your instincts—odd, interesting, anything that seems like it might become important or significant later.

The first step is underlining, which we do to aid our memory, for the exploration of a text doesn’t really begin when your eyes meet the page, but when your fingers strike the keyboard. The second step to move you towards that moment is writing down things that it occurs to you to say. Write short off-hand stuff in the margins, but keep a notebook around for longer occurrences of thought. When you are actively engaging a text for exploratory purposes, things to say about a text will occur to you as you go along. If you don’t write them down, you’ll forget them and these are the first keys to the text you have.

If underlining and writing down things it occurs to you to say are two practical steps to academic reading, then the first conceptual step is to treat these sayings you are writing down as claimings. Treat things you want to say about a text as claims or assertions. As claims/assertions, they have a certain structure. All claims sit in a web of other claims—every assertion sits in a web of inferential relationships with every other assertion. When we take a claim as an atom on a linear line (ignoring for the moment that a web extends 360°, or worse, is 3-D), we can sort out two parts of its structure with other claims. Every claim has an arrow that points backwards down the line towards its commitments and an arrow that points forwards towards its entitlements. When you make a claim, you are committing yourself to certain other claims and likewise entitling yourself to still more.

Rather than focus on claims in general further (which has all been hacked off pieces of Robert Brandom’s technical vocabulary), I would like to unpack this structure more by immediately applying it as my theory of academic reading. One way to take what is meant by commitments and entitlements is the simple, understood fact that every claim needs justification and that every claim has a point. If you couldn’t justify your assertion, nobody would believe you, and if you didn’t have a point in saying it, nobody would be very interested in listening to you. In the theory of academic reading, then, commitments are justification (i.e. evidence) and entitlements are enablements (i.e. interpretations). What you said about the text needs to be justified, but it also enables you to say something more.

When you sit down to write about a text, then, you already have a bunch of stuff to do. All of the sayings you wrote down in your notebook or as marginalia need to now be treated as claims, which means you have work to do. Every claim needs to be justified, which means you’ll need to find evidence from the text (so-called “quotations”) and every claim needs to have a point in being made—there has to be a larger goal. Your initial sayings about a text should be thought of as middle-sized claims. Looking backwards, these need smaller claimings to justify it. Just as we learn from philosophers that there is no such thing as a naked hunk of reality that is not under a description, so our English teachers have been trying to teach us to never introduce a quotation from a text without glossing it, without explaining what you think that hunk of text means. The text’s “sayings” only hook up to each other. Your gloss, however, is a small-sized claim that hooks up with your other claims—it refers to the quotation and shapes it for your purposes. So every piece of evidence is a small-sized claim about a text, ones that could, by the very nature of claims, continue to have commitments articulated, but for the sake of getting on with life, are hopefully justified in not having more said. This means that you are banking on the fact that your auditor also takes the claim to be small. Many instructive arguments have ensued when someone has shown that another’s small-sized claim isn’t as small as they thought.

Many times the hardest part in writing about a text, however, isn’t the small- or middle-sized claims, but the large point you are supposed to be developing in making the smaller ones. This is something that takes a lot of experience, but instructors would do well in helping their students to attain this experience by not telling their students to never say something new in the conclusion. If you think back to the five-paragraph model of writing that I think every American student was taught, you’ll remember that the first paragraph was your introduction, the middle three your argument, and the last your conclusion. You are taught, typically, that your conclusion should never say anything new, but rather recapitulate what you think you just did. This traps you, however, into only saying the smallest thing you think you can get away with, lest you risk getting a bad grade. This leaves you bereft of the experience of experimenting with larger claims, of never thinking about what this might further lead to or yield.

What we should rather do is think of the intro, with its thesis statement, as the middle-sized claim, the three middle paragraphs as the smaller claims, and the conclusion as your suggestion towards a larger claim. So, in my case, we might split up my introduction (“academic reading is one kind of reading”), my middle paragraphs (“writing with a pen,” “sayings as claimings,” “commitments/entitlements”), and my conclusion (“academic reading is really a writing”). Clearly, only a little bit of investigation would show that what has come previously doesn’t quite fit this little schematic, nor even the theory I presented, but the schematic and theory are only aids toward better writing. It sometimes helps, when one gets stuck in the process of writing (as almost always inevitably happens on topics of even slight complexity), to have a form in mind that one can recur to to help spur the writing again. The goal is always better writing, and having in mind the infinity of directions the writing might take sometimes crushes the effort to write, something a form to place on top of it might sometimes make more manageable.

Which leads me to my conclusion: academic reading is really a writing. It is a kind of reading that enables writing. What I think is important about this claim is that you are not committed to this kind of reading as the only or best kind. The only way to move from my claim about academic reading to a claim of superiority or singularity is with additional premises. What follows from this is that anger and bad feelings about literary criticism are misplaced when applied to the discipline qua discipline. Perhaps quite well justified animus is appropriate, not towards the way of reading itself, but towards the additional (often hidden and unconscious) premises snobbish lit crits would have to use in their argument (which is usually just a bald, haughty assertion, when even spoken aloud at all). Or just get pissed at the prof. But what they’re doing, if only injustice to, shouldn’t share responsibility.

It would be somewhat analogous to a political party asserting that governments suck at doing things, and then when they take control (based on such arguments, no less) and subsequently screw everything up, then saying, “See? Governments suck at doing stuff!” No—you suck at doing stuff. Governments qua governments are fine (for what they are). We should be able to separate the institutions from the operators, and perhaps the political party with the self-fulfilling prophecy of sucking should be the focus of the ire of the audience who is the object of that kind of G-sucks rhetoric.

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