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Re Reader Response_Lynch

Re Reader Response_Lynch

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The English Record
Spring 2009 vol.59 issue 2
 
Re-reader Response: The Illusion of Teaching Literature
1
 
 Tom Liam LynchNew York City Department of Education and Teachers College, Columbia University 
 
In many discussions of teaching reading, there often exists a crucial, unstatedassumption: that students read. By this I do not mean that students are functionally literate,but that they read when teachers ask them to. If on Monday night Mr. Englishteacherassigns to read pages 1-20, Tuesday’s lesson is built on the assumption that students indeedhave read. To assume such readership is naïve, and potentially detrimental to students'development as readers, our own teaching methods. While we might like a clear definition of what "reading" means, or at least someconglomerate of meanings of reading, defining it is met with the same mixture of technicality, metaphor, verve, and even skepticism. For example, in two widely read workson reading, we get two very different descriptions of the reading process, which drawsattention to the elusive nature of such a definition. In her book 
Proust and the Squid 
(Wolf,2007), professor of child development Maryanne Wolf explores what happens in the brain when a person reads. She traces the history of reading, noting not only neurological moves,but also cultural twists in the act of reading. Though she does so with an acute appreciationfor both the cultural-historical and the scientific, Wolf nevertheless posits a neurologicalframework for reading: "all human
behaviors 
are based on multiple
cognitive 
processes, whichare based on the rapid integration of information from very specific
neurological structures 
, which rely on billions of 
neurons 
capable of trillions of possible connections, which areprogrammed in large part by 
 genes" 
(10, emphasis in original). Wolf's work primarily attempts to appeal to the scientist in the reader, decorating the neurological explanations with references to Suma and Socrates. Or, take Alberto Manguel's
 A History of Reading 
 (Manguel, 1997), which draws to our attention the many ways one can read at all: "First, by following, breathlessly, the events and the characters without stopping to notice the details,the quickening pace of reading sometimes hurtling the story beyond the last page...[and]Secondly, by careful exploration, scrutinizing the text to understand its raveled meaning,finding pleasure merely in the sound of the words or in the clues which the words did not wish to reveal..." (13). Whereas Wolf writes from a confident biological and neurologicalstandpoint, Manguel's perspective of the act of reading seems to center on the reader andhow he is affected by the written text. How one reads is not a scientific question; it is asubjective one.Using Wolf and Manguel’s viewpoints on reading, we can briefly create a simplecontinuum: On the left end of the continuum is Wolf’s neurological view of reading; on theright is Manguel’s reader-based view of reading. Off the continuum completely might be a work called
How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read 
(Bayard, 2007) by a French professorof literature. For him, you don’t have to read books to talk about them; talking about books,after all, makes up most of the reason why we read them anyway. (Before you dismissBayard’s premise, think about your own college literature courses, or even current teaching 
1
 
This article is a slightly modified version of the original. The original citation in formation is: “Re-reader Response: The illusion of teaching literature.” The English Record. June 2009. Vol.59, Iss. 2, pp. 40-47.
 
The English Record
Spring 2009 vol.59 issue 2
 
practices, and the amount of talk that takes place.) As famous examples of non-readers,Bayard cites Oscar Wilde and Montaigne: the former ostensibly reviewed books he didn’tread and the latter was unable to recall his own published essays when a partygoer quotedthem to him. What do we mean by “read” in our own classrooms? If classroom teachers use the word "read" with students and assume that it is self-evident, I suggest it is not evident at all.Students, rather than becoming readers, might instead hone their skills as illusionists.
Students as Illusionists
 The illusion of reading refers to the way students sometimes feign readership,understanding, and interest in fulfillment of their role as students. Significantly, illusionistsare not those students who clearly resist or struggle with reading; I’m talking about those who seem engaged. In a piece I wrote recently, I explored what it meant to "read" forEnglish class with 10th grade students in my New York City selective public school (Lynch,2008b). A few points came to the forefront of my work with the class. Firstly, the word"read" provided sufficient room for interpretation so that a student might do with it what he wished. If a student thought that reading Book 2 of 
The Iliad 
meant slowly studying every line of Homer's poem, then that's what he would do; if it meant just opening and closing thebook, so be it. Next, an informal poll of my students suggested that many of theminterpreted "read" many different ways. Finally, students expressed disenchantment withreading literature, which seemed to begin in middle school, where they recalled firstanalyzing books instead of "just reading" them. The accuracy of their collective memory is,as memory tends to be, questionable. Nevertheless, because it is the way they perceivethemselves as students and readers, it's worth taking seriously.Since first writing about this experience, I've come to think about such students as
illusive readers 
. I use this term in direct comparison to the more authentic types of readingsstudents recalled when they were younger. Before becoming illusionists, students sharedstories of being read to on the subway en route to school, about sneaking a copy of afavorite book into bed to read more, and about sharing reading experiences in the context of family holiday meals. Now, I was fairly sure most students didn’t actually read for class atall! When I posed the question, "What does it mean to read for class?", students repliedmainly in one of four ways: 1) not reading at all; 2) opening the book and flipping throughthe pages while "drifting off"; 3) Honestly trying to read the literary text, but notunderstanding it; and 4) reading each section of the text until they felt like they understood what they were reading. I cannot convey the great effect this had on me as their teacher. Whereas I had become a proponent of fast-paced and heavy reading loads, all in the nameof academic rigor, my students suggested that such illusory rigor was being met with illusory readings. Illusive readers might eagerly talk in class discussion, answer reading questions incomplete sentences, ace quizzes, and have their books in class every day. None of theseillusions mean students are actually reading.
Students are not Readers
 A discussion about how students read literature might well begin with
Literature as Exploration 
(Rosenblatt, 1983), not because it contains all the answers to all our questions,but because it seems one of several touchstones in the teaching of literature. In her book,Rosenblatt explores how and why to study literature with adolescents. While her ideas areoften termed Reader Response, she herself uses the term
transactional theory 
to describe whathappens when a student reads a work of literature. More recently, scholars have revisited
 
The English Record
Spring 2009 vol.59 issue 2
 
and reevaluated Reader Response and its place in English classrooms. One scholar notes(Purves, 1993) that "Student readers have also been acculturated into habits of reading, intodealing with literature in school in particular ways...By secondary school, the large majority of students in the United States report that they are moralizing symbol hunters... that they read to take tests on what is read" (349). He emphasizes, too, that the context for reading isnot simply in school or in the classroom. Rather, there are many contexts in which studentsmight read. These contexts apply not only to the local ones of readers, but to the globalcontexts as well--now more than ever, literature can help readers become more aware of other cultures as they study texts as artistic products of other peoples. In his conclusion,Purves proposes an approach to the teaching of literature thatshould follow the principles of Rosenblatt: It should seek to allow studentsto explore the poems that they make sense of the texts; it should allow themto explore the cultures of the world they read about and their own culturethrough the artistic uses of the medium of language. It should not simply assert that there is one meaning (that of the author and the textbook) northat there are limitless meanings, but that the world of the text and the worldof the reader intersect in complex ways so that there are a set of contemporary and communal readings of the text (360). While I agree with Purves on most points stated above, I am concerned not by what isstated, but by what is not stated. He makes an assumption that Rosenblatt too makes in her work. He assumes
that 
students read. Based on my own experiences, this is a dangerousassumption for a teacher to make. Throughout her work, Rosenblatt uses two words interchangeably: student andreader. While Purves does use the phrase "Student readers" in the above excerpt, he leavesthe distinction between the two un-discussed. The two words are hardly the same--especially when the latter can mean so much. “Students” might safely be called those whostudy a subject in the contexts of a school or apprenticeship. “Readers” is much moreelusive. For sure, the ability 
to
read does not mean a student
is a reader 
--it means he is literate.Only a student himself can identify himself as a reader. While we might have tricks forpressuring students to read, we cannot make them; while we might teach as if students readfor homework, we cannot know for certain. That students' eyes scan over lines of a textdoes not mean they are readers. That students scour the pages for answers to specificreading questions does not mean they are readers. That students' hands shoot up withquickness and confidence in response to a teacher-posed question about the author's use of alliteration does not mean they are readers. “Students” are not “readers”, necessarily.Rosenblatt misses this point often in her book (Rosenblatt, 1983). Take, forinstance, her chapter entitled "What the Student Brings to Literature," in which Rosenblattunpacks all the experiences that a student draws on or can draw on when interacting with atext. Throughout the chapter, Rosenblatt strays from her focus on
the student 
and discusses
the reader 
: "It is easy to detect the influence of the reader's preoccupations and pastexperiences when, as in the preceding instances, they lead to an interpretation unsupportedby the text" (81). No distinction is made between students and readers, which suggests thatfor Rosenblatt the two are one. The seemingly innocuous nature of my point is anything butinnocent, however. The assumption that students are readers--whatever an individualteacher decides "reading" means--leads to choices in pedagogy that then run the risk of creating a classroom, not of readers, but of illusive readers who personate precisely whatthey know the teacher wants.

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