Re-Practicing Practical Criticism

Gary D. Shank M Cecil Smith

Department of Educational Psychology, Counseling and Special Education Northern Illinois University DeKalb, IL 60115

Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Atlanta, GA. April 12-16, 1993.

The purpose of this paper is to revisit the psychological study of expertise in reading from a semiotic perspective. There has been, over the past two decades, an abundance of research within the framework of cognitive psychology which has investigated the nature of expertise across a variety of domains, Including air traffic control (Means Ct al., 1988) radiology (Lesgold, Rublnson, Feltovich, Glaser, Klopfer, & Wang, 1988), horse race handicapping (Ceci & Liker, 1986), chess (Charness, 1981; Chase & Simon, 1973; DeGroot, 1965), and electronics (Egan & Schwartz, 1979). A picture of expertise has emerged which cuts across all of these activities and demonstrates that; 1) experts perceive large, meaningful patterns in their domain, 2) have superior short- and long-term memory for domain-relevant Information, 3) are faster and more efficient at performing basic skills pertinent to their domain of expertise, 4) represent problems at a deep level of understanding, 5) spend a good deal of time analyzing problems before attempting solutions, and 6) display superior self-monitoring skills (Glaser & Chi, 1988). In particular, characteristics of expert adult readers have been examined in the psychological literature. From the perspective of cognitive psychological research, expert adult readers are those persons who are strategic and can monitor their understanding of text. Expert readers possess sufficient prior knowledge and appropriate strategies which enable them to solve problems that they encounter In reading, such as breakdowns in comprehension. As readers develop and elaborate their knowledge schemas more slots are created so that incoming, relevant information is more easily learned or retrieved. When a person possesses considerable knowledge of a particular domain, the acquisition of new information is facilitated as the information is mapped onto one’s existing knowledge structures. Another characteristic of expert readers is that they display an interest in the topic and appropriate attitudes towards the reading task(s). Finally, expert readers ably pursue and accomplish personal goals in reading, such as wanting to know about a topic or finding entertainment in leisure reading. Research on expert reading has generally examined the skills of domain experts, such as attorneys and law students (Lundeberg, 1987), professors (Pressley, Beard, & Brown, 1990), and physicists (Bazerman, 1985). It is, by now, widely accepted that extensive prior knowledge of a topic or domain is the sine qua non of skilled reading (Bransford & Johnson, 1972). There may be situations and contexts, however, in which expert-like reading ability is demonstrated even when the reader lacks sufficient prior knowledge of a domain. Scardamalia & Bereiter (1991) suggest a dialectical process occurring between the reader’s textbase (i.e., a representation of what the text says) and their situation model (I.e., the reader’s domain knowledge relevant to a text). The situation model is used for making inferences necessary in constructing the textbase; comprehension of text propositions, in turn, modifies the readers situation model. Expertise is characterized by high levels of such back-and-forth activity, according to Scardamalia and Bereiter (1991). In our study, we wanted to get beyond the idea that acquiring expertise in reading is strictly a process of decoding and extracting information from an extensive prior knowledge database, and acquiring appropriate strategic skills. We chose to augment the standard cognitive theoretical approach with a more semiotic understanding. In particular,

we focused on the work of Roland Barthes (1975). In The Pleasure of the Text, Barthes describes reading not so much as a cognitive experience as an erotic experience. Part of the pleasure of the text, from Barthes’s perspective, is pushing the act of reading beyond its mundane ordinary boundaries. As a consequence, then, we were interested in looking at expertise in people who push the boundaries of reading as part of their vocations. This entailed looking at how the critic, broadly conceived, reads. Coupled with this task is the idea of asking critics to reflect not only of their process of reading, but to develop pedagogical suggestions that could be used to help people improve their own styles and habits of reading. One of the things we discovered quickly is that very little is known about the way that critics read. Gevlnson (1991), for example, has suggested that the idea of reading expertise in the field of literary criticism may be a dubious concept, at best. While there has been a good amount of literature looking at how students interpret texts (Cox & Many, 1991; Rogers, 1991; and Smith, 1992 are recent examples looking at the interpretational skills of, respectively, elementary, secondary, and college age students), most of these studies have concentrated on determining the validity of reader response theory as a mode for informing reading instruction. We feel that reader response theory, as exemplified by Rosenblatt (1979, 1982) is a valuable addition to the theoretical domain of reading research and instruction, but we felt that our research needed to be grounded In work that was more explicitly linked to the performance of criticism as a day-to-day activity. The obvious choice of a foundation for exploring the critical nature of reading was l.A. Richards’s (1929) classic work, Practical Criticism. In this book, Richards asked students to read and Interpret 13 poems of differing levels of quality. Richards then gathered and synthesized these responses into a work that helped delineate the critical experience from the perspective of a talented learner. Since then, others have built upon Richards’s work. Kintgen (1983), for example, was able to “re-do” Richards’s original project using the more sophisticated analytical tools of reader response theory. But, to our knowledge, no one has approached critics with the same task, at least with the goal of extending the boundaries of reading itself and using the results as a pedagogical tool. One of the difficulties of our task was surmounting a number of logistical obstacles. As we saw it, there were two main obstacles. First of all, we needed to recruit a number of critics from a diverse set of backgrounds, and second of all, we had to give them something to critique that was new to all of them. The first obstacle was solved by taking advantage of the tremendous power of electronic communication media. By accessing the following discussion lists, we were able to assemble a dozen volunteers to read and interpret a single text for us. Those lists were: Derrida-1, a discussion list on the works of Jacques Derrida and deconstruction; Semios-1, a list dealing with visual and verbal semiotics; Medtext1, a list dedicated to medieval codicology; Qualrs-l, a list on qualitative research in the human sciences; and several other private lists on postmodern thought. Out of our dozen volunteers, four actually submitted long and thoughtful interpretations.

In order to get a fresh work for critique, one of the authors commissioned a personal friend, who is a published poet, to create a new poem for the task, and for the poet to further supply his own critique, theory of interpretation, and pedagogical plan. The text of that poem follows:

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