The Activist-Reader, or Teaching (Deep) Reading as a Moral and Civic Imperative

By Howard Tinberg

How you construe is how you construct. (Berthoff 10)

After four decades of teaching first-year composition, I have belatedly come to this conclusion:  we have a moral and civic obligation to teach reading in our writing classroom.

This change in my own thinking seems hardly a new idea in Writing Studies.  Scholars of howard-tinbergreading like Alice Horning,  Mariolina Salvatori, and David Joliffe have urged us for years to pay more attention to reading in our writing classes.  More recently, Patrick Sullivan, Sheridan Blau, Ellen Carillo and others have taken up the refrain.  Louise Rosenblatt, a genuine pioneer in the field of reading, bravely took of the theme in “Literature as Exploration,” initially published in 1933.   And, within literary studies,  the New Critics and others instructed us back in the day on how to read for nuance.

But note the difference in what I am asking from what our field and related disciplines have urged in the past:  I am urging us to commit ourselves to reading INSTRUCTION, and I wish us to view reading itself a MORAL and CIVIC act.   In other words, we must know how to teach reading not simply engage in it or even model it,  and we must regard the act of reading—reading deeply, I will assert—as a civic responsibility.   All citizens must acquire and routinely re-enact the practice of curating the information that comes their way.  It is our solemn responsibility as literacy educators to enable these best practices in citizenship.

For myself, as for many in our field, the misinformation that pervaded the 2016 Presidential campaign seemed like a stinging rebuke and a call to action.  This moment is no mere “literacy crisis,” Carillo reminds us (4).   The perfect storm of political polarization, infusion of social media, and foreign interference has us staring at a “post-truth culture” that threatens the existence of fact itself.

Years ago I wrote a piece on “reading as if your life depended on it,” placing the act of reading within the context of teaching Holocaust literature (Tinberg).  I had made the argument that teaching and reading Holocaust literature carries a special burden:  it demands that we turn to “face the Gorgon,” as Primo Levi puts it, and that in reading we must assume the responsibility of bearing witness when encountering those who by word or deed seek to do harm to others.  I have come to believe, since 2016, that we all must take up this burden, as citizen-, and, yes,–reading-activists.

It seems odd, does it not, to describe readers as “activists.” After all, reading is a private act, done mostly in silence and apart from others.  Years ago, while I was still a doctoral candidate working in Romantic Studies, Ann E. Berthoff encouraged me and others to consider the act of composing as an act of forming, of “constructing,” driven by the awesome power of imagination.  Berthoff, a proponent of I. A. Richards’ view of reading as active exploration, knew full well that reading, like writing, amounts to an act of “constructing,” a creative act of the mind.

This past summer, I and several colleagues , spent a good deal of time at the Institute for Reading and Writing Pedagogy, focusing on students  at access-oriented Institutions, funded by the Mellon Foundation and delivered under the auspices of the Modern Language Association (shout out to Paula Krebs, Executive Director of MLA, for being the prime mover of this project).  We all of us read complex materials,  wrote in response to what we read and engaged each other on the margins of the page in an active dialogue.  We enacted reading and writing pedagogies that were eminently portable to our classrooms.

This fall, I have taken up the challenge to bring reading instruction explicitly into my first-year composition classroom.  Instead of simply assuming that my students will do the required reading for the course, I asked them to “read a page”  of a difficult text in class aloud and then, in dialogue with other students and with my guidance, to highlight, annotate, and discuss their reasons for selecting key passages from the text.  The room was engaged in an act of collective reading and in response to the reading.  I can already see the difference in my students’ written projects, which draw from the readings:  evidence of genuine engagement, of deep reading.  I see less skimming and more deep diving into the reading.  And I see more wrestling for meaning, rather than a cursory and disinterested glance at a silent text.

After all, when all is said and done, reading and writing instruction aims to allow our students to find meaning, both in the text and in their own lives.   But it must do more:  it must give our students the means to engage as citizens.  Meaning-making is not merely a private matter.  It must be a collective good.

Howard Tinberg is a Professor of English at Bristol Community College, Fall River, Mass. He is former Chair of CCCC and the former editor of TETYC. He was the recipient of 2004 CASE/Carnegie US Community College Professor of the Year.

Works Cited

Berthoff, Ann E.  The Making of Meaning:  Metaphors, Models and Maxims for Writing Teachers. Upper Montclair, Boynton/Cook, 1981.

Blau, Sheridan. “Performative Literacy:  The Habits of Mind of Highly Literate Readers,” Voices from the Middle 10.3 (2003). 18-22.

Carillo, Ellen C. Teaching Readers in Post-Truth America. Logan:  Utah State UP, 2018.

Horning, Alice, and Elizabeth W. Kraemer.  Reconnecting Reading and Writing.  Anderson: Parlor P, 2013.

Joliffe, David.  “Review Essay:  Learning to Read as Continuing Education.” College Composition and Communication 58.3 (2007):  470-94.

Levi, Primo. “Shame.” In Art from the Ashes: A Holocaust Anthology.” Ed. Lawrence L. Langer. New York:  Oxford UP, 1995.

Rosenblatt, Louise.  Literature as Exploration. 4th ed. New York:  Modern Language Association, 1983.

Salvatori, Mariolina, and Patricia Donahue.  “What is College English?  Stories about Reading:  Appearance, Disappearance, Morphing and Revival.” College English 75.2 (2012):  199-217.

Sullivan, Patrick. “`Deep Reading’ as a Threshold Concept in Composition Studies.” In  Deep Reading:  Teaching Reading in the Writing Classroom.  Ed. Patrick Sullivan, Howard Tinberg, and Sheridan Blau. Urbana:  NCTE. 2017. 143-71

Tinberg, Howard. `Read as If For Life’:  What Happens When Students Encounter the Literature of the Shoah.” College Composition and Communication 60:3 ( 2009).

Author: darinljensen

I am a writer and a teacher who is interested in issues of class and social justice.

One thought on “The Activist-Reader, or Teaching (Deep) Reading as a Moral and Civic Imperative”

  1. Reading, Writing, and Composition Class
    As long as I have been teaching, there has been an emphasis on the importance of reading and writing as symbiotic processes. As Louis Rosenblatt suggested in both The Reader, the Text, the Poem, and Literature as Exploration, reading is an active, inventive process—a transaction—between the words on the page and the creative visions of its readers. Both reading and writing, put simply, are dynamic, personal, and critically important acts for our future as a democracy, for without thoughtful language users, we become just a part of the air that Orwell lamented.
    But reading texts and complicated works do not belong in basic or even more advanced composition classes. I would go so far as to suggest that reading, as a whole, is inimical to the profound personal experience that makes a student into a writer, an author. Indeed, if we are to embrace Peter Elbow’s suggestion that “The goal of teaching writing is to develop the self,” (Elbow 168), we must begin with a writer and a goal of individual growth—of a writer telling a story. Let me offer a hypothetical that has been a part of millions of composition classes.
    John is a struggling writer in a freshmen composition class. He didn’t like the rules and red marks of his high school English, and has never been an avid reader. Kelly Ritter tells us the typical writing class of decades ago was used to train students in both correctness and social fealty. Students were not supposed to discover their voices but to embrace the correctness of the upper classes. As Mike Rose reminds us, words like remediation and prescription were medical terms that were used to reflect the position taken toward writers.
    And so, our hypothetical John enters Composition 101 with an expectation to be showered with more mandates and scripts, with more lessons in the way educated people read and write. Part of this very unpleasant experience involves the assignment to read and recite the elegance of a great writer or group of writers. While John never liked the distance between his life and the writing he was asked to do, the imposition of a canonical writer—someone who is there to be praised for his/her eloquence—only adds to the alienation he feels.
    I’m looking over a wonderful new anthology I recently found in my college mailbox. Its title is Reading the World and it is edited by Michael Austin. As I sample its table of contents, I see names like Desmond Tutu, Paul Bloom, James Madison, Leo Tolstoy, Cicero, and, of course, Martin Luther King. Such anthologies are not meant to inspire personal growth as much as they are used to teach students “great ideas.” Our struggling John already feels a bit out of place, and the request that he devote time to reading Thomas Hobbes, who is also on the list, will do nothing to make him more at home as a writer.
    The problem with reading as it is done in writing classes, is its primary goal is to inculcate, to teach, to lecture. But that is NOT what writing classes are for—at least not at the start. Instead, we should be searching for ways to unearth the voice and visions—the anger and elegance—that resides in each of our students. Stanley Fish wrote a very interesting book a few years ago titled Save the World on Your Own Time. Its basic premise, which is for teachers to teach their area of expertise and save the moral edification to others, seems relevant here. I am the first to desire a more literate and responsive democracy. I wish students knew as much about foreign policy and the Supreme Court as they do the Kardashians. But forcing reading into a class that is meant to teach students not only to write but become writers, is not the place to introduce great ideas. Our goal as writing teachers should be expression, multiple literacies, process, and personal development. It should be empowerment of expression. That starts with a writer and the need to tap into his/her life—not canonical writers from the past.

    Works Cited
    Elbow, Peter.”Reconsiderations: Voice in Writing Again: Embracing Contraries.” College
    English. Vol.70, No. 2, November 2007, pp.168-188.
    Fish, Stanley. Save the World on Your Own Time. Oxford, 2008.
    Ritter, Kelly.”Before Mina Shaughnessy: Basic Writing at Yale, 1920-1960.” College
    Composition and Communication. 60.1 September 2008: pp.12-43.
    Rose, Mike. Lives on the Boundaries. Penguin, 2005.
    Rosenblatt, Louise. Literature as Exploration. MLA, 2005.
    Rosenblatt, Louise. The Reader, the Text, the Poem. Southern Illinois University press, 1978.

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