Sunday, January 11, 2015

You're Not Prepared for College, Part 1: Stop Trying to Be a "Good" Reader


Reading prose, especially at the college level, can be hard. That’s why I have a Tumblr of pictures my students draw on quizzes.

Part of the trouble is that we are “good little doobies,” as an old teacher used to say. We read in order.

We do things like this hastily drawn flowchart:


We basically blunder around until we give up.

Joan Bennett in Scarlet Street
Here’s the thing: stop letting the author be the boss of you! Do not ever read in order. Do not ever read faithfully. You are a FEMME FATALE trying to take the article for all it is worth and leave it behind as a sad, withered hulk. 

Concentrate on a specific task at a time. Only when you have that do you go back for anything else. Always be reading to accomplish a specific intellectual task for this kind of reading. NEVER read just to see what happens. Your job is to understand or to argue or to take what is useful for further thought, for example. 

Simple texts are just buckets of ideas. Read them fast. Fish around. Take the good ones.

Complex texts are often complex because the writer is grappling with something that cannot be expressed or understood in clear language in the best cases, and in the worst, they don't understand what they are talking about and are obfuscating or just lost in language. So why kill yourself trying to understand well enough to outline it? (paging Kenneth Burke, Jacques Derrida, Judith Butler).

Either way, written expository words are not jewels to be dusted and appreciated and Gollumed. That is for art and poetry and good films. Expository writing is a vehicle for ideas, a channel or pipeline for content. You are trying to hack the channel to get what you need. Stop trying to be "good." Instead, get better at being "bad."

This blog post is an adaptation of something I developed for students having trouble getting the reading done. Students often have to choose between reading it over many many times and not reading at all. You can guess which choice usually wins

One student said this was “revelatory.” Maybe.

Let's see how it goes.

Incidentally, this post references Paul Schrader’s key article defining film noir. I found it a helpful example of a text that has aspects of simplicity and complexity. If you’d like to take a look here.

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Think brackets. I get a sense that you want it all at once and so you read slower to get it. Perhaps if you allowed yourself to read quickly for one purpose at a time and skim over the rest [bracket it off for the next reading] it might go faster. You'd be reading more than once, but it might be faster at a net level.

paragraph 4
Take Schrader. I'd start the piece. I'd flow quickly without trying too hard until I can find some sort of thesis/preview or direction. I find that finally at the end of paragraph 4. I realize we are getting a definition in this essay. So I try to answer that and little else.

beginnings of next 4 paragraphs
So then I quickly scan (glance only, really) the next couple of paragraphs to see what overall form the argument will take so I know how to process it. Each one's first sentence seems to set up totally different ideas. I stop and reflect that my job as a reader is to sort out competing definition options. I start labeling them in the margin, maybe numbering them for easy use.

"rather" paragraph
Then he gives up, in the "Rather" paragraph on page 9. Okay. But I don't believe him. So what do I do now?

I am not sure I need to pay a lot of close attention to the conditions of production history that he gets into, since I know that already. So I skip to the conclusion to see if he really does give up on defining or not.

the last paragraph
Okay, he's a liar. The last paragraph tells me he has 3 reasons it is a style. So I note those, maybe write them down, and then return to where I stopped and try to understand those 3 parts. Then I will only read for understanding what he means there by these three things (which are kind of ambiguous in the last paragraph).

the cool parts I like
But but but but . . . . I think I already know what I think he means by each of those 3 things, so I will just skim a bit until something leaps out and tells me I'm wrong. I am mostly done. I will skim back through the rest looking for examples or ideas that are either 1) new to me or 2) are really super long and so probably are the places where he is performing some subtle act of writing and thought magic.

Hmm... nothing super new, but I like the compositional tension bullet point and the Freud and water point. I'll read those more closely because I haven't really thought of that before.

The rest of the article is phrases. I will again skim until I see something surprising. Otherwise, I already know this, so I will go fast (I might write down his phrases to answer back on a quiz, I guess, but grudgingly).

So there we have it. That's how I would read for class. I can do it quickly. So can you. Stop getting paralyzed by the fear that you are missing something. If you don't read it at all or don't finish it, you DEFINITELY are missing something, so try it this way and see if it helps.

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Although the morebrainz blog is mostly about public speaking, the "You're Not Prepared for College" series is a bit more expansive in scope. Hopefully, you will still find it a good read. This series of blog posts is based on my own experience, my co-directorship of Texas Lutheran University's Freshman Experience class, 20 years of college teaching, 15 years of teaching advanced high school/college classes, 9 years of coaching school-age kids in creative problem-solving, my experiences as a father, my research into the fields of reading and learning, and, finally, my background as a rhetorician. The short version of what a rhetorician does is to cut the crap. There is a lot of crap out there on the topic of college success.

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