Director’s Corner (NEMLA Blog Post #9)

Greetings from Chicago!  The spring semester is almost over and faculty and students are preparing for summer break.  Of course, it feels more like winter here today as the temperatures in the city will be lucky to reach 48 degrees.  A good day to stay indoors and read.

Don’t forget that tomorrow is the deadline for submitting a session proposal to the NEMLA 2017 conference in Baltimore.  

Information on the types of sessions you might propose for the conference can be found here https://www.buffalo.edu/nemla/convention/session/sessions.html  .

You can propose your sessions on the CFP website via this link  https://www.buffalo.edu/nemla/convention/session.html.

In my last post, I combined a recap of the NEMLA 2016 Conference in Hartford with an examination of the broader theme–Why Write?  This theme seemed to dominate the conference sessions I attended.  This month I’d like to consider the related questions of how and why we read.

How we read in and out of the classroom was a question that came up frequently during the round table session I chaired in Hartford on reading American Literature with Digital Texts.  We looked at some of the formats in which electronic texts are distributed and how close reading techniques such as annotation can be used with them.  One of the more interesting trends explored was the use of software that allows collective annotation of electronic texts, specifically Lacuna Stories .  I’m not totally sure how to use this software, but it does seem to address what has long been one of my concerns with electronic texts.  Reading in the context of an English class requires an attention to language that goes beyond scanning a webpage for content.  We often call this special type of reading “close reading” without really thinking much about the mechanics involved in the process, aside from reading a text multiple times.  Annotation, however, is the crucial difference between casual reading and reading with a  purpose.  Lacuna Stories allows this process to transfer from the analog to a digital environment.  Even more importantly, it allows students and faculty to share those annotations (or not) and learn from each others reading process.  This is a great example of using technology to achieve a goal that might not be possible in an earlier classroom setting.

But why do we read in the first place and is there any connection between this activity as it happens outside the classroom as well as in?  I’ve been thinking about this question a lot because I’ve been teaching ENGL 240 this semester, Introduction to Literary Criticism and Critical Theory.  This course is required for all English majors and minors at UIC and it is presumed that this will be among their first English classes, preparing them for upper level surveys and seminars.  Finding a baseline for teaching students in this class is very difficult, as each student comes with a varied educational background.  Some of my students are transfers from community colleges who have extensive knowledge of how to read and write about fiction.  Others are just out of high school and haven’t read much fiction at all.  Add to that the groups of students who speak English as a second language and those who are interested in an English major or minor predominately for Professional Writing  skills (Corporate Communications, Public Relations, Journalism, etc.) and you have an almost impossible task staring at you.  First, to find out what prior knowledge this diverse group of students possesses and then to devise a course plan that works to build upon the commonalities in what these students know.

What I’ve found this semester, is that my students don’t read much fiction at all.  They watch a lot of fiction.  They even write a considerable amount.  But reading fiction, not so much.  This even includes what we might refer to disparagingly as “fan fiction” or “pulp fiction.”  My students watch their stories rather than engage them through the written word.  The challenge for me this semester has thus been to turn their attention to the written word and explain what to do with a fictional text (i.e. close reading) as they read.  Oddly enough, this experience has felt a lot like what I experienced studying Latin and Greek at UVM during my undergraduate years.  An intellectually stimulating exercise that in large part felt separated from the world around me.  I could escape for a few hours into the world of Livy, Vergil, and Catullus and not worry about current events.

I realize that at this point I’m starting to sound like “that” professor, vaguely luddite, who laments their student’s inability to perform at a level they deem acceptable.  If you read The Chronicle of Education at all, you know the type.  My colleagues have even asked me when I talk to them about the problems I’ve faced getting students to read carefully:  How is this any different from the way things have always been?  

My answer is, I don’t know.  Perhaps this problem has always been with us, but I feel like something has shifted.  I’ve taught at UIC for 15 years, part of that as a Graduate Student Instructor and part of that as a Lecturer.  During that time, the baseline I can assume for student knowledge has shifted away from text based narrative to alternative forms of storytelling.  In the meantime, English pedagogy has generally stood still.  That’s why what I’m teaching students feels more like Classics than English.

I continue to teach students how to read written language carefully in spite of my doubts and concerns because I believe in the power of imagination and the written word.  Most of the communication we encounter on a daily basis is obsessed with utility and the way things are now or could be in the near future.  Fiction (at its best) opens the door to a world we hardly thought possible.  It looks beyond the far horizon and asks Why Not?  My understanding is that University studies should prepare students to create a world that doesn’t yet exist rather than replicate the one that we have or tweak its existing parameters.  Fiction is crucial to that task.  And nothing, in this bibliophile’s opinion, makes that possible like sitting down and immersing yourself in a good book.

Now that I’m finished writing, I think that’s what I’ll do next.

Until Next Time…

John

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