Apollo 13 Service Module

Are We Spiraling Away?

“Houston, we have a problem.”

And I don’t think it can be solved by improvisation or instruction from base.

The students coming into City Tech (and, I am sure, most other American colleges) have been ill-used by a secondary-education structure and by a society that cares for surfaces, not depth–and they have been overwhelmed by information technologies that make command of even a simple issue complex. Their response (a learned response, fostered by formula writing and high-stakes tests) has been to narrow their focus, to write by rote, imitation and routinized incorporation of external information. Their response has been to prepare for writing by skimming, by glancing through pages of links to information and then scanning one or two for something they could pull out and into their papers.

Apollo 13 Service Module

By NASAScan by Kipp Teague – Apollo 13 Image Library (image link), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41374924

In On Writing, Eudora Welty declares, “Indeed, learning to write may be part of learning to read. For all I know, writing comes out of a superior devotion to reading.” That this is the case is another part of our problem: Because of formula writing, our students have never learned to read, to really grapple with a text. For them, reading is a task to be completed as quickly as possible not a pleasure nor a source for growth. Even a short reading becomes too much, too fast, and our group readings in the classroom, especially when students are asked to read aloud, only distances students further from any consideration of reading as more than a chore. They are never going to write well unless this changes.

There are ways of incorporating new ways to read in our writing classrooms that I have never tried but will over the coming semesters, hoping that I can use them as steps to improving writing. First, I will to start with shorter, but complex and sophisticated, texts. To get students to focus, I will ask them to reflect as they read and provide proof–not summaries, but annotations and questions and vocabulary building and whatever thoughts are sparked by the ideas being expressed. And we won’t move on, but will make each reading a foundation to the next. “Why I Write” by George Orwell can lead to Elie Wiesel and Joan Didion and more–actually even yoking content to skills (we can’t ignore skills completely) and coming finally to a long consideration of a text I do always cover, Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language,” but in a new way, one requiring thought about, er, politics and English. Recognition of Orwell’s rules can no longer be a sufficient outcome.

Though I have always included reading in my writing courses (I often use all of the writers mentioned above), I have given reading short shrift. I have assumed my students could really grapple with texts, that they could do more than skip like a flat stone across their surfaces. Each semester, for some years now, I have been becoming more and more certain that they cannot–and that I need to revise my pedagogy to reflect that fact. I need to start doing that, for we have a problem.

Like the vast majority of my colleagues, I have also been guilty of concentrating on skills, thinking the content would take care of itself if I managed to get students to pay attention to the how of what they were doing, being it reading or writing. How to read? Well, another fault of mine has been assuming that they can, in more than a pro forma way. How to interpret what they have read? Well, I have had training in that, so believed I could pull students along through that.  How to write? Well, I have training in that, too, so  believed I could wean students away from the assumption laden skills-based formulae that so many condescendingly foist on their students.

But I have been failing in all three areas.

What I am beginning to understand is that I can’t do any of these things in a content-free environment. That I have been wrong to concentrate primarily on skills. That I do have a problem.

Yesterday, I read  (I initially wrote “came across” for “read,” but that usage implicitly encourages  skilling) an essay by Bernie Bleske, “The Paradox of Content in the Classroom.” It didn’t really teach me anything but it did make me grit my teeth and say, “This has gone on for far too long.”

Bleske, while arguing for a consensus on content, makes good points about the state of education today in the United States, including:

No matter how you parse it, in a modern complex democracy like America there is no single text or formula or application or detail that every student must learn or demonstrate in order to properly be called ‘educated’.

This has been our excuse for giving up on content, concentrating on skills instead. Those, at least, we can pretend to agree on… which is itself, of course, part of the problem.

We tussle with the idea of a theme in First Year Composition courses and seem to think that’s enough emphasis on content. One or two of us even broach the idea of a common reading, but that falls by the wayside and, anyway, the readings suggested are generally light on challenging content, heavy on alignment with skills and outcomes checklists.

By easing away from content and concentrating on skills and quantifiable outcomes, we are teaching our students that knowledge is gleaned superficially, that a Google search and then a presentation that checks the appropriate boxes is all that is required. With that under their belts, students feel they have become readers and writers sufficient for the digital age. But they are learning less, assuming command of information is all they need. They make the mistake, and we foster it, of believing that such command is, in fact, learning.

I don’t know how to deal with that, though I will continue to try.

In the meantime, I cry out, “Houston, we’ve got a problem.”


5 thoughts on “Are We Spiraling Away?

  1. Leigh Gold

    I so appreciate this Aaron. Your comments about reading especially “arrived” for me…I always feel that close reading is something that we must do with students and that this asks us to bring a kind of “slowness” into the space, one which might butt heads so to speak with some of the assessment based or skill based pedagogical approaches.
    So, I guess I say that in this fast paced, superficial, skimming instead of reading (Carr’s “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” comes to mind) world, an antidote is having the capacity to slow things down in order to really read.
    At a conference at BMCC a year ago, I recall having a conversation about how what we learn from the world of meditation and mindfulness is slowly entering the classroom, returning too to this discussion of mindful reading. I think that so often there is the desire to get a certain amount of texts read or essays written rather than slowing down and saying, we can take the time we need to read mindfully, to really understand what a title might mean, what the word sadness might mean, happiness, the color blue, the word interaction, etc., etc. I do this with my students–I sometimes then have to say, wait, we did not read as many of the texts that we were supposed to have, but if even just one text is truly read, that can change everything–of course more than one, but for the purpose of my “response” here, I think the point is clear.
    I usually read at least one Sherry Turtle article or excerpt with students in 1121 and I find that her discussions of how technological communications impact interpersonal relating resonates with questions or reading. Just like the corporeal connections that some composition theorists discuss, somehow the notion of reading as even a physiological encounter is helpful–there is the image of the reader in reading position, like the thinker perhaps–and if we can invite this image in, that it is through the reader, through reading, that any kind of critical thinking skills can be learned and strengthened, then that might be a place to sit with/in/near/around……

  2. Kim

    Aaron, I totally agree that there’s a crisis of some kind going on with the way that students read texts and prepare for class discussions — and I can’t help but wonder if there’s a digital vs. analog issue going on. When I taught at Emerson several years ago, first-year writing classes read books, course readers, and used primarily print sources in performing research, and now everything is digitized and skimmable. So there’s something in this, but perhaps this is not the culprit. Also, it doesn’t mean we don’t need to figure out a way to get students to read deeply and PAY ATTENTION to what they’re reading to “grapple,” as you say.

    I’ve had a bit of a crisis of content myself this year, and scaled back on some of my readings for this term– in favor of readings about writing, with model texts for each assignment and “grappling” texts to get the discussion going, but not as much difficult reading as in previous semesters. I always hate battling with students about whether or not they do the readings and are prepared for discussion — and I’ve always previously fallen on the side of just pressing through the discussion and if you don’t do the reading, you miss out. But I might have to change this approach.

    One thing that has been fairly successful this semester reading-wise was your advice to make a physical Course Reader at the printing center downstairs — with these common in-class texts in hard copy, we’ve done some good reading in class and discussing in the moment. However, I don’t know how to get them to read BEYOND the classroom. Is the answer writing assignments for every reading? Or a class activity focused on annotation, critical reading, and paying close attention to vocabulary?

    Rhetorical analysis strategies for reading have gone over well this term, but I worry that I’m short-changing my students on other types of critical analysis, literary analysis, and critical reading. It’s hard to do all of these things in the first-year writing classroom! But I also agree that if you want to be a good writer, read broadly, widely, and deeply…

    1. SSchmerler

      “You killed it,” is what our students would say. As in, amazing post, Aaron.
      Quickly: it’s all true but also probably all relative, contextual. The world this generation is entering/creating will probably be one into which they can better adapt than we. That short attention span we so villify (I don’t care for it at all) may be a necessary ingredient for coping and even for succeeding. I don’t think we ought to change ourselves so much that we are unrecognizable to ourselves as educators.
      We had old teachers. We liked and needed them. (And totally misunderstood them.)

      I somehow come back to Modelling here. If we do the assignments and the work (I believe you said you worked along with them), then we show out willingness to change and grow. One generation showing faith in the next. They may have to feel us more than understand us at times like these. Crazy times, rampant change, may call for a vote of heart over understanding.

      And you seem to have a lot of that, Aaron. Bravo.

  3. Robert Lestón

    I generally agree with the comments concerning the importance of reading, and I really like the way Kim encapsulated and expanded that point. There’s something interesting in a second way about the digital/analogue divide that Kim sets up. This is from something I recently wrote for the sci-fi conference, “Take, for example, the difference between an analogue clock and a digital one. The digital tells you exactly what time it is, but the analogue clock tells you all the times that it is not and asks that you locate the time it is in relation to all these other times. From the viewpoint of the digital designer, the analogue communicates information that is not desired, so that information is trimmed away as noise. Noise, then, is information that is being communicated that is unwanted. Krukowski expanded this basic concept to other comparisons between the analogue and the digital. In Google maps or Waze, you do not have find your location, as the program does this for you. The digital eliminates the whole of the map and locates you into its center. You do not move through the terrain, but rather the map moves as you move. From this perspective, you have not traveled, even if you’ve gone from one continent to another. You are always in the center. Analogue technologies, whether they are maps, clocks, or phonographs provide you with a spectrum of noise and leave it up to you to locate the signal or the meaning.”

    The point you make about checking boxes to complete an assignment makes sense to me if someone looks at writing in terms of skills, but this kind of framing of skills vs. content, I think, is part of the difficulty that I’m having in grasping the overall tenor of this post. I like much better thinking about it in other kinds of terms analogue/digital or noise/signal , but over these I like very much the notion that all of the things students do when they read and write is part of languaging, part of how students use and make language. Jerry Wan Lee’s point about translanguaging at the summit, I think works for multilinguals as well as monolinguals. The components of language in reading/writing/thinking, following this model, is that all of those things are part of a continuum that students (heck, that we) access as we attempt to make meaning.

    I personally don’t know what is meant by the term “skill.” Is writing a topic sentence a skill? But a topic sentence is something that belongs to a particular way of writing, and I think what we need to be doing is to get students to be able to move around and recognize how and why certain ways of writing would work and when they don’t and to be able to identify why in one situation some strategy or tactic is appropriate or not. So reading, and your and Leigh’s point about slow reading, really does matter, so they need to be able to read deeply, yes. They need to be able to understand what they are reading, whatever it is, and time needs to be spent on that, discussing it, reflecting on it, thinking and writing about what they were thinking, sharing that with other students. For me, I find the rhythm of the language as something super important because when students can get the feel of it, they can understand it. But students also need to read broadly, that is, as Kim’s class is titled, “Across Contexts,” so they get a sense of moving from domain to domain. For me, I don’t see skills or content in any of this. I see rhetorical awareness and an appreciation of the beauty of language.

  4. Carrie Hall

    So– it is true that it is more difficult to “pay attention” to a digital text than a paper one (I know this from a lot of disserrtation research.) Some of the reason for this is that we can annotate on paper (though there are annotation programs for computers which we should probably start learning to make better use of) and some of the reason is that when one reads digitally there are a lot of decisions that must be made– should I follow this hyperlink? Should I respond to this text message that just popped up? Should I check my Facebook? And furthermore, the screen reminds us of these distractions. That said, bemoan the digital as we might, it’s here to stay. And so, we have to start teaching the skills (or whatever) of reading digitally.

    But I don’t see skill as a negative thing, and I don’t see it divorced from content. And I’m not really sure if I’m reading this properly, but I find one of the things that often “goes wrong” in comp classes is that they become a professor’s soap box, for their own pet content, and students find themselves trying to figure out what stance they should take on political issues or whatever in order to please the instructor. The content of composition courses is literacy: reading, writing and critical thinking. And we can use different topics of text to get to that content, but that is actually what we’re teaching. And I’m not sure where we’re drawing the line between content and skill. But as professors, we have to be careful not to bring in our own content that overshadows the subject of the course, which is reading, writing and critical thinking.

    Lastly, there are many scholars who work on teaching reading. Seeing Ellen Carillo made me realize that, though I study teaching reading myself, I really can’t sleep on that, because I think students are at a point now where they kind of don’t get the point of reading assignments. This is weird, because, in fact– they read a lot. They read online, they read texts. They are literally constantly reading. And while we might want to say that’s not “really reading,” I think we can build on those reading skills they already have instead of looking down on them.

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