The History of Reading course I taught this semester for the first time turned out to be one of my favorite classes ever for a lot of reasons, very much including the students in the course.
In the middle of the semester, I asked the students to write a reflective personal account of their own reading experiences. I rarely give prompts like this one, though I’m usually perfectly open to a student choosing to write a more personal or introspective paper on a more analytic prompt. I may think about assigning more of these kinds of papers, however, given that the reading memoirs that the students produced were so interesting in stylistic and argumentative terms.
However, I’ve also been thinking a lot about one theme that ran through almost half of the papers, that the pleasure that the students had taken in reading earlier in their lives had been lost to them sometime in between childhood and young adulthood. There were a variety of reasons why: other media becoming more compelling, traumatic personal experiences that indirectly involved reading. The culprit at the top of the list, however, was reading as it is practiced in college. Not just the amount of reading, but also the work we do through and with texts, that professors and students approach reading with a kind of grim productivism, pushing out interpretations like widgets on an assembly line.
I’m predisposed to listen to that complaint, so maybe I’m making too much out of it. At least half the papers made no such accusation against our institutional ways of reading. I think there’s a real issue here, however, which is part of the reason I wanted to teach the class in the first place. (Another qualifier: as one student observed, maybe the students attracted to taking the class were drawn to it because they’re malcontents in the same way that I’m a malcontent.)
I found some of the specific complaints really evocative, that it’s not just that we routinize the act of reading, but also that some of the interpretations we produce out of texts are predictable from course to course and have little to do with the specific content of any individual book or reading. But I also just found the description of a kind of joylessness in college reading, a kind of listless intensity, uncomfortably on the mark in some respects.
One of the many reasons I miss the Invisible Adjunct’s transformative weblog is that she succeeded in creating a “big tent” conversation which has since fractured into a more political and spiteful debate that I think is increasingly driven by the money and patronage of outside culture-warriors who have no interest in academic values, intellectualism, scholarship or anything else besides scoring points with their respective peanut galleries.
One of the themes in that big tent conversation that I was really sympathetic to, when I first encountered it, was the alienation and frustration of employed professors, current graduate students, and people who had rejected or been rejected by academia who had worked in the humanities because they felt wanted to deepen and enrich a love for literature, art or other expressive medium. I thought, and still think, that much of that frustration with what the academic humanities are rather than what they could be is completely warranted. I think that sentiment is related to what some of my students were talking about when they said that college had wounded their ability to take pleasure in reading.
My problem with the frustrated critics of the academic humanities as I’ve continued to read their work is partly that I think some of them have allowed their complaint to be used for cruder political or partisan purposes. It’s also that we don’t seem able to get past the initial complaint, that we’re recursively stuck with the mere declaration that scholarly study and scholarly teaching should strengthen a passion for expressive culture.
When I think about how I want to make the act and experience of reading in my classes create delight, pleasure, discovery, I have to also think about how I want that reading to require my guidance and how I can guarantee that this reading is knowledge-producing as well as pleasurable. In short, to justify the value of taking a course here with me, an experience which doesn’t come cheap. I can’t just say, “Let us talk about how this book pleases us”. You can have that experience in any book club in any middle-class community in America if you can just get a quorum of readers together. You can have that experience all by yourself. In fact, that is one of the humbling things I learned by teaching Jonathan Rose’s amazing The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes this semester, as recommended by a number of commenters at this blog. (Thanks, guys!) Rose describes numerous autodidactical experiences of reading that strike me as profoundly creative, surprising, and energizing, often far more so than what highly institutionalized intellectuals were capable of in the same time period.
Bringing the pleasures of reading into a college environment has got to mean more than just making classrooms more like a book-of-the-month club. We do have to add value to reading that can’t be added any other way, or we might as well get rid of the humanities altogether. Having an avowedly conservative literary critic do close readings of a great work of literature is not reliably superior to a relentlessly historicist professor grinding race-class-gender out of a text. Making room for loving literature does not mean banishing historicism, forbidding postmodernism, crushing theory. Nor does it just mean teaching the canon or sticking to a “great books” list.
I think for me, it’s about playfulness in how we read in courses, about being able to switch channels from weighty historicism to aestheticism to personal reflection to information extraction without relentlessly or ideologically demanding any of those as exclusive practices of reading. It’s about how we choose our books and articles for students. As I’ve said before in this blog, I would rather teach a non-scholarly if intellectually lively book that I see as wrong or incomplete than a book which is an exemplar of impeccable scholarship. It’s about getting away from the fetish of quantity, as if a weekly page count that surpasses 500 for a given course is a guarantee of productivity or accomplishment. It’s about not using reading to deliver information that can be delivered more clearly and compactly through a lecture or an outline. Reading should never be ploddingly informational if we also want it to be pleasurable and generative. It’s about leaving room for different kinds of minds to get different kinds of value from reading a kind of text, and mixing up the types and modes of writing that we use to explore a subject. It’s about the expectation of surprise, about structurally requiring the unpredictable to happen when we read.
It’s about not taking ourselves so goddamn seriously as academics and intellectuals that we react to every challenge as an affront to our dignity, but taking ourselves seriously enough that we’re not ashamed to love reading or knowledge or ideas. I mean loving the whole kit-and-kaboodle: I’m tired of people who want us to love literature, but only their literature. I have enough room in my brain and heart to read and be pleasurably stimulated by the great books and postmodern critical theory, to play and work with Shakespeare and Space Ghost and everything in between them.
It’s pedagogy, not politics. Pedagogy as art, not technics. You can’t get back to loving reading by cheerless attacks on whatever academic fashion annoys you. Love and pleasure require generosity. No miser will ever know them as they can be known.