CACE Reading Seminar reflections
Keeping text and context on speaking terms
I was motivated to undertake the CACE faculty seminar on reading because of questions, observations, and dilemmas I have been mulling over for years about texts and their usage in experiential learning. In Human Needs and Global Resources and in other field-based programs in which I have worked, my students’ discovery of and deepening commitment to the remarkable process of learning from context often cause significant shifts in their own relationship with written text.
As students become increasingly aware of and adept in their ability to learn from their surroundings, some display a marked ambivalence toward the written word, and suddenly come to view reading as a distraction from the “real learning” they now experience through observation, relationships, and direct participation in work and community activities. Inevitably, in the first few weeks of every semester or course, a handful of students approach me to ask whether they really have to do the assigned reading for the course in which they are enrolled. With the unnuanced convictions of the newly converted, they wonder whether I realized that doing the readings assigned in the syllabus would take time away from their opportunities to do important things like being with their host families, trying new skills of various kinds, or attending events—which they now expect will teach them more than they could learn from reading and writing, the symbols of classroom-based education.
I posit that there are multiple reasons for this (transient) distancing from text. Most students seeking collegiate opportunities outside the classroom are aware that learning occurs differently in field programs than on campus, and they are eager to experience new ways of exploring topics of interest to them. Many students find themselves intellectually unmoored to be in situations of low literacy for the first times in their lives; long accustomed to textual mastery and delight in the written word, they may even have the disorienting experience of being illiterate themselves, as they struggle to read in a new script.
Perhaps I am partly to blame. In preparing students for field-based learning, I intentionally introduce a certain amount of conscious distance from written text in the effort to get students (especially high achievers in the classroom, and many in humanities who embrace text more tightly than other disciplines) to “release” from their text-centric knowledge acquisition habits so that they can recognize and value the possibility of learning from experience. Clinging to the familiar comforts of text-mediated communication (reading English-language novels, texting home, blogging) to the exclusion of talking with neighbors can inhibit their entry into local life and stunt their language learning. Training them to learn well from context often calls for a deliberate, temporary suspension of text; students are required in early assignments to observe (to read a social setting) without interruption—even without writing—for a given length of time, in order for them to develop and to hone the multifaceted skills of observation that are critical to learning well from one’s immediate lived context.
Through this seminar’s readings and hearing from colleagues about their disparate understandings of interaction with the written-heard-spoken-seen-touched word in so many ways, I have glimpsed a more satisfactory approach to this issue. I affirm Alan Jacobs’ assertion that we have an “impoverished vocabulary about reading practices,” and that our teaching and learning both stand to improve when we are more deliberately attentive to reading. I realized that in the past, I have impressed upon my students the essential discipline and techniques of field writing through structured journals and reflection, but rarely discussed the interface of text and context in the context of field reading. My visual prompt for student writing in field courses consists of two hands with fingers coming together to interlock: one is text, the other context. They learn to query how writing of all sorts may have been shaped by the author’s experience. But I should explicitly apply my same prompt to students’ own field reading, noting that what they may perceive or learn in a particular reading of an article, prayer, book, or lament is influenced by their own context and experience as well. This would promote a reintegration of context with text, both read and written.
Among the most important skills of experiential (and intercultural) learning are close-up observation, becoming attentive to what has been unconsciously accepted as normal or universal, and unlearning the habit of quickly classifying things in familiar categories—a practice that forecloses the possibility of perceiving new arrangements and categories. In the seminar, I caught glimpses of how other faculty inculcate an active interaction with text. To one, text is a medium to develop the scholarly habits of mind, analysis and argumentation, and he described his method for progressively training students to identify components of text. Another showed us the printing processes and we talked about the aesthetic elements of type and font and both interline and intrapage spacing. I deeply appreciated the contextualization of texts: at the Newberry Library we discussed the economic and status purposes of commissioning and producing and owning texts (including religious works), and the socio-political purposes of (partial) censorship. I gained new appreciation for readers’ agency and autonomy, putting the practice of reading in social and historical context, and I will aim to help students be more attentive to these matters in their own lives as readers.
I have found that students in experiential field programs do re-engage with text, often finding themselves to be far more voracious and nuanced readers than they were in the past. Reading research or news about a topic or region they now know personally takes on new importance; by their second or third month, HNGR students’ writing clearly shows that their ability to extract points of connection between each month’s assigned texts and their own lived experiences has grown exponentially. Getting text and context to be on speaking terms is a learned skill.
The message I want to convey to students going forward is this: Just as experience and writing form us, reading forms us. And I would like them to become convinced of this through an experiential exercise in their contexts. Most of my students are in settings where they can easily find neighbors who became literate relatively late in life, and I would like my students to identify someone with this background and to listen well to that individual’s own narration of how the process of becoming a reader changed her or his life. Once reading text entered that person’s life, what difference did it make? What social, economic, political, and psychological changes entered the life of that individual, the family, or the community as a result? My students learning to read Thai, Hindi, Nepali, or Khmer can ask themselves the same questions. And we can all reflect more deliberately upon how new abilities in integrating text with context changes us as well.