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What Kind of Reading Should We Teach?

by Lance Massey

The world of digital, networked reading and writing and of nearly ubiquitous information, has fundamentally changed our reading practices—and certainly those of our students. Superficiality—skimming, jumping from link to link, having multiple windows open at once, reading 200 tweets instead of a long poem or a short essay—has replaced depth in our everyday reading practices. Even online news articles frequently have "jump" pages, through which readers must click to read beyond the first few paragraphs. And surprisingly few people click through, it turns out.

This fact has generated one of the most interesting controversies in rhetoric and composition: do we continue to teach the old model of deep, close reading, or do we embrace these new practices and explore their potentialities?

Some scholars and many popular writers (see Nicholas Carr's "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" The Atlantic, July/August 2008) lament this change. It registers to them as a loss of the ability to think deeply and deliberately. Rutgers professor Richard Miller, for example, now advocates the practice of "reading in slow motion," in which he and his students read one, and only one, book-length text in a whole semester. They read microscopic chunks at a time, and no one, not even Miller, is allowed to read ahead. He writes: "Can you learn to read without rereading? Can you learn how to think without experiencing thought? 'Reading in Slow Motion' is convened with the specific goal making time for students to have the embodied experience of reading" ("Reading in Slow Motion" 2010, online).

It should be noted, of course, that Miller is no luddite, nor does he want us to bury our collective heads in the sand, simply denying the reality of digital literacy. After all, Miller teaches multi-modal composing, his students producing dazzling videos, some of which he shared in a 2010 talk at DU. But "reading in slow motion" begs the questions: is "slow" reading inherently good? Is "thought" only experienced in slow reading?

Many would answer, "no." Alex Reid critiques the dominant model of reading historically taught in English departments. In "Close Reading, Open Composition" (2009, online), Reid notes that "close reading" is predicated on a "scarcity" of texts (he uses the example of the literary canon) at a time when the numbers and kinds of texts our students encounter have expanded exponentially and when the idea of canonicity itself has been, if not jettisoned entirely, then at least sent to sit in the corner awhile and think about what it's done. Advocates of new ways of reading enabled/propelled by digital discourse suggest, instead, that we acknowledge the potential for knowledge- and meaning-making that these new practices open up—for gathering, for re-mixing, for mashing-up texts, sounds, and images in creative, surprising new ways. These activities require thought, they all at least potentially make new meaning, and they can all be conducive to learning. Or so the argument goes.

What kind of reading to teach is far from settled, with pedagogies befitting digital literate practices necessarily still emerging, in contrast with those established for decades. It's clear, however, that we can't afford to ignore that reading has changed—or rather, that it's become complicated, another layer of literacy skills needing to be acquired. It may be that we need to teach students when and how to toggle between fast and slow reading—and why.