Do I need to Teach Critical Reading?

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This is a topic that has been nagging at me for several weeks now. It’s also a great example of how things can flash on and off one’s radar. Even if you are extremely conscientious about something one year, you might completely forget about dealing with it the next.

When faced with the task of teaching a full-year, 200-level seminar at Queen’s in 2009, I intuitively knew that reading scholarly texts would be a problem. Students were provided with an explanation of what they should look for in any reading they might encounter, as well as some guiding questions that were specific to the articles that we read each week. They received this assistance for the entire first semester and then, in winter term, I set them free to learn how to decipher texts on their own. It worked remarkably well, and by the end of the year my students could break down anything that I threw at them – they could also identify value, alongside flaws, which is often much more difficult.

And yet, for some reason, I stopped doing this for a long time. I think it happened because I haven’t taught seminar-style courses since that year in 2009 – I’ve been teaching large-lectures that sometimes have seminar components (sometimes the don’t). This means that the texts which students read are usually shorter; there are less questions to ask and less time to ask them in. When I was leading 3-hour discussions of roughly 80 pages worth of material, I could give more guidance without tipping my hand. But then, with roughly 1 hour and only 20-40 pages of text, was harder to find the balance between helping them out and doing all the work for them.

This isn’t an excuse, and I am fairly convinced that I’ve done my students a disservice by walking away from my attempts to teach critical reading for a few years. It’s an explanation of how this happened. I think that sometimes, we just get so wrapped up in other pedagogical concerns that we lose site of the basics. And there is always that temptation to just crankily grumble that, “this is something they should have taught in high school,” and wash our hands of the whole mess because it’s someone else’s fault and, ultimately, it’ll be someone else’s problem.

But now that I’m teaching at the CEGEP level, that old instinct came back, and I remembered with embarrassment that I needed to teach critical reading, not just assume that students could figure the process out on their own. We all know that students – even those who are already blogging, or writing for the school paper – need training when it comes to writing an academic essay. There are certain quirks regarding the way that intellectuals construct and present an argument, and students need time to process that. This is why all of us spend so much time assigning and correcting essays, even if we do occasionally still bemoan the failings of high school education, and complain that they should already know this.

So why, if we concede that students need to be taught how to write scholarly papers, do we not also concede that they need to be taught how to read scholarly articles? As I said, these things are constructed in a very particular way. They deal with higher-order and abstract concepts, and they do so with subtlety, sometimes burying meaning under layers of jargon. Just because a person can read, doesn’t mean they can read that, and the inaccessibility of scholarly prose has been under attack for decades, if not longer. Scholars are specialists, and they write for other specialists; it is hard for outsiders to gain entrance to our special world – even when those outsiders desperately want to learn.

And so, before my students read their first really difficult reading, I spent some time in class talking about the need to identify the author’s thesis. If you can’t do this, I said, then the rest will be of no use to you. Scholarly texts – at least in the humanities – are argumentative texts, and you’re using them wrong if you’re just trying to mine them for data. From there, I explained that different scholars use different methods, and told them that they needed to identify how the argument was being constructed. We avoided deep methodological discussions, but I did ask them to try to figure out if the argument was quantitative or qualitative. If it was the latter, was the material being presented through a certain lens? Was the author employing a particular strategy (like compare and contrast), or a particular theory (such as feminism)?  Finally, I asked them to identify what types of proof the author brought to bear in order to prove his or her thesis.

Everyone went away confidant, and then they came back the next day more confused then ever. Since then, I’ve done unofficial evaluations of the course, and students were still concerned about the readings. They were still struggling, and not just with what I would call the really hard, scholarly material. They were also having trouble with the news articles and blogs that I had assigned.

It turns out that those of us who deal in abstraction and complexity tend to write roughly the same way whether we’re writing a scholarly article, an op-ed, or a blog. The only difference is that we include fewer citations and examples for op-eds and blogs. This doesn’t make our thesis, methodology, or even the organization of our data any more obvious to the untrained eye, and I think that – in general – we are going to need to change our communications strategies if we really do want to reach that mythical member of the “general public.” When writing, we have to make assumptions about what people already know, and what skills they already possess, and sometimes we’re guessing wrong.

It may seem like I’m all over the map today, but I swear I have a point, and that is this: critical reading isn’t any easier than analytic writing, and it needs to be taught. And whether or not we want to teach it, we do a disservice if we don’t, because then we end up with a populace who – even if they want to be responsible, engaged citizens of the world, who energetically want to know what the experts are saying – simply cannot access the knowledge that scholars produce. Alongside this, we need to think about changing our writing practices, at least for certain venues.

People learn the basics of engineering by taking things apart and putting them back together again from a very young age. I would argue that they learn critical reading by doing the same thing. Let’s come up with better strategies to help expose the complexity of the written word, and to teach people to tear and text apart so that they better understand how to fit it all together again. Below are just a few resources I’ve found, but I’d love for you to leave others in the comments. Such resources would definitely be helpful to me, and they might help others who stumble onto this site as well.

Youtube video on how to read a scholarly article

Info on David Bartholomea and Anthony Petrosky’s, Ways of Reading (2010)

A colleague just sent me this. It’s designed for history students, but is accessible to most disciplines that might assign a monograph.
How to Read for History Blog

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2 thoughts on “Do I need to Teach Critical Reading?

  1. I really enjoyed this post – since I teach Spanish literature and textual analysis, I often realize that students lack the ability to critically read in English… therefore, when moving to their second language, their (lack of) skills is brought along with them! Also, I think it’s a tendency of professors/professionals/’experts in the file’ to forget how long it took US to get to this point (whether in our research/writing skills or in our subject area). Thus it is easy to ‘assume’ students know things that we take for granted as “common sense,” when in all actuality, often through no fault of their own or (gasp!) even the high school system, then have simply never encountered such issues. In any case – thanks for sharing the resources; i’ll be checking them out later today 🙂

    • Thanks for leaving your thoughts. I’m glad to hear that I’m not the only one out there who thinks this way. It’s definitely something I’m still working through, but I think it’s time well spent. I’m also going to try to be much more conscientious about not losing sight of this issue again.

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