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Here in northern Indiana, it’s the season of slowdown, with leaves tipping to brilliant scarlet and jack-o'-lantern orange. It’s my favorite time of year to teach, since the weather beckons us to grab a cozy blanket and a good book, and to linger over language.
Slowing down reminds me that on my best teaching days, I try to channel poet Tracy K. Smith, who has served as U.S. Poet Laureate and originated the radio spot and podcast, “The Slowdown.” During her tenure as host of the program, she made the most of her mellifluous voice to entice listeners to slow down and listen—carefully and deliberately—to a poem. Despite all my practice in thinking “slowly” about reading and writing, I always benefited from Smith’s audio nudge.
In class, I often ask students to read portions of text aloud—though I am careful not to put people on the spot—to invite us to think about the ways tone, pacing, and meaning work through word choices, punctuation, sentence length, and organization. “Read slowly!” I remind students, so we can listen slowly, too. No matter how many times I’ve read a text, I always hear it freshly when a student reads aloud.
I’ve written before about emphasizing “slow thinking” in the classroom, an idea I learned from José Antonio Bowen, author of Teaching Naked: How Moving Technology Out of Your College Classroom Will Improve Student Learning. While most of us teach our students to “close read,” it’s worth reminding them that this is necessarily slow work. It also requires practice. To this end, my co-author, Stuart Greene, and I offer tools for slower reading before and after each reading in the 5th edition of From Inquiry to Academic Writing.
I’ll share here some of the “slow thinking” tools we offer for reading management scholar Ronald E. Purser’s surprising text, “What Mindfulness Revolution?”. Alas, Purser’s biting essay is timely. Many of us, exhausted and demoralized by a campus life that has been fundamentally altered by the pandemic, are being offered institutional “wellness seminars” that might imply the problem is us.
Before students read Purser’s essay, we suggest the class discuss what they already know about “mindfulness” as a practice. Where does this information come from, and why does this matter? Purser proclaims his “skeptical” stance on mindfulness in his opening paragraphs, arguing, “Anything that offers success in our unjust society without trying to change it is not revolutionary—it just helps people cope” (626).
As students read, we encourage them to practice the following “slow reading” skills, which of course are transferrable to reading any academic text:
- Keep testing your responses to Purser’s argument, considering the extent to which you agree or disagree as he makes his claims.
- Pay attention to the author’s use of “but” and “however” to signal clarification of ideas, and notice how he refines his argument in these locations.
- Linger over the examples and test their utility in illuminating the argument. In Purser’s case, a key example is a KFC commercial that seems to promote—or parody—“mindfulness” by encouraging people to buy a “pot pie-based meditation system” (629). How does this help—or hinder—his case?
At the end of each reading in From Inquiry to Academic Writing, we provide “Reading as a Writer” questions that return students to the text for additional “slow reading" to analyze writers’ rhetorical decisions. For Purser’s text, we suggest marking every location where Purser mentions or quotes someone. Then, students can work in groups to name the many different reasons a writer uses sources. This is a “slow reading” and “slow thinking” exercise that will work for any researched writing. Naming these uses of sources can help students make more mindful decisions about their own writing, as well.
What strategies have you used with success to get your students to slow down as readers, thinkers, and writers? (And do you think Purser’s skeptical take on mindfulness is warranted, or not?)
Image Credit: Photograph of fallen leaves taken by the author, April Lidinsky
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