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I’ve been teaching writing for 28 years, and I still wrestle with how much reading to assign in a writing class. Hopefully, I'm not alone. There’s an alchemy between “less is more” if we want students to do deep dives in texts, and “more is more” if we want our students to understand that reading often and widely is crucial to becoming stronger writers. Perhaps it’s worth thinking more about the purposes of reading in a writing classroom, and whether every reading should feed directly into a writing assignment.
In a recent article titled “Needed: More Reading in First-Year Writing,” Rachel Wagner reflects on her own rationale for assigning reading in a writing class, starting with the embarrassing experience of being observed by a colleague on an “awkward” class day that we’d all recognize, I suspect: A paper was due, and so she had not assigned a new reading, anticipating that students would not read a text they were not using in their papers. So, after some conversation about the drafts, there was no new text to spark class discussion. Wagner reflects how often she has trimmed back on readings, particularly later in the semester when students are busily writing longer papers, to give them time to focus on their writing. She then critiques this impulse, noting that reading always feeds the writer, even if it doesn’t feed a particular assignment:
Not asking the students to read regularly is like telling them it’s OK not to explore. Even if it’s the week that their papers are due, they should still be reading things that they don’t have to be quizzed on or that don’t have to be analyzed in their papers. Why? Because that’s part of the writing process.
I appreciate all the perspectives at play here, from the crunched schedules of our students to the instructor’s impulse to get students in the habit of reading often and widely because that’s what good writers do. What’s a thoughtful instructor to do?
As Stuart Greene and I have been developing the readings and guiding questions for the next edition of From Inquiry to Academic Writing, we have worked to include different kinds of texts to address this pedagogical challenge. We have selected lively, shorter selections that students might read just to keep mental sparks flying for a classroom discussion, even on a day when a paper is due. That kind of “fast” reading to feed ideas might be just the fizz on a low-energy class day, and could even be done on the spot, with a few minutes of silent reading or read aloud, in turns. We have also included more challenging scholarly selections that provide students plenty to think through, slowly, in relationship to other readings and their own ideas, and with methods and evidence that will give them the practice they need to analyze texts in other courses. For every text, we provide footholds for readers — patterns to look for, questions to keep in mind, methods for evaluating rhetorical moves. After all, your classroom may be the only space for students to build these analytical muscles in the company of others who are interested not only in the ideas but in the experience of reading with writing moves in mind.
As with most pedagogy, the key is to be transparent with students about our rationales for what they are reading, as well as what they are writing. Just as sources serve different purposes in an academic essay (providing a theory, an example, a counterpoint, etc), readings serve different purposes in our classrooms… though students may not grasp this unless we invite them into the pedagogical conversation.
Sometimes, slow thinking with complex texts is just what the occasion requires. But sometimes, a shorter, sparkling text to feed the writer’s mind is just the thing. Sometimes less is more. But sometimes, as Dolly Parton has said, more really is more.
Photo Credit: April Lidinsky
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