Learning to Teach Students to Read With Charity, Humility, and Justice

smithYesterday, the first day of the 2017 Messiah College Humanities Symposium, I attended a great lecture from Calvin College professor David I. Smith titled “Charity, Humility, Justice: Learning to Read and Inviting Virtue.”  I don’t have time today to write-up a nicely crafted post, but I do want to share some random ideas I gleaned from the lecture.

Smith drew heavily from the work of Paul Griffiths and Alan Jacobs.

Griffiths, in his book Religious Reading: The Place of Reading in the Practice of Religion, distinguishes between two kinds of reading: “religious reading” and “consumer reading.”

When we read religiously we read repetitively.  The reading of a particular text is ongoing.  For example, we don’t read the Gospel of John once and then never return to it again for the rest of our lives.  When we read religiously there is an implicit assumption that the author of the text knows more than we do.  We cede authority to the text and expect it to make moral demands on our lives.  Finally, religious reading is done in community.  It implies that what people have said about the text, in the past and present, is important.

Consumer reading, on the other hand, is what we do when we read the Internet, or a restaurant menu, or (God forbid!) a blog post.  When we read as consumers we get what we want from the text and then we dispose of it.  Consumer reading is mastery-oriented.  We control the text.  Moreover, we expect to be the same person after reading the text than we were before we started to read it.  No one’s life is transformed from reading a restaurant menu.

Griffiths suggests that religious reading and consumer reading are both essential in our everyday lives.  But there are more “mechanisms” in our culture prompting us to read as consumers.  At this point in the lecture I could not tell whether Smith was speaking for himself or still summarizing Griffiths (I have not read Griffiths), but he suggested that education was one of the main reasons that consumer reading is so dominant.  Our system of education sees books as something we”check off.” (Again, few people read the Bible or another sacred text for the purpose of getting it off their bucket list).  Students do not see any need to revisit a text because, as they see it, they “read that one already, why do they need to read it again?”  This attitude implies that they are consuming the text–mastering its content for a brief period of time so that they can take a quiz or pass an exam.

Smith then turned to Alan Jacobs’s book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction.  Jacobs describes reading in terms of “lingering.”  Rarely do students “linger” on a text.  Smith used the example of a poem about the Holocaust.  He suggested that there might be something wrong about reading the poem ten minutes before class and gleaning just enough information about it to impress the professor in the class discussion.  Smith said that the students are not to blame for the reading habits they have developed.  If a professor assigns 5o pages of reading a night he or she is inviting students to skim.

Smith then turned to a fascinating discussion about the place of “speed” in the classroom.  Studies show that teachers often measure the intelligence of a student based on how quickly they are able to answer a question in class.  The student who answers quickly and talks fast must be intelligent.  Speed is thus rewarded in the classroom.  Smith pointed at the irony of it all: “do we really believe that the student who speaks with the least forethought is the most intelligent?”  He even suggested that when it comes to the end of the semester, and a teacher is deciding whether to give a student an A- or a B+, the teacher might remember the speed in which the student raised his or her hand in class and factor that into the grade choice.

In other words, we do not reward “lingering.”  This kind of lingering, however, becomes a symbol of charity to the text.  It requires attentiveness. It means we listen to a text and do not read it to provide a platform for our own views.  Charity requires believing the best about the author for as long as you can.   Humility requires that we enter a text with the purpose of trying to learn from it. Most of our courses are structured in such a way that is NOT conducive to the cultivation of these virtues.

Smith spent the rest of the lecture discussing how he incorporates these ideas in a German literature class that he teaches at Calvin.  He left me with a lot to think about it.  Much of what he said intersected with some of the ideas I put forth in Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past, but Smith pushed me to take this kind of reading more seriously in my classes.  Finally, Smith’s examples were mostly about reading fiction.  How is this kind religious or charitable reading done when students are reading the William Penn’s 1692 Frame of Government or the Federalist Papers?

Great lecture.  It was an excellent way to kick-off the 2017 Messiah College Humanities Symposium.