Saturday, February 09, 2013

Required Reading: Bad BBQ

A fellow blogger, The Tex Files, made a recent comment about how people tend to hate any literature they are required to read in English class:  "No lie: among my adult friends, this is the best possible predictor of who loved Catcher in the Rye or The Great Gatsby and who found them unbearable. If you read it cuz you were told to, and had to spend six weeks thereafter dissecting all the themes in class, chances are you will not be a lifetime fan."  

This got me thinking about my own experiences.  I wouldn't say I hated all the literature I've ever been required to read.  Some things I grew to love, or loved immediately.  Still, especially in college, when the reading load was beyond intense, my goal was often just to get it done, rather than to ruminate on it.  When I wrote papers and dissected the work on demand, I'm betting more often than not that I missed the real heart of the matter, because my own heart wasn't engaging with the text.  Only my intellect was.

Of course, I'm viewing this in retrospect.  While I was in college, I loved digging into literature with other students.  I was fortunate to be at a college  where I was surrounded by people fueled with intellectual curiosity.  It was a breath of fresh air after high school, where an interest in talking about the reading assignment was viewed as a sign of irredeemable nerd-dom, and this at a time well before nerds were considered even remotely cool.  However, though I loved digging into the literature, the workload didn't leave room for the kind of slow-turning contemplation that brings depth and cooks into the skin.

I'm suddenly thinking about barbecue, and that's not such an off-base image here.  Really good barbecue takes time.  It's slow-cooked all day long.  That's the secret.  You can have the greatest piece of meat in the world, but if you rush the cooking, all you've got is bad barbecue.  Maybe experiencing great literature works the same way.  Certainly, I've gotten more out of the classics I've read by my own choice and at my own pace than I did from those texts I powered through in college.  But all that dissecting in college trained my brain for deeper interaction with literature.  Yes, it felt like drudgery at the time, and may have left a bad taste in my mouth, but maybe that's just the necessary collateral damage of all that brain training

When you read something because you choose it, you're bringing a more meaningful purpose to your reading experience than you do when that same text is required.  You have a goal in reading it.  Somewhere in your mind, you are bringing questions you yourself have generated that inform your interaction with that text.  Purpose makes a difference.

This line of thought brings me straight to my third graders.  They are young enough that they still need to be trained on how to choose a "good fit" book.  They don't always choose books that will stretch them the way they must be stretched to grow as readers.  I imagine it's the same with college students.  We all need a push outside our comfort zone from time to time.  When we're learning and developing, we need that extra nudge to challenge ourselves and grow those neural connections.  Maybe the collateral damage is worth it.  Still, we educators have to keep it in mind and try to minimize that damage as much as possible.  You can push someone too far, and then, instead of neural connections, all you grow is hatred, dread and negative associations.

1 comment:

  1. Oooh, I didn't even think about that, but you're right: college does exactly the opposite. Instead of reading one book and spending six weeks taking it apart, it's a 4-year frantic hot-dog-eating contest where you can't stop to savor anything because you're shovelling them in on a deadline.

    Also: what you're saying about choosing good books I think also applies to people. You spend so much of your time in school getting paired and partnered and play-dated with kids you might never otherwise talk to or hang out with, and that strikes me as important for exactly the same reasons you describe. The hope is that by the time you grow up and get to choose 100% of your books and friends, you have enough taste and maturity to select broadly and well.

    Let's hear it for books, barbecue, and this blog post right here!


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