digital rhetoric

close reading versus clairvoyance

I was reading Collin on the issue of reading at a distance. Then I was thinking about this in terms of teaching fiction and then teaching writing. As I read it, the disagreement Collin is tracing deals with the objection to the idea of slicing/mining texts using a database rather than approaching them "directly" through a traditional reading of the text.

Close reading has long been a hallmark of English Studies. I would think it predates the New Critical movement we generally associate with close reading. For the New Critics, close reading revealed the intrinsic meaning of the text, as opposed to the extrinsic meanings provided by psychoanalysis, Marxism, and so on. Generally we no longer buy into the idea of intrinsic meaning; meaning can not be encased in the text itself but demands a larger context to be understood. Pick up a book in a language you don’t understand and you’ll see what I mean.

But how quickly do we move from close reading to clairvoyance? A novel must be read to be interpreted? And yet, before reading can’t you already tell me what you will find? what new critical mechanisms will be at work? to what extent does a cultural studies or postcolonial or feminist (or any other theory) interpretation exist prior to the text’s reading?

For me, placing this issue in composition is more interesting. Yes, we begin with a sincere focus, a close reading one might say, on student writing, but how quickly do we move to the nebulous force of the "discourse community" or "academic discourse"? Do we know, before even reading the title of a student essay, what it might say? what it should say? or perhaps most importantly, how it should be said?

When you think about composition instruction in its purported role of improving student writing over the course of an undergraduate career, it would seem obvious, at least from an outsider’s position, that you could look at an incoming student’s writing and a graduating student’s writing and see if the writing got better. A study of this kind, if it were feasible would be the clear kind of evidence one way or another about the efficacy of particular pedagogies or writing instruction in general. But we know this kind of longitudinal analysis doesn’t work (for writing anyway)… too many variables.

So what allows us to fall back on an amorphous academic discourse community? What happened to those variables? Here we answer with pragmatics, perhaps, and say it is necessary to reduce the complexity and give the students some general direction about theses, intros, conclusions, citing research, etc. You know the drill.

If we stick to this narrow goal of making students better writers of academic papers (which I personally have no allegiance to, but for the sake of the argument here it’s sufficient) then the question is "how do I write a paper that gets a good grade?" After all, how else can we define being a better writer of academic papers than in terms of better grades? Anyway, given this mercencary if not downright cynical enterprise, is the answer really to teach them to be clairvoyant? To know in advance how the paper should be written/read? And then to give them a crystal ball that provides only the fuzziest of pictures?

Undergraduate composition, perhaps moreso than any other genre of writing I can think of, is about audience analysis. The students already know this: the game is called "figure out what the professor wants and feed it to hir."  You don’t have to agree with it or even necessarily understand what you’ve written.  The professor may want to believe that what s/he reads on the paper is what’s in your mind, but we know better.

Though there are certainly idiosyncracies to professors, there is also a great deal of common practice. That’s the business we refer to as "discourse community." But this term doesn’t really explain how this "social behavior" (of evaluating student papers) is communicated through the professoriate.  We could trace this practice through professor’s offices and dining room tables and red pens empty of ink on the floor, coffee reheated in the microwave, tales in the copy room, war stories shared over lunch, etc. etc. We could sniff out connections to the professors own writing: to comments from editors, deadlines for grants, campus memos, applications for tenure, and so on.

But all that seems like dull work for students, not worth the advantage it might give them. I suppose we could do the study ourselves and just pass the results along to the students, but is this really the course we want to offer to all our incoming students, a course that offers the most accurate accounting we can provide of the reading, writing, and grading habits of academics?

I’m sure there are other possibilities, other than teaching writing as a fuzzy clairvoyance or engaging in this kind of investigation. Perhaps we might all agree to strive to read and write differently and thus to shift the enterprise of composition in a different direction.


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