teaching research, deep attention, and reading

I’ve been working recently through some concepts on attention and reading: Katherine Hayles on deep attention and hyper-reading, Richard Miller on slow reading, surface reading, Moretti’s distant reading, and so on. It’s part of my larger project taking a “realist rhetorical” approach to media ecologies and, in particular, that part of the ecology that I term “learning assemblies:” institutional assemblages that have explicit pedagogical operation. This has been juxtaposed for me by two recent on-campus conversations about teaching research writing.

At a workshop on Tuesday supporting writing-in-the-disciplines, Deb Rossen-Knill, our colleague from Rochester, was discussing with the faculty the ongoing challenge of supporting students as they seek to synthesize source materials into an argument of their own. Coincidentally, a similar topic was raised in a department meeting. Of course, it is not a surprising topic. In fact, it’s one of the commonplaces of writing instruction. I have certainly had many conversations in our program regarding the research paper in first-year composition.

So here’s the point of intersection. Miller does a good job of explaining the basic situation here, one which I would articulate in terms of media ecologies. Particularly for the undergrad, but really all of us have been impacted, the difference between the pre-1995 or even pre-2000 research paper and the contemporary situation is the availability of information. Again, we all know this. And this data abundance demands a different kind of reading, even just to sift through the results to find what one wants to read more closely. Furthermore, just as we have writing in the disciplines, we might also want to have reading in the disciplines, as we clearly do not all treat texts in the same way.

And I want to take a sideways step here, drawing on Lev Manovich’s concept of “softwarization” (in Software Takes Command). There he discusses how various analog media become translated into digital-software forms and then, out of that ecological shift, begin to proliferate new media species. Again, I think we know this. When texts, photos, films, and audio recordings become digitized, they lose some of the characteristics related to their analog media, some get translated (which implies transformation as well), and then some new characteristics get added. Print text and digital text are not the same things, but this gets even more apparent as new textual species start to emerge and the level of differentiation between the two begins to grow (e.g. reading a novel vs. reading Twitter). To add to that, there really aren’t “print texts” anymore, at least not in the sense that they existed 30 years ago. Not only have they changed in the sense that they exist in a very different media context but they are composed in a different media ecology as well.

So not only do we have disciplinary differences in reading, we also need to recognize that “reading” now refers to our encounters with a wide range of different species in our media ecology.

Back to the intersection with research writing. Student writers can face several obvious challenges in the “research paper” assignment:

  • inexperience with the disciplinary genre in which they are being asked to write;
  • inexperience with disciplinary practices of conducting research and reading;
  • lack of knowledge/context for the academic sources they are asked to cite;
  • lack of intrinsic motivation or curiosity in the research task they’ve been assigned;
  • any number of other, competing demands on their time and attention.

The truth though is that even as experienced academic writers, we face versions of these challenges: struggling with writing well in the genre, laboring through the research process, dealing with difficult texts, staying motivated and on task.

My (brief) point here is that these matters are all shifted along with our media ecology. I disagree, somewhat, with Hayles on this matter in her description of “deep attention.” At points (in her 2007 Profession article for example) she describes deep attention as a generalized cognitive skill one that applies equally to reading a Victorian novel and solving a complicated math problem. I don’t think it’s that generalizable, and I know plenty of people who can attend to a novel but not a math problem and visa versa. I also know plenty of older generational folks who cannot do either. Where I do agree is that cognitive-attentional processes emerge from relations among objects (human and otherwise). And I would assert that we are not helpless in the face of these media shifts.

Just as we developed highly specialized disciplinary and professional reading and writing practices in a print culture (that were different from popular-cultural reading and writing practices), presumably we can do the same in a digital culture. I think it’s fair to say we haven’t quite figured those things out, but it strikes me as something worth addressing.

So, if you’re teaching a class with a “research paper” in it and trying to figure out how to articulate your assignment, I suppose the first question I’d ask you to consider is “how is your assignment different from one you might have given (or received) 15-20 years ago?” Because I assure you that even if your assignment isn’t different, everything else about the media ecology in which it is situated is.

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