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Reading(s): a summary of the online discussion

November 16, 2009

According to your reports, our examples of literacy training throughout history revealed that colonialism, fascism, patriotism, and consumerism—maybe even phallocentroism!—were being taught along with the ABC’s.  The reviewers of SesameStreet.org also correctly pointed out how much this site taught computer literacy as well as alphabetic literacy. I think there’s even more to be said about this example, however.   This show was heralded for its multi-cultural cast and, urban setting.  Its groundbreaking status cannot be overestimated and its inclusionary politics may have not been equaled since.  However, with its chopped up format of mini-skits followed by animated “breaks,” it also taught televisual  literacy.  I think there’s a straight line to be drawn between the first Sesame Street generation (in which I count myself) and  the first MTV viewers (ditto).  And, even though the show aired and still does on public television, and its production company, the Sesame Workshop, is a non-profit enterprise, the emphasis on licensed toys and branded apparel certainly seems to promote consumerist values.  We might question, then, whether this appealing group of multi-colored muppets is really helping children learn to read TV guides and price lists.

The “Reading at Risk” and follow-up reports generated the most discussion.  Overall, we saw problems with their conflation of different types of reading that they lumped together, and the sorts of reading they excluded.  Kellie, for example, saw an underlying bias against non-paper media:

“The astounding magnetic affect electronic media had on people, especially the young, supposedly amused them away from willingly engaging themselves in a literary book. This postulation and mulish stance definitely shaped [the NEA’s] results because they wanted to prove that media was the reason for the accelerated declining rate of literary reading.”

Ghayth seems to respond to this by stating,  “. . . sometimes you have to read information on the internet, but this is not the same as reading literature,” but this begs the same question they do: How is this different?  How do we know this it is different?  Very little research has been done (some is just starting) on how screen reading might be different from paper reading.  Is it a physical difference in cognitive processes, a behavioral one (linking and scanning), are we just talking about different genres of writing  (posts vs. chapters, for example)—or are all of the above interconnected in convoluted and complex ways?  The NEA, in its quest for simplicity and measurable outcomes, ignores this still nebulous area of screen reading, but with their assumption that what one does on the Internet is not reading, they basically exclude a large and growing category of  literacy.

But their shaping assumptions don’t end with an anti-Internet bias. Ghyath also pointed out their odd (or at least outmoded) distinction between reading for work and leisure—can’t they sometimes be the same?  (They are for me!) He also pointed out that sometimes “reading” is actually “listening”—via audiobooks. Troy saw another problem in the NEA’s distinctions among print sources: “The NEA seems to imply that reading is only reading if you are reading a novel, play, short story or poem. It sure feels like I’m reading when I read a magazine or newspaper. I guess if the source has illustrations then it is not considered reading.”  Julianne similarly wondered about the type of books being read.  Does it matter if it’s a Harlequin romance, the ubiquitous Twilight series, a Booker prize winner or Moby Dick?  The NEA purposely avoided that quandary, but in doing so left other questions unanswered.

Indeed, throughout the report, the medium seemed to take precedence over the content.  Are all books created equal?  Are all online sites? I know I’ve certainly been intellectually challenged by certain blogs and read books that probably actually decreased my total IQ.  This same prejudice—the blind acceptance of any sort of book reading—has educators agreeing that reading Captain Underpants is better than not reading at all. I have not seen evidence that reading dumbed-down texts early in life leads to reading mind-expanding ones later in life.  Maybe it does—I don’t know.  What I do know though, is that SOME video games require complex puzzle solving abilities, advanced strategizing and decision-making skills,  imaginative role-playing—and yes, even (occasionally) reading that fosters all those traits.

But another student perspective, however, helps us start to tease out distinctions between books and other media that might be usefully made. Books are still the chief conveyors of long fiction. Why is fiction reading important?  Kellie says, “reading begets other vital and productive characteristics that many people lack, for example patience, intelligence, respect.” Perhaps it is the identification process in fiction reading—the way we temporarily merge ourselves (at least in realist fiction) with a main character and his/her trials and tribulations that helps us develop  EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE.  Certainly fiction reading is not the only way to develop empathy, but it’s a compelling one, and we might be concerned about its loss.  Except that maybe we’re not losing reading at all.  Troy sums up:

“While this is simplistic and frankly a bit silly we have nothing to worry about. Oprah has saved us by telling everybody what to read. While I may seem flip or sarcastic I really am not. Oprah has signaled a cultural shift in attitudes towards reading. This is a very positive thing. The NEA should feel optimistic, it is cool to read again. “

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3 comments

  1. I just read Shelia’s response to Troy’s blog, http://johanssont.blogspot.com/2009/11/neas-rise-and-fall-of-reading.html. She also made the point about WHAT we read being more important that the fact of reading itself, and I think she states it more clearly than I did:

    “However, the statement that as long as people are reading it is a positive thing is quite broad. What Mein Kempf suddenly becomes the new Twilight? What if people are reading the Satanic Bible? Of course they are reading, but in order to state that this is a positive maybe they should be reading positive information? just a thought.”

    So yeah, /Mein Kampf/ or the /Satanic Bible/ may be a bot more disturbing than /Captain Underpants/–but only a bit.


  2. I have been tussling with the flu since about Saturday, and the only signal I get near my apartment, is outside on my balcony, so I did not get a chance to comment in the class discussions (and even though I made it to our classroom last Thursday, prepared for and anxious for our class discussion, before I realized there was no class, I received no credit for that day’s attendance…don’t worry Dr. Maruca, I’m only half serious about hassling you about that).

    I just scanned over all that Dr.Maruca summed up, and just figured I’d say one or two things about how I feel about the NEA’s decision to choose pieces of literature and such as a gauge.

    I think that the most important reason to choose pieces of literature or books of non-fiction, has something to do with the importance of the duration of engagement with each particular text one deals with. The time it took me to read Samuel Richardson’s PAmela, or George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda was monotonous and nerve-wracking while it was happening (because I find that kind of writing, and those societies boring and relatively infuriating), but nevertheless, the act of dealing with those texts–meaning the duration of engagement–is invaluable in creating a kind of critical patience that is fairly invaluable and necessary to truly being able to confront, examine, and understand things. It also seems to be a valuable aspect of the ability to defer gratification. I know sociologists say that the inability to defer gratification is a fundamental problem for many people in this country, and I see a link in all of this.

    Newspapers, aside from being for the most part, a lot of spun, biased, altered bullshit, also do not provide for the kind or longer engagements with the text, that one gets from books. Now, the question regarding WHAT books to read, is one I am not prepared to confront here, but, in regards to Sheila’s quote above, I think everyone should read something like Mein Kampf, or at least excerpts from it, if for no other reason than to be aware of what we all need to be perpetually vigilant for. If we do not understand the crimes and atrocities in our past, how can we be vigilant to insure that they do not occur again?

    And then again, all of the above could be the semi-coherent babbling of a man shivering on his balcony, still mildly in the grips of some kind of flu-like illness that, just wishes he had received just a little credit for actually showing up to class last Thursday…


    • “The time it took me to read Samuel Richardson’s PAmela, or George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda was monotonous and nerve-wracking while it was happening (because I find that kind of writing, and those societies boring and relatively infuriating), but nevertheless, the act of dealing with those texts–meaning the duration of engagement–is invaluable in creating a kind of critical patience that is fairly invaluable and necessary to truly being able to confront, examine, and understand things. It also seems to be a valuable aspect of the ability to defer gratification. I know sociologists say that the inability to defer gratification is a fundamental problem for many people in this country, and I see a link in all of this.”

      Yes, reading books you don’t want to read is a test in patience. I do not think however that you can consider that a good example of what it means to read literature. The amount of people reading literature does not at all represent the amount of people who are reading things they don’t enjoy to test their patience. That’s exclusive primarily to mostly college students and professionals. Are reading of literature for classes is actually a perversion within the statistics. You were required to read Pamela. That example is more like reading in the workplace. I think the reason they are looking at Literature is more to focus on those who read for pleasure. A lot of people however do read non-fiction works for pleasure.



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