Monday, April 1, 2013

On Being Careful Not to Read too Closely

Where does the author fit in common core text interpretations? Should students think about authors or is this verboten?

We (T. Shanahan, C. Shanahan, & C. Misichia) published research that considered how disciplinary experts (historians, mathematicians, historians) handle this problem. Our historians, consistent with many past studies, revealed that they focus heavily on authors during reading. They talked a lot about what they perceived to be the author’s arguments or biases.

The mathematicians we interviewed had a different take on the matter, claiming that author had no place in interpretation. They, according to their accounts, didn’t think about author at all when reading. Their attention was on the words and nothing more. We later received a note from a mathematician thanking us for showing that they were the only ones “who read with integrity.” 

However, math educators at Rutgers have pointed out that mathematicians may strive to read without attention to author as they told us, but that their interpretations do account for this supposedly irrelevant fact, at least under some reading conditions. Let’s just say, the math ideal is to read without attention to author, no matter what the practice may actually be (“the spirit is willing but the body is weak”).

The debate in literature is a more complicated one since the ideal is less clear. There was a time when the study of literature was overwhelmed by interpretations based on author’s biographies and contextual information about how the texts may have been written. The push-back to this historical approach to literature came from New Criticism. The New Critics wanted poetry to be read like mathematics; as if there were no source.

That is where the idea of the “intentional fallacy” came from… that it was invalid to consider what the author may have intended with his or her words, rather than thinking about the words themselves.

As Wayne Booth has shown the idea of author awareness is pretty central to the reading process – with real authors, implied authors, implied readers, and so on. What voice do you hear when you read Huckleberry Finn? That of an old codger in a rocker down by the Mississippi or a wealthy white-suited insurance investor in Hartford, Connecticut?

The idea of author awareness comes into legal interpretations as well. This is the season when lawyers argue their cases before the Supreme Court, and the term “original intent” is pretty descriptive of what some justices try to consider in their interpretations of the law.

I found myself thinking about all of this as I read E.D. Hirsh’s recent 85th birthday reminiscence, “How Two Poems Helped Launch a School Reform Movement”
Hirsch, though trained as a New Critic, rebelled early on, writing a book that heavily influenced my thinking, Validity in Interpretation. (A book the title of which I often fondly misremember as The Ethics of Interpretation).

So what does this have to do with the common core?

It points out why one needs to be very careful NOT to do too close a reading. Hirsch argues persuasively in his recent essay why student prior knowledge matters in interpretation, and why author intentions play a related and legitimate role in text interpretation. That certainly doesn’t mean that we have to have a 10-minute discussion of student prior knowledge every time we read a text or that we should study an author's biography before we can profitably read his or her words. 

By the same token, close reading should not harken back to a time when we tried to read every text as if were handed down from the mountain, with no discernible author. It is okay to allude to an author’s other works in a discussion, or for kids to explicitly use their knowledge when trying to make sense of an author’s logic. The author’s words need to be central to our focus on the text, but not to the point of being either dismissive of the intentions of the author or foolish about what we can validly conclude about a text. A little common sense is going to be needed with this aspect of the common core.

Happy birthday, Don Hirsh. Hope it is a joyous one.



EC said...

Thoughtful and judicious. Unfortunately, what you rightly call "common sense" is often missing from materials provided by organizations very close to the CCSS. Below, for instance, is a paragraph of instruction from a lesson plan on the "" website created by the David Coleman-founded Student Achievement Partners:

"Other than giving an initial brief definition to words students would likely not be able to define from context (bolded in the text), avoid
giving any background context or instructional guidance at the outset. This close reading approach forces students to rely exclusively on the text instead of privileging background knowledge."

The approach in the lesson plan I quoted looks a lot like a standardized testing approach: "right-there" questions about brief excerpts of text that it will be hard for most students to care about. I hope your more common-sense approach prevails, but I don't see much reason to be hopeful.

Tim Shanahan said...

This is an interesting one. Coleman and colleagues originally said, "No," to pre-reading discussions aimed at raising background information. Then as a result of what I wrote on this site, plus some emails back and forth, they came around to the idea of supporting background discussions as long as they follow some guidelines that I have set out: such preparation should be brief, should not be a repeat of the text, should arouse interest, etc. by informing students of things like the genre, the topic, etc.