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Now that we have talked a bit about the quizzes and the weekly assignments, let's take a closer look at the syllabus itself. There sure is a bunch of reading, isn't there? Yup, and it's not all "the same." Not even close. This is not a syllabus that has a bunch of textbook reading or even one (like my other courses this semester) that pretty much amounts to reading a book a week. The pace is a bit slower than in my other courses, but not by much. I think that one of the most important things we can do in college education is to teach students how to manage a little bit (and eventually a lot) too much work. Learning to handle many different kinds of texts, not to mention a fairly heavy dose of printed verbiage, is one of the hardest things for anyone, in any line of work, to handle. I don't think we do enough of that, and take it as one of my main teaching tasks to make sure that students have just a bit more work than they can possibly do.
Huh? Doesn't that sound cruel and unrealistic? Or just sadistic...in a Silence of the Lexicons sort of way?
No, not at all.
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I seek to change all of that for sixteen "lucky" students. We need to do a better job, and the first course in college is a pretty good time to get started.
Before we go further with this, let me address what I know is on your mind. I'll do it with a brief story. A few years ago, one of the best students I have ever taught came to my office to remonstrate with me (click the link, but "criticize" will serve well here). She sought to plead her case, and invoked a formidable authority. Miranda quoted the venerable Chinese philosopher Zhu Xi (1130-1200), who said (I paraphrase) that reading a few great books carefully so far outshines wide reading that there is no comparison. I was impressed with Miranda's argument, and even more so because she herself had shown a distinct willingness to read everything, and more, on the syllabus for years and years. She is no slacker, so why make this argument?
Because there is a strong point behind it. Close, precise reading is one of the most important things any of us can ever learn. I would go so far as to say that it is the single most important thing we ever do in learning about the world in which we live. For now, I will leave it at this: it is an enormously important part of every class I teach, but I do not focus my teaching only on reading brief but significant texts.
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So here's the question. If close reading is the highest level of our ongoing educations, why not do it all of the time? The answer for me is easy—it is the very highest level, and must be honed to a fine edge by months and months and years and years of practice. Ay, there's the rub. The best way to get good at reading...is to read. A lot. The best way to reach a point in which we can hone in on the most resonant passages in, say, Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason is to read a whole bunch (widely, broadly) and practice the skill of getting everything we can out of a single page. In short, I don't think it is possible to learn to read deeply without reading widely.
The reason my courses emphasize the "widely" part is precisely because many more courses concentrate on "deeply." I am not willing to let it go at that, though. Deep reading is so important that I pepper my courses with passages so resonant, so beautiful, so profound, and so subaqueous (in a way)...that we spend an hour on just a page or two. Yup, my close-reading bona fides are in pretty good shape, and I agree wholeheartedly with Miranda and Zhu Xi. My only asterisk is that we need to practice, practice, and practice some more. And, Miranda, I have taken your advice to such an extent that I have put close readings into every week of all of my syllabi since we talked.
So, with that little bit of background, let's dive into the course readings.
Take a look at the syllabus again. The first page makes clear that we will be reading about a book every two weeks, plus various issues of The New Yorker, throughout the semester. We'll skip over the last two assignments (saving the midterm and final projects until later) and go right to "Arrival Week" on the syllabus. That refers to the special seven days in which sixteen students, one professor, and one orientation leader begin to bond. It is a busy time, and we are in the middle of it right now. For all of my sugar-plum dreams of discussing The New Yorker in leisurely fashion, day-after-day, and teasing out little subtleties from article titles that begin with "Reporter at Large," "Profiles," and "Personal History," all we have done is go to meetings that I acknowledge to be enormously important at precisely this time in the new students' careers.
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We have spent just a little bit of time with the magazine this week, but things get underway in earnest when the term begins next week. Even so, let's take a quick look at "Arrival Week" on the course syllabus. I have asked the students to buy the August 27, 2012 issue of The New Yorker, and we will be working through it as a group during the first few weeks of the term. There are "Talk of the Town" essays and cartoons that provide models for the weekly assignments. We will see reporting, poetry, fiction, and criticism, too. It is a fascinating run through the world of literature, current events, and precise diction (more on that as we proceed) that will make us all better readers and writers by the end of the term.
The other thing going on during the first week is a discussion of a remarkable book that all first-year students read over the course of the summer. Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a riveting story—and analysis—of the growth (in profound ways) of the HeLa cells that have played perhaps the greatest roll in the last half-century of biochemical research. The review in The New Yorker says "extraordinary," and I concur. Skloot has created a compelling narrative that tells the story of Henrietta Lacks, whose cells have become "immortal" and have led to scientific discoveries that have, quite literally, changed the world (eradicating polio—just as a start—should give an idea of their influence). It also tells a story of the Lacks family and Skloot's interaction with them, with a rich back story about the reflexive reporting that led to the book as a whole. It is not unproblematic, to be sure, and several students have critiqued Skloot's presentation. That is what makes for good reporting—and discussion in class. We have already started what will be an ongoing discussion of this book in the context of narrative nonfiction in The New Yorker.
That takes care of arrival week, and whew, what a week. We'll head down to the Beloit Farmer's Market on Saturday, have a nice lunch (while looking through our personal copies of The New Yorker on picnic tables by the Rock River). On Monday, we'll attend the convocation in Beloit College's Eaton Chapel that kicks off the year. On Tuesday, we'll get fully underway.
In tomorrow's post, I'll start a little walk through the rest of the readings.
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