College Composition Weekly: Summaries of research for college writing professionals

Read, Comment On, and Share News of the Latest from the Rhetoric and Composition Journals

King, Carolyne M. Reading as Embodied Practice. Comp Studies, Spring 2019. Posted 09/16/2019.

King, Carolyne M. “The Reader in the Texbook: Embodied Materiality and Reading in the Writing Classroom.” Composition Studies 47.1 (2019): 95-115. Web. 09 Sept. 2019.

Carolyne M. King argues for increased attention to the material aspects of student interaction with texts as they read. In her view, helping students understand how their situated physicality shapes the reading experience will enhance their ability to create meaning (97). She contends that writing pedagogy, particularly as it addresses reading in a pair of widely used readers, takes only “limited” account of the material process of reading (96).

Examining references to reading in a range of textbooks, King notes that they encourage activities such as underlining and highlighting, as well as marginal annotation, but states that attention to the “bodily involvement” and “sensory aspects” of these behaviors is nonexistent (98). She maintains that the textbooks fall short, as well, in considering how different media affect students’ ability to follow standard advice about effective reading; even when new media are addressed, attention to these experiences “largely focuses on changing technologies, . . . subtly giv[ing] agency to literacy tools as they act upon the body” (98) rather than on how students’ meaning-making activities change.

King draws on research by Christina Haas, Kristie Fleckenstein, and Sondra Perl to ground the claim that context and physical involvement, such as Perl’s “felt sense,” affect how readers respond to and make use of texts (97). Disability studies extend this understanding by illustrating, in King’s view, how classroom practice often advances what Rosemarie Garland-Thomson calls a “normate,” defined in King’s words as “the physical manifestation of the collective, un-stigmatized characteristics of a culture” (101). Normates provide expectations about what students should be able to do with a text without regard for the differences in the lived experience of individual readers, for example projecting a textbook as “an object that all students can carry, hold, and read” (101). King finds textbooks a rich area for study of these expectations because they purport to “describe what students should do when reading” (101).

King develops her argument by analyzing two textbooks that focus on reading but are widely assigned in writing classes (102), Ways of Reading by David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky (Ways) and The Elements (and Pleasures) of Difficulty, by Mariolina Salvatore and Patricia Donahue (Elements). As sources of “authoritative instruction in how students should read,” these books, in King’s view, provide opportunities to investigate how they further a normate treatment of the material features of reading (99; emphasis original).

An illustration demonstrates that the two books provide closely spaced text with narrow margins and minimal white space (103). King argues that such formatting choices make assumptions about a reader’s ability to focus on small text and discourage interaction other than underlining and highlighting (103). The texts do not suggest anticipation of a reader who might need a magnifying glass, for example, and could not take in the page “holistically,” as this format invites (104). King suggests that variations in font, unlike the uniform features of these texts, might encourage student awareness of how such features affect their engagement with a text (104).

For King, the metaphors the books use to describe reading also pay inadequate attention to the embodied aspects of interaction with a text. Ways calls reading a “conversation,” but, King argues, does not envision how different bodies might understand or participate in conversation differently and thus respond differently to the metaphor (105). Elements offers a “transaction” as its metaphor, using the embodied language of “voice” but, King contends, focusing on thinking, stating that “reading involves . . . thinking the thoughts of another, inhabiting someone else’s mind” (qtd. in King 105). King writes that readers cannot inhabit the minds of others whose minds may have been shaped by different material experiences (106). Both texts, she argues, portray a sense that “the body can be transcended” and that thinking can exist outside of situated individual realities (106).

She critiques the books’ use of “a real—not hypothetical—student to exemplify their ideal reading process and outcome” (106). The student narrative in Ways “is intended to describe the embodied experience of the common student,” but in order to do so, the authors refrain from naming the student or providing any physical detail of the student’s appearance or of his activities as he enacts the ideal process (107). Similarly, Elements presents a successful student who is given a name but no other identifying details, such as age, race, or college status; according to King, the student’s actual successful strategies are not shared (108).

King draws on other critiques of these narratives to argue that the students in question are presented as having successfully modeled “teacher-sanctioned practices” (108) that they found accessible because “the material conditions of their prior existence most closely align with the classroom” (109). King argues that differently embodied students might interact with the two texts very differently than the “idealized” students in the narratives (107); their different responses, attributable to their different lived realities, risk falling outside the normate established by the texts.

Contending that for students, “the body houses their sociocultural identity,” King suggests principles and strategies for making students more aware of how they physically interact with texts. Encouraging “multiple ways of knowing” (110) and a range of modes and physical activities such as playing with visual elements and fonts (111), King writes, can raise students’ awareness of how different texts make them feel and act, and help them locate their own most effective strategies for reading (112).

When our textbooks privilege a version of reading that is not embodied and which does not emphasize the materiality of reading, our classrooms actively construct barriers for students whose embodied, material realities do not reflect an assumed norm. (112)


Author: vanderso

I'm a recently retired associate professor of English in Southern Indiana. I've been teaching writing for twenty-five years, but I feel I have much to learn about how people really learn to write. In this blog, I'll be sharing research and thoughts and hopefully gathering information from others about the process of learning to write.

Comments are closed.