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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)


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Sweeney, Meghan A., and Maureen McBride. “Difficulty Papers” as Insights into Students’ Reading Practices. CCC, June 2015. Posted 07/06/2015.

Sweeney, Meghan A., and Maureen McBride. “Difficulty Paper (Dis)Connections: Understanding the Threads Students Weave between Their Reading and Writing.” College Composition and Communication 66.4 (2015): 591-614. Print.

Meghan A. Sweeney and Maureen McBride, collaborating as teacher-researchers, explain the use of “difficulty papers” to investigate the problems students experience as they try to read complex materials. Designed by Carnegie Scholar Mariolina Salvatori, the difficulty-paper assignment asks students to explore in writing the components of the reading experience that interfered with their comprehension and engagement. Sweeney and McBride posit that the “mismatch” (595) between what students are told about effective writing in their writing courses and the practices of the writers of the “difficult” essays leads to struggles as the students try to navigate the complex texts.

Sweeney and McBride note a movement toward reconsidering reading as it affects writing in composition studies (391). In their book The Elements (and Pleasures) of Difficulty, Salvatori and co-author Patricia Donahue propose that uniting attention to reading and writing through students’ self-reflection on their own experiences will increase “metacognitive reading awareness” (593). Sweeney and McBride contend that such practices will give teachers insight into better methods for encouraging critical reading (593).

They used the assignment in a “new critical reading course at a midsize four-year public university,” where students also took a course in composition and one in “editing-for-style” (593). The authors share the reading-course outcomes, which centered around developing students’ abilities to interact productively with a range of texts; the course textbook, M. Neil Browne and Stuart Keeley’s Asking the Right Questions, addressed various aspects of critical thinking. The authors used “grounded-theory method” to assess 209 difficulty papers over two years. This methodology involved withholding the development of a theory until data had been collected, coded, and categorized. Reading and rereading the papers and discussing their process, Sweeney and McBride reduced the categories of student comments from fifteen to five to one: “mismatch between expectations of readers and writers” (595; emphasis original). They found that two of the readings, Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker essay “Offensive Play” and Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” yielded the “strongest examples and individually highlighted certain subcategories of difficulties” (595). The students’ difficulty papers addressed their experiences reading these texts (593-95).

In reading the Gladwell essay, which discussed brain trauma in football through analogous discussions of dogfighting, students reported that the characteristics of the essay that most impeded their understanding and engagement were Gladwell’s nonlinear organizational strategy, his failure to make his thesis explicit, and his inclusion of extensive detail. The students expected clear, visible transitions explaining the connections between paragraphs and topics ( 596-98); they expressed “anxiety” when they couldn’t immediately discern the purpose of the article (598-99); and in their words, found the supporting “statistics and facts” both “boring” and “off topic” (599-600).

Students responding to “A Modest Proposal” struggled with vocabulary, finding that having to look up words distracted them and that using context to define words was problematic (601-02). Swift’s use of satire also stymied students, who tried to draw on their own experiences to understand Swift’s purpose (602-03). The clash with the instruction they had previously received and were receiving in writing classes led to problems negotiating Swift’s organization: Students tended to read the essay as a model and tried to align it with schemas with which they were familiar, becoming frustrated as well because Swift’s punctuation practices did not match what they had come to see as correct (603-04). In analyzing their problems engaging with the text, the students revealed expectations that, in the words of one, “The story’s job is to captivate the reader, and make them interested as the story goes on” (605). Similarly, objections to the length of the piece led Sweeney and McBride to conclude that students’ classroom experiences had led them to believe that reading should be easy, and that making it easy is the writer’s task (606). Students came to the reading experience with the impression that writing and reading should function similarly, with reading not imposing any additional challenges (606, 607).

In their discussion, Sweeney and McBride highlight the difficulties students faced in trying to make “cultural connection[s]” with readings that did not immediately resonate with their worlds or selves. This difficulty persisted despite class discussion of the context and history reflected in the pieces. They emphasize again that students assess what they read in light of the instruction that they have received as writers, sometimes taking on a teacherly tone in advising the authors about their perceived weaknesses (607). An important recommendation that emerges from the study is the need for teachers to explain much more clearly why students are being asked to read a particular piece and how that reading experience will relate to their own writing (608). Teachers can also be more alert to the tensions set up by different reasons for reading: rhetorical analysis, critical analysis, or “reading-to-write,” and can clarify what to ask students to attend to (608). They contend that the insights provided by the “difficulty paper” assignment allow them to share with students more fully the complexities of the writer/reader relationship as students compose different kinds of writing (609-10); the exercise enabled them, as teachers, to recognize the need for more explicit guidance as they ask students to engage with unfamiliar, complex texts.