17 May 2007

class reading, habits of mind

as usual, i am catching up on timothy burke's blog after an extended lapse. (sadly, my current modal procrastination is something more on the intellectual level of a lolcat, although i've been enoying the nerdlier explications of lolcat etymology right along with the cute kitties.)

about a week ago, burke posted a little treatise on reading: several of his students' reflective essays seem to blame college for sucking the joy out of reading. perhaps intentionally (?), it makes an interesting companion to his previous "how to read in college" piece, since the one explores the (potential) joylessness of college reading and the other gives tips on successful joylessness (success as joylessness?).

there are lots of great points to grab on to, but i suppose the most important for me is the incomplete connection between pedagogical purpose and non-joylessness ("pleasure," not "joy"). the idea -- simple to grasp and very hard to implement -- is that reading for class needs to be both more and less than fun:
When I think about how I want to make the act and experience of reading in my classes create delight, pleasure, discovery, I have to also think about how I want that reading to require my guidance and how I can guarantee that this reading is knowledge-producing as well as pleasurable. In short, to justify the value of taking a course here with me, an experience which doesn’t come cheap. I can’t just say, "Let us talk about how this book pleases us."
that is exactly right for the humanities, i'd say, but does it apply in my field?

a bit later in the essay burke goes on to say that
I think for me, it’s about playfulness in how we read in courses, about being able to switch channels from weighty historicism to aestheticism to personal reflection to information extraction without relentlessly or ideologically demanding any of those as exclusive practices of reading.
It’s about leaving room for different kinds of minds to get different kinds of value from reading a kind of text, and mixing up the types and modes of writing that we use to explore a subject.
this sort of reflection sounds fantastic when applied to novels, or the cultural significance(s) of novels, or (say) the construction of narratives about events in a community.

i'm a little less certain how i'd go about reconciling "delight, pleasure, discovery" in the interpretive act of reading with the need to document and predict exactly what the "events in a community" were. which is another way to say: when we're teaching empirical social science, how do we usefully "switch channels from weighty historicism to aestheticism to personal reflection to information extraction"? put it another way -- and here think about what it means to take pleasure in math: to what extent does social science have room for "different kinds of minds"? everyone in my classroom needs to understand how hypothesis testing, case selection and model identification work. at a fundamental level, it wouldn't be political science without those things.

i had the "channel-switching" experience fairly often as an undergrad -- my own stories with gender and appearance politics got filtered through conversations, theoretical reading, and the news until they arrived at the comparative politics literature on electoral systems. (and hey! that's the essay that got me into grad school!) we read aristotle with ken and foundered for a while until we figured out how it fit into poole and rosenthal with rick. (also, how it fit into Our Whole Lives, but that's another entry.) in latin american politics we were asked for "interesting points" from the reading (an aesthetic question: what in this text is evocative for you?) during each class session. some of the interesting points were merely interesting; some became cornerstone examples or disproofs. certainly listening to clumsy debates about moral and historical (not statistical) significance illuminated ways that the theories at hand might be mutually exclusive.

i did some joyless reading, and some joyless learning, in college, but that sure wasn't it. on the other hand, i didn't learn much about hypothesis testing. we never read KKV. and a few of my strongly held conclusions were, on later reflection, better indicators of my own preferences about how the world should be than of how the world actually was.

the sorts of meandering high-risk intellectual paths that i took when i studied poli sci at swarthmore appear less and less often since i started at yale. it's not that it doesn't happen at all: international relations began with two weeks of philosophy of science, comparative politics professors have been known to demand novel- and memoir-reading. but these folks are (relatively) few and far between, and even they seem to frown quizzically when the comment is "that point in X really reminds me of this detail from Y" or "how does X connect to Y?" even at the undergrad level, it seems that the dominant approach to reading is critical and data-based. everybody knows about hypothesis testing and case selection and model identification (oh my!), and that is what everyone is expected to talk about.

and so, back to the difference(s) between humanities and social sciences. it seems easier (and maybe more theoretically justifiable) to introduce "delight, pleasure, discovery" in the humanities, where standards of evidence and interpretation are different, and where a narrow subset of the theoretically possible stances and habits of mind is less important to success in the discipline. but perhaps the tradeoff would seem less steep if we were more invested in teaching as an end in itself?