This post by NCTE member Peter Wayne Moe is reprinted from Teaching English in the Two-Year College (May 2021).
If the goal of a first-year writing course is to introduce students to the habits of mind of academic writing, and if those habits are inquiry-driven, and if inquiry means confronting difficulty, what might a course look like wherein the teacher was engaged in a genuine act of inquiry by being a first-time reader—alongside students—of the course text? I’ve done this many times.
I pick books from my to-read list, nonfiction that is of the moment and pressing:Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me; Eula Biss’s Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays; Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric; Francisco Cantú’s The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border; The Best American Essays 2018, edited by Hilton Als.
This afternoon, I’m writing a syllabus for a course next term built around Leslie Jamison’s Make It Scream, Make It Burn. Because I don’t know what I’m getting into with each book, before selecting it I’ll read the opening paragraphs of a few chapters (to get a sense of the prose and the writer’s project). Upon the suggestion of a librarian, I now also read the one-star reviews on Amazon; that’s where readers often speak to triggering content. Those reviews give me a heads-up about what I might encounter as I begin reading with my students.
On the first day, I share that I’ve not yet read our course text. This is disconcerting to some in the class. Many students want a Teacher with Authority, with Knowledge, one with Expertise and All the Right Answers, but they soon come to see the value in a teacher reading alongside students.
“Instead of having a fixed reasoning and bias of a book he has already read,” one student wrote on a course evaluation, “I liked that the professor read the book WITH us, and we learned and developed ideas together.”
If I have anything to offer students, it’s that I am an experienced reader, and here I can model for them how a first-time reader might engage a text. The questions I ask do not have prefabricated answers; they are genuine questions arising from my own difficulties working through difficult subject matter—and we try to find answers together.
As the term progresses, I’ll ask students to bring reviews of our book to class so we can hear the conversations surrounding our course text. This assignment stems from my own reading practice; midway through a book, I’ll often read reviews to better orient myself to the book and its concerns.
Another assignment asks students to find news articles related to the issues addressed in our book so that we can consider how the book informs our reading of those articles and vice versa. This assignment too is based on my own reading practice, an effort to connect a book to the world around it.
The goal of this pedagogy is to produce the moment in class when my students and I are befuddled, together, unclear about the argument being made, unclear about the trajectory of the book, unsure what this book is doing or what the author is saying. When this confusion comes (and it inevitably does), students look to me to give the answers. This is, after all, how they’ve been trained. But I have no answers. I do not have to feign ignorance or bite my tongue. I too am lost. And so we return to the text, rereading what we’ve gone over, looking ahead too, and we try to figure out how a reader might make productive use of uncertainty—because that’s what reading is.
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Peter Wayne Moe is an associate professor of English at Seattle Pacific University and author of Touching This Leviathan.
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