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Orienting Yourself to the Act of Reading

Sattler College Reading Corner

Orienting Yourself to the Act of Reading

Some basic premises

As I prepared to take on my role as the Director of the Writing Center, my first task was to find the boundaries of my responsibilities. What did I need to know such that I could truly help the students at Sattler College become better writers? My discoveries went as follows: writing is not a task but a process; the writing process involves not just “putting pen to page” but preparation; preparation involves research; research is inextricable from the act of reading. Therefore, I would be remiss if I did not help students understand how to read well. And that is why a Writing Center Director is writing to you about reading instead of, well, writing!

Below are four premises about the act of reading that I think are essential to good reading. These apply to every type of reading, although each kind of text demands its own specific techniques (see premise 4). I hope that these premises challenge you to adopt better reading habits for yourselves. But don’t misunderstand me – I applaud your desire to learn, no matter your skill in reading or the extent to which you adopt these ideas for yourself. Premise zero is: keep reading! Your labor is not in vain.

“Reading is not a passive activity that prepares you for the in-class learning experience; reading is an active engagement with the text through which you directly learn and gain knowledge.”

Premise One

Reading is active.

Reading is not a passive activity that prepares you for the in-class learning experience; reading is an active engagement with the text through which you directly learn and gain knowledge. In many cases, the choice of text is being made for you by the professor, but that is because they want you to listen to what the author has to say! Therefore the first and most important attribute of the reading orientation is attention. You must remove yourself from distractions, both external and internal. Be in a place where your environment will not draw your attention away. Decide that you will not worry about your other assignments or tasks while you engage with the text. Attention is not just the absence of distractions, however. You must also positively decide that you are going to take in what the writer is saying by paying attention to the words they use, their arguments, the throughlines of their text, and their tone and purpose. The choice to read is the choice to attend to the words on the page.

Attention begets two important tasks: organization and planning. In order to properly pay attention to a text, you must actively recognize the plan the author has in mind. How the author organizes the text guides you as you follow his arguments and thought patterns. Therefore it behooves you to be on the lookout for the author’s organization, both for the moves made and the conclusions being aimed at. But the author’s goals are not the only important ones. You must also plan your approach to the text by knowing what you want to get out of it. What does your professor want you to learn from the text? What questions do you need answered? Which parts of the text will most pertain to your knowledge search? Knowing what you want or need to get from the text will go a long way towards your success in the act of reading.

Premise Two

Reading is conversational

The rational corollary of active participation in reading is the idea that reading is a conversation; that is, you intake the text and respond to it in real time, setting expectations and looking for answers to questions. Asking questions of a text is the key to seeing it as a conversation. Your questions should both self-assess (do I understand what is being said?) and assess the text (is the author making good arguments with good evidence leading to good conclusions?). You can self-assess with any text, but your ability to assess authors will grow with the breadth of your reading on a subject.

Another point worth making here is that reading well is corequisite with writing well. Writing is a form of communication unique from speaking, with certain rules, etiquette, recognized formats, and expectations for both authors and readers. You won’t know how to write if you can’t read, and your ability to crack open hard texts is aided immensely by the time you take to learn how to write. Your skills in reading will grow your skills in writing and will grow as you gain skills in writing.

“Reading is conversational. The rational corollary of active participation in reading is the idea that reading is a conversation; that is, you intake the text and respond to it in real-time, setting expectations and looking for answers to questions.”

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez 🇨🇦 on Unsplash

Premise Three

Reading is an exercise

The idea of growth in reading leads to the next premise: reading exercises the reader’s brain. This should encourage you: the more you practice attentive, conversational reading, the more reflexive those reading habits will become. The more reflexive the habits become, the deeper your reading can be, and the greater your capacity to learn from it. The opposite, unfortunately, is also true: bad reading habits beget bad reading and slower, more labored learning. At worst, failing to read at all will lead to an atrophy of your reading skills. This is why we encourage the pursuit of lifelong learning!

Premise Four

Reading is an art

All of the above premises may lead you to believe that reading is a science – that applying specific strategies will create specific outcomes, and that improvement in reading is directly measurable. You may be disappointed to find out that this is not the case. Though there are strategies and reading comprehension can be improved, it does not happen in a straight line, and texts do not submit easily to standardized techniques of reading. Reading is an art form, just as writing is – governed by expectations but not entirely bound by them. You are responsible for the act of interpretation that comes with any attempt to read. Your use of reading strategies, of attempts to organize and foreplan, must be flexible.

But take heart – in that reading is an art form, it is bounded by grace. As in any enjoyable conversation, you get to interrupt, ask exploratory and humble questions, be corrected without judgement, and get a second chance for what you don’t hear the first time. Try multiple reading strategies on the same text to figure out which one yields the best results. Read only the first sentence of each paragraph and see if you can track the discussion; rearrange the text to see if the resulting confusion can help make better sense of the correct arrangement; annotate your books with marks to indicate questions, topics you want to look further into, or assertions you flat-out disagree with. In short, experiment with humility and curiosity. When you make the acting of reading – which can become familiar and tedious – strange and new, you will be better able to make what is hard to understand legible.

Harrison Miller

Sept. 2023

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