On reading the tea leaves, 6

Saturday, July 16th, 2005

In higher education the teaching of reading is woven into its own curriculum and throughout the academy. Biology teachers are concerned that their students are able to read the text book, thus the sciences have made prerequisites that involve reading instruction a part of their own. This is a good because it reinforces the practical essence of what reading instructors profess about the importance of reading at more and more critical levels. Success in biology can be traced back to students’ ability to remember what they read and apply analysis to problems in science, which depends upon a certain amount of competency that is often taken for granted.

For success in school, the ability to grasp the text book is important across the curriculum, from biology to Computer Science, and in this cross-curricular context, we use the term literacy to describe, classify, and critique degrees and types of competency. Simply put, there are many levels of literacy (or knowing the letters), which is what is being extended here by Michael Mateas in an essay that makes good sense. Part of the issue here has to do with the culture of “knowing about something,” which is an awfully broad angle to take. To claim “a” literacy is to claim competency. But this also involves the politics of knowledge and tradition, of which Dante as man and “European” has often been at the center. What to teach, how to go about that teaching; what to learn and how to contextualize that learning within a tradition; what to leave in and what to leave out, the politics of the canon of thought–these questions aren’t limited to the humanities. The debate over which is the better theory to explain nature is a hot topic today in math and physics. What are the assumptions we make about how to teach reading and writing to college freshman? How does “how we teach” shape our concept of the human and the idea of liberal education. Do we limit definitions of literacy to suit our professions or positions? Are our conclusions really beneficial or are they protectionist or just plain wrong? These days we have to develop objectives and outcomes that define technical competency, which is not an easy job. At the same time, within the academy, we must also assert competencies that maintain the rigors of traditional as well as emerging areas of study.

With all this we can come to some conlcusions about reading that I would maintain are obvious:

1. All people are readers in the broad sense. The gardener reads the garden; the traveler reads the landscape; and the engineer reads the particular system.
2. In the professions, people maintain various reading competencies given their relevant knowledge contexts.

1 and 2 are treated as amorphous spaces which are indistinct but are classified culturally and qualitatively in a democracy. The burgerflipper, who reads the complicated space behind the counter, is just as much a part of the culture as the doctor, who reads the body and the germ, and it isn’t my place to assign value to either. Nor is it my job to assert human worth to a particular place of rest or work. Other people do that all the time. Yet, taking such a phenomenon will make for a good start in on reading #7.


3 responses to “On reading the tea leaves, 6”

  1. susan says:

    “For success in school, the ability to grasp the text book is important across the curriculum, from biology to Computer Science, and in this cross-curricular context, we use the term literacy to describe, classify, and critique degrees and types of competency.” This makes me feel so very guilty, especially now, in my current push to read to comprehend what lies within the words and beyond. In at least three college courses I admit I only scanned the textbooks for vital information needed to answer questions for an essay or a test. Was the resulting “A” proof of success? I think not. Success would indicate an understanding of the material that would go beyond the end of the semester. Dare I toss in as an excuse that scanning for the vital parts within a reading is an art? Sort of contrary to what I’ve asked as an opening question to this series, and an insult, I am sure, to you.

  2. Steve says:

    “Success would indicate an understanding of the material that would go beyond the end of the semester. Dare I toss in as an excuse that scanning for the vital parts within a reading is an art?”

    Sure. Why not? But the nurse needs to know anatomy. In my electrical engineering courses, the textbooks may not have been all that great, but they were critical as reference. In school we had an excellent trigonometry text. We had to be able to read it.

    Does this clear up the point?

  3. susan says:

    I think so. As we read, we understand the meaning and the arrangement of the words (hmm, the knowledge of subject/object sentence structure, tense, noun, verb, etc. assists us), even look up any words we don’t (and add them to our storehouse), and may very well understand the concept that the words represent in their positions on the page.