So, today in my NDN I'm trying something completely new and different that newness is just a little bit terrifying. I assigned my students Mary Warnock's article "What is Natural? And Should We Care?" and Theodore Steinberg's "What is a Natural Disaster?" and I knew that the Warnock article would turn them inside out. I did preface those articles with "not for entertainment" and honesty about the denseness of the work, and that gave us a starting point this morning. But in the course of my teaching in the last few years, I've been struggling with the most productive way to teach students how to read critical articles. I've been conscious of arguments against close reading--and for that, I keep coming back to Heather Horn's article in the Atlantic a few years back, in which she writes:
"Close reading" is about taking a chapter, a page, a paragraph, or even a single sentence, and picking it apart to extract meaning or see what the author is doing. It's a vehicle for teaching students about cadence and imagery, hopefully leading youthful minds to appreciate the complexity of authors' thoughts.
We should end it. Students almost universally hate close reading, and they rarely wind up understanding it anyway. Forced to pick out meaning in passages they don't fully grasp to begin with, they begin to get the idea that English class is simply about making things up...and constructing increasingly circuitous arguments by way of support. [...] What the attentive reading proponents ignore is that many students are in danger of failing to see the literary forest for the trees.
This, I admit, is a valid criticism and actually one I share, to some degree. As a creative writer, I believe that sentences have power and much can be learned from the microscope--but it cannot be the only lens we use. Dawn's Close Focus asks students to get to the nitpicky of a page, research the terms they don't know, names they don't recognize, and to use Google and Wikipedia for the purposes they were invented for. I've seen this in action, more than once, and I have been inspired to try it, though I haven't been exactly sure how. Until now.
Because, then, my friend E. gave me Joseph Bizup's article "BEAM: A Rhetorical Vocabulary for Teaching Research-Based Writing." This morning, I melded these together for the first time to see if this method might work.
The premise of Bizup's BEAM is to reconsider the nomenclature of research, from the standard primary, secondary, and tertiary to language that asks how that research is being used. He argues that definitions of "primary," "secondary," and "tertiary" vary even by discipline, so this isn't the most productive conversation. Instead, he proposes asking how and why we use sources--for Background, Exhibits, Arguments, or Methods--and as he details his use of this in his own classroom, as a method not only of critical reading, but also critical writing, his use of BEAM offers new perspectives and nuances to how we construct and communicate ideas. I had my students, in class, read the middle section of Bizup's article, where he defines and explains his terms, and then we talked about the idea. Basic reactions? My students loved the idea. Loved it. With a vigor I hadn't expected.
And so then, we flipped back to the Warnock article and started into the Close Focus, as a combination of tools for handling dense written work. Dawn's Close Focus exercise goes beyond thinking about "what does this elm tree symbolize?" because I agree that that's the wrong nitty gritty of a page. She wants them to research people, places, events, and terms on the page that they don't know--and some other aspects geared towards the study of literature that don't really apply here now. Here's how it worked with Warnock.
- Start with the author, title, publication and date.
- Where was it published? Philosophy. Why does that matter? We know it's going to be a particular type of argument and it's not going to be zoology.
- The title has an asterisk. Follow the asterisk and what does that tell us? Huh, it says "Royal Institute of Philosophy Annual Lecture, 2002." Anybody know what the Royal Institute of Philosophy is? Me, neither. So I hopped on Google (with the projector focused on the screen, so they could see what I was doing) and found out it's British, we found out its history, how long it had been around. Searching further into their Annual Lecture, we found out that it's a pretty big deal.
- Why does it matter that we know it's a lecture? Well, we decided, that the rhetorical choices for a lecture in the way an argument is structured will be different than an argument that will only be read. There might be some repetition, there might be a more conversational tone.
- Mary Warnock. Anybody know who that is? Me, neither. Back to Wikipedia. She's a Baronness, born 1924. Philosopher, with some pretty extensive educational credentials. A Big Deal.
- We went through the first page together. Nothing of note in the first paragraph, but then we come upon The Treatise of Human Nature. What does the italics tell us? Yes, it tells us that it's most likely a book. Two lines later, we learn the author, David Hume. How many of you know what The Treatise of Human Nature is about? And who is David Hume? Back to Google. Scottish philosopher. This published in 1739-1740. What else was happening in the realm of science, religion and philosophy in the 18th century? My science students were quick to jump on the Age of Enlightenment, the Age of Reason. Ahhhh, yes. That gives us some room to consider Warnock's ideas of natural, unnatural, and moral judgments of each.
- Okay, so Warnock is bringing up Hume. Why? If we were to toss Bizup's BEAM in here, how is this source functioning? We decided B.
From there, I told the class to pick a page and pull out their phones or computers (which may be the first time I have actively encouraged cell phones in my class) and for them to hit up Google and Wikipedia. I gave them about ten minutes and then we came back together and they shared what they had found. I think three students volunteered to share their pages and what their Googling had turned up--and it was all very good, very interesting, and exactly what I was hoping for. (At the end of class, I strongly suggested that they use this strategy to work on understanding the articles I assigned for Monday. We'll see if they do--I hope they do!)
Then we jumped into comparing both Warnock's article and Theodore Steinberg's "What is a Natural Disaster?" I asked them to consider purpose: why would I have them read Warnock (and torture them with it) when it doesn't have anything to do with natural disasters? Why did I pair it with Steinberg? That got them thinking about my thought processes and I could start to get them to consider the teacher's perspective in putting things together--they might not see the connection right away, but if they put some effort towards it, they'll probably find it.
And I borrowed from Bonnie Stone Sunstein and Elisabeth Chiseri-Strater's Fieldworking textbook (which I did not assign for this class) which asks students to consider various things via three questions:
- What surprised you?
- What intrigued you?
- What disturbed you?
Steinberg's article begins with a discussion of the 1889 Jonestown Flood--and can we consider that a natural disaster? I also posted a link to the water contamination in West Virginia right now--and can we consider that a natural disaster? We'll definitely talk about them when it comes to the third writing project and human-caused disasters, but where along the spectrum do we fall? I told them that there is no one right answer to this question, it's definitely not black and white, and they'll need to decide for themselves what they think. But, I stressed, since the beginning of time, we've struggled with how to understand the world around us--and one function that disaster stories have is as morality tales (a theme of Steinberg's). One benefit of being at a Lutheran college is that I can toss off Bible stories and they know exactly what I'm talking about. So the reason I started with these two articles is that I wanted to give them a foundation for the role of stories in our societies and our struggles to explain what is largely inexplicable--and that there is a wide range of discussion about what we can consider natural and unnatural.
So, this combination of reading strategies and discussion strategies actually resulted in some good--though brief--discussion of these two articles. I'm hoping we can use them next week, even as we don't talk directly about natural disasters on Monday, because we didn't get as deep into them as I wanted. In the future, though, I don't know that I'll use Warnock again. I like it, but I think it's too far in the deep end to throw students so early in the semester. But teaching is endless revision.
Both of my classes handed in their first Think Pieces today and I'm excited to read them (even as I'm interested to see how many of them could follow directions and use MLA formatting...).