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Readings for a New Semester (Part 1 of 3)

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This is the first post of a three-part series. Image courtesy of  .christoph.G. 

 

 

As we start a new school year, I wanted to share and discuss essays that are helping me plan and organize my classes for Fall 2016, and making me think about what I’m doing with our one-text curriculum.

First, Christa Baiada’s 2014 article, “‘Are We Gonna Read All That?’: Yes, We Are, and Let Me Tell You Why,” which appeared in Teaching English in the Two Year College (Vol. 42, No. 1). In this brief, personal reflection on teaching full-length texts (novels, memoirs, poetry collections, dramas) in a community college literature class, Baiada makes the case for reading complete works rather than anthology excerpts.

If you’re familiar with our content on DevelopingWriters.net, you’ll know that our curriculum centers on a assigning one full-length, nonfiction text in our developmental writing classes. Baiada’s reasons for choosing whole texts over excerpts resonate with our own:

  1. Complete works present essential context and depth: “Selections from larger works are taken out of context and cannot reasonably be expected to convey the comprehensive effect of a complete work. Students may be exposed to more works and authors, but in fleeting, superficial ways that I fear fail to make an impression. Students are cheated of exposure to the works in their original form and on their own terms” (Baiada, 87).
  1. An author’s craft is revealed by the whole work: “The complexity and overall design of [complete texts] encompass an artistry of development in theme, character, use of figurative language, and structure that are undermined when not read in their entirety” (87). In terms of non-fiction texts, we could say that the complete text encompasses uses of tone, example, sustained argument, ethos/pathos/logos, evidence, narration, illustration, and all means of rhetorical devices are undermined when not read in their entirety.
  1. Complete works allow students to engage fully, “in meaningful, complex, and lasting ways” (87). While students end up reading a smaller number of texts, they read deeply and work within richer contexts. For example, in a class reading Brown Girl Dreaming, students encounter Jacqueline Woodson’s life experience from the book’s beginning to end, rather than just selections of her life. Ultimately, their essays can compare/contrast in much more informed, sustained ways; their essays can trace important themes (i.e., the author’s developing attitudes of race and Jim Crow, discriminatory housing practices, segregation) with a real sense of purpose, trajectory, and context, and in turn demonstrate how such problems exist in our community today. 
  1. We must stop treating class readings as one more stop on the “curriculum tour” (Baiada here borrows a phrase from Dennis J. Sumara). “Readings constitute ‘content’ and are not a means to convey information, as, for example, a textbook might be in other disciplines” (86). Baiada is certainly speaking to how we instructors on DevelopingWriters.net are trying to engage students not just in reading to mine for facts to memorize, but reading to analyze claims, integrate new information into their own life reflections, and synthesize multiple viewpoints. We choose texts that ask to be read in light of important socio-historical questions, problems, and ongoing issues, texts that ask students to do something with them in their own writing.
  1. Lastly, and of no small consequence, we give students “the sense of accomplishment that comes from reading books cover-to-cover” (88). This is a big deal for students in developmental writing classes especially, and students in community college in general. When we assign our books, we tell students we believe they can handle a whole book—and a long, difficult, complex one at that; we tell them that books are for them; we tell them that beautiful, in-depth, smart, relevant, enjoyable writing is for them; we tell them that we will not cut down or dumb down books for them; we tell them, simply and essentially, that, more than fact-finders or test-takers, they are readers.

Having listed many reasons and benefits of our single-text approach on DevelopingWriters.net, I’m more than happy to borrow five more from literature pedagogy to support our practice of challenging students’–and our own–beliefs about what they can read in college.

How do you assign readings? What are your experiences with assigning excerpts vs. whole texts?

Next in the series: How to help students make intertextual connections.

 

 

 

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