Teaching Reading and Feeling Groovy, I mean, Grateful

I teach in a university department that includes English and Modern Languages, and this is my grateful blog.
I am grateful that I have colleagues in modern languages, and that multiple languages are spoken and taught all around me. I am grateful that the English part of that department includes people who self-identify as Literature people, Rhetoricians, Composition people, and Linguists. Lots of schools have separated those fields in to different departments, and I feel very lucky to have us all together.
The result is that our current curriculum produces very well-rounded English majors; we even called them Linguistic samurai at one point. Our goals (which we articulated carefully as we began to assess whether or not we were meeting them) were to graduate students who read critically and aesthetically, with good attention to context, history, and language, but also who write effectively and powerfully, and who have a good understanding of English and at least one other language.
We value all these skills and attributes, and we think they are interrelated and synergistic.
But I was having a conversation today with a colleague who is a rhetorician, and we talked about different angles we take from our subfields, all sort of aiming at the same broad list of skills. I teach with a primary goal of improving students’ reading, and he teaches with the primary goal of improving their writing. (Some of this is very fuzzy, as he has a literature background, and I have a linguistics background, but it mostly holds.)
When I say I teach reading, though, it’s, shall we say, multivalent. I teach medieval (and older) literature, so sometimes I’m teaching students how to decode older forms of English: “Whan that Aprille, with his shoures soote,/ the droghte of March hath perced to the roote,” for instance. I’m literally helping students to translate Middle English, so to read in the most basic, meaning-making function.
I also help them read aloud, as performance, and that is a different set of skills–one that depends on them knowing the meaning of everything they are reading. I have them memorize and recite in some classes, and perform dramatic readings in others. This all counts as reading, even if it’s lower on the cognitive scale than other ways of reading.
When I teach reading, I also mean that I help students see the context of where a text was written, and how much that matters to the text. If we understand the context in which a text was written, we can understand it more completely and judge it on its own terms, not just ours. So I teach history, culture, the odd bit of archaeology, and some language study (mostly in the form of recognizing cognate words from other languages and understanding the development of English). All of that contributes to reading well and to transferring those skills to other books after my classes are over. I want students to leave feeling nothing is beyond their reach, or too hard/too old/too foreign to read.
I also want them to read critically and to read aesthetically. That is, I want them to be able to think about a text, explain and articulate what they get out of it, and–I think most importantly–to appreciate and enjoy texts that are foreign-sounding or off-putting at first. It matters very much to me that we learn to see the beauty in things we don’t immediately understand; that we appreciate the humor and experience the wonder of texts from cultures remote from ours in place or time.
I think good reading leads to good citizenship and rich lives, and I teach with an eye to finding connections between texts, times, cultures, and people. And I am grateful for books to read, students to read them with, and colleagues to complete their Linguistic Samurai training.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

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