Critical Reading in the Humanities
What is “critical reading” for the humanities? For any given discipline in the humanities, each instructor over time develops a working idea of the kinds of goals, procedures, and strategies involved in it. As scholars we all internalize some procedures, and we sometimes don’t realize that our less advanced students lack this procedural knowledge. It needs to be made explicit for most of them.
“Reading” is a highly generic term for many students; they don’t necessarily understand that instructional purpose, genre, and strategy are involved. To many, to read is to decode the surface meaning and try to remember it. They may additionally look for something to criticize or to form a personal opinion about, but in the humanities this can be frustrating because they may harbor a vague sense that the “great works” of literature and art or the great turns of historical events require a sublime sensibility they must either have, or pretend to have, or pick up from their instructors. What many students find empowering is to learn that study and criticism in the humanities are more about concrete objects, skills they can develop, and networks of meaning they can learn about and learn to construct.
Students need to develop greater range and flexibility in their engagement with literature, art, history, and culture. They tend to try to fit whatever new ideas they’re reading with things they already think rather than letting the “other” be “other” on its own terms. For example, they may so insist on using the popular and familiar terms of a debate that they have trouble grasping a text that introduces different terms or a different paradigm. So they may think they see things in a text that aren’t “there” to a reader with different expectations. They make what connections they can.
This is not a bad situation; it’s a starting point. Students must work forward from where they are. They need both to connect the material to their current understanding and to allow the new material to help them reshape their evolving understanding into new schemas.
The sheer volume of their reading load can hinder students’ critical development as readers. Instructors often assign a large volume of reading material that many students can’t realistically process without some well-informed strategies. This leaves them to come up with “economies of effort” that may derail the instructional purpose of the reading. For example, students may go to the internet to find auxiliary material to supplement (or reduce the challenge of) the main reading, and then become reluctant to engage with the skill building and the terms of discussion the instructor is introducing.
Suggestions for Teaching
In the first class meeting, provide a brief text, musical piece, or image for students to analyze. If you introduce a text, keep the passage down to two pages or less. Model the kinds of questions you ask when you analyze such a text or image. Help students begin to articulate what’s curious to them. Guide this discussion in the direction of some important tips you’ve thought through beforehand.
Provide this set of tips to students to take with them as they do their first analytical reading assignment. Let them know what kind of text they’ll be reading, a few essential questions to ask, and what good websites they can use for reference. (As a point of departure you may want to look at an example developed by a GSI in English that does a great job orienting students to reading practices relevant to her particular course.)
Return to these tips and expand on them frequently through the semester. Keep the students focused on performing the procedures until they’re second nature to them. Although flexibility of thought is the ultimate goal, the practices constitute an important step toward flexibility.
Let students know that there’s a lot more to reading than decoding content. Show them a few different kinds of texts and demonstrate, briefly, that reading a poem, reading a chapter of a novel, and reading a critical article are quite different activities — there’s some overlap, but each has its own set of characteristics. Introduce the ideas of genre and strategy.
Much of what happens in humanities sections is “class discussion.” Some students approach class discussion as a performance venue for ready talkers to sound smart. To even the field for all students, it helps to define with students what class discussion is supposed to accomplish: something along the lines of an exploration and collaborative analysis of a text. In other words, try to cultivate a supportive classroom setting in which students can join in the processes of reading, questioning, misprision, adjustment, and location of cruxes without any negative judgment of the participants.
A hallmark of a UC Berkeley education is learning to do independent analysis and evaluation of primary sources. Let students know that whatever sorts of “helps” or summaries they find on the internet or elsewhere will be no better than what they can come up with themselves with a bit of work — and that the ability to do this work is a major objective of their UC Berkeley education.