Journal 1: Thinking about thinking

Prompt for #1: Include a brief summary of all the texts that we engaged with for the week (Bunn, DasBender, Savini) Keep them brief; I want the bulk of your response to be reflective. Try to summarize each reading in a sentence or two, focusing on the main idea(s). Explain how these texts can help you as a “critical thinker” not just in the classroom, but in the world.Read the following quote by Carl Sagan, American astronomer, educator and author (and then answer the question that follows it): “It seems to me what is called for is an exquisite balance between two conflicting needs: the most skeptical scrutiny of all hypotheses that are served up to us and at the same time a great openness to new ideas. Obviously those two modes of thought are in some tension. But if you are able to exercise only one of these modes, whichever one it is, you’re in deep trouble. If you are only skeptical, then no new ideas make it through to you. You never learn anything new. You become a crotchety old person convinced that nonsense is ruling the world. (There is, of course, much data to support you.) But every now and then, maybe once in a hundred cases, a new idea turns out to be on the mark, valid and wonderful. If you are too much in the habit of being skeptical about everything, you are going to miss or resent it, and either way you will be standing in the way of understanding and progress. On the other hand, if you are open to the point of gullibility and have not an ounce of skeptical sense in you, then you cannot distinguish the useful as from the worthless ones.”What is Sagan saying? How does it relate to the articles you have read this week?Once you have finished and posted your response, please reply to two classmates. Make sure your comments to classmates have substance. Online Discussion Requirements: Your post must be a minimum of 350 words. There is no word minimum on peer replies, but you must show that you have engaged with your peers’ responses and not simply said “I agree” or “Great post!” A substantial reply could be anywhere between 50 and 150 words. You are not required, but you are encouraged, to continue replying to one another throughout the weekend. Remember, this is the space for class conversation as we are not together in person. Conversation is where the opening up of perspective really happens.Ad Hominem attacks will not be tolerated. If you disagree with someone, critique the argument, not the person. And do it respectfully and constructively.
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How to Read Like a Writer
Mike Bunn
In 1997, I was a recent college graduate living in London for six months
and working at the Palace Theatre owned by Andrew Lloyd Webber.*
The Palace was a beautiful red brick, four-story theatre in the heart of
London’s famous West End, and eight times a week it housed a threehour performance of the musical Les Miserables. Because of antiquated
fire-safety laws, every theatre in the city was required to have a certain
number of staff members inside watching the performance in case of
an emergency.
My job (in addition to wearing a red tuxedo jacket) was to sit inside
the dark theater with the patrons and make sure nothing went wrong.
It didn’t seem to matter to my supervisor that I had no training in security and no idea where we kept the fire extinguishers. I was pretty
sure that if there was any trouble I’d be running down the back stairs,
leaving the patrons to fend for themselves. I had no intention of dying
in a bright red tuxedo.
There was a Red Coat stationed on each of the theater’s four floors,
and we all passed the time by sitting quietly in the back, reading books
with tiny flashlights. It’s not easy trying to read in the dim light of
a theatre—flashlight or no flashlight—and it’s even tougher with
shrieks and shouts and gunshots coming from the stage. I had to focus
intently on each and every word, often rereading a single sentence several times. Sometimes I got distracted and had to re-read entire para* This work is licensed under the Creative Commons AttributionNoncommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License and is subject to the
Writing Spaces’ Terms of Use. To view a copy of this license, visit http://
creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/3.0/us/ or send a letter to Creative
Commons, 171 Second Street, Suite 300, San Francisco, California, 94105,
USA. To view the Writing Spaces’ Terms of Use, visit http://writingspaces.
org/terms-of-use.
71
72
Mike Bunn
graphs. As I struggled to read in this environment, I began to realize
that the way I was reading—one word at a time—was exactly the
same way that the author had written the text. I realized writing is a
word-by-word, sentence-by-sentence process. The intense concentration required to read in the theater helped me recognize some of the
interesting ways that authors string words into phrases into paragraphs
into entire books.
I came to realize that all writing consists of a series of choices.
I was an English major in college, but I don’t think I ever thought
much about reading. I read all the time. I read for my classes and
on the computer and sometimes for fun, but I never really thought
about the important connections between reading and writing, and
how reading in a particular way could also make me a better writer.
What Does It Mean to Read Like a Writer?
When you Read Like a Writer (RLW) you work to identify some of
the choices the author made so that you can better understand how
such choices might arise in your own writing. The idea is to carefully
examine the things you read, looking at the writerly techniques in the
text in order to decide if you might want to adopt similar (or the same)
techniques in your writing.
You are reading to learn about writing.
Instead of reading for content or to better understand the ideas in
the writing (which you will automatically do to some degree anyway),
you are trying to understand how the piece of writing was put together
by the author and what you can learn about writing by reading a particular text. As you read in this way, you think about how the choices
the author made and the techniques that he/she used are influencing
your own responses as a reader. What is it about the way this text is
written that makes you feel and respond the way you do?
The goal as you read like a writer is to locate what you believe are
the most important writerly choices represented in the text—choices
as large as the overall structure or as small as a single word used only
once—to consider the effect of those choices on potential readers (including yourself). Then you can go one step further and imagine what
different choices the author might have made instead, and what effect
those different choices would have on readers.
How to Read Like a Writer
73
Say you’re reading an essay in class that begins with a short quote
from President Barack Obama about the war in Iraq. As a writer, what
do you think of this technique? Do you think it is effective to begin the
essay with a quote? What if the essay began with a quote from someone
else? What if it was a much longer quote from President Obama, or a
quote from the President about something other than the war?
And here is where we get to the most important part: Would you
want to try this technique in your own writing?
Would you want to start your own essay with a quote? Do you
think it would be effective to begin your essay with a quote from President Obama? What about a quote from someone else?
You could make yourself a list. What are the advantages and disadvantages of starting with a quote? What about the advantages and
disadvantages of starting with a quote from the President? How would
other readers respond to this technique? Would certain readers (say
Democrats or liberals) appreciate an essay that started with a quote
from President Obama better than other readers (say Republicans or
conservatives)? What would be the advantages and disadvantages of
starting with a quote from a less divisive person? What about starting
with a quote from someone more divisive?
The goal is to carefully consider the choices the author made and
the techniques that he or she used, and then decide whether you want
to make those same choices or use those same techniques in your own
writing. Author and professor Wendy Bishop explains how her reading
process changed when she began to read like a writer:
It wasn’t until I claimed the sentence as my area of desire,
interest, and expertise—until I wanted to be a writer writing
better—that I had to look underneath my initial readings .
. . I started asking, how—how did the writer get me to feel,
how did the writer say something so that it remains in my
memory when many other things too easily fall out, how did
the writer communicate his/her intentions about genre, about
irony? (119–20)
Bishop moved from simply reporting her personal reactions to the
things she read to attempting to uncover how the author led her (and
other readers) to have those reactions. This effort to uncover how authors build texts is what makes Reading Like a Writer so useful for
student writers.
74
Mike Bunn
How Is RLW Different from “Normal” Reading?
Most of the time we read for information. We read a recipe to learn
how to bake lasagna. We read the sports page to see if our school won
the game, Facebook to see who has commented on our status update,
a history book to learn about the Vietnam War, and the syllabus to see
when the next writing assignment is due. Reading Like a Writer asks
for something very different.
In 1940, a famous poet and critic named Allen Tate discussed two
different ways of reading:
There are many ways to read, but generally speaking there are
two ways. They correspond to the two ways in which we may
be interested in a piece of architecture. If the building has Corinthian columns, we can trace the origin and development of
Corinthian columns; we are interested as historians. But if we
are interested as architects, we may or may not know about
the history of the Corinthian style; we must, however, know
all about the construction of the building, down to the last
nail or peg in the beams. We have got to know this if we are
going to put up buildings ourselves. (506)
While I don’t know anything about Corinthian columns (and doubt
that I will ever want to know anything about Corinthian columns),
Allen Tate’s metaphor of reading as if you were an architect is a great
way to think about RLW. When you read like a writer, you are trying
to figure out how the text you are reading was constructed so that you
learn how to “build” one for yourself. Author David Jauss makes a
similar comparison when he writes that “reading won’t help you much
unless you learn to read like a writer. You must look at a book the way
a carpenter looks at a house someone else built, examining the details
in order to see how it was made” (64).
Perhaps I should change the name and call this Reading Like an
Architect, or Reading Like a Carpenter. In a way those names make
perfect sense. You are reading to see how something was constructed
so that you can construct something similar yourself.
How to Read Like a Writer
75
Why Learn to Read Like a Writer?
For most college students RLW is a new way to read, and it can be difficult to learn at first. Making things even more difficult is that your
college writing instructor may expect you to read this way for class but
never actually teach you how to do it. He or she may not even tell you
that you’re supposed to read this way. This is because most writing
instructors are so focused on teaching writing that they forget to show
students how they want them to read.
That’s what this essay is for.
In addition to the fact that your college writing instructor may
expect you to read like a writer, this kind of reading is also one of the
very best ways to learn how to write well. Reading like a writer can
help you understand how the process of writing is a series of making
choices, and in doing so, can help you recognize important decisions
you might face and techniques you might want to use when working
on your own writing. Reading this way becomes an opportunity to
think and learn about writing.
Charles Moran, a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, urges us to read like writers because:
When we read like writers we understand and participate in
the writing. We see the choices the writer has made, and we
see how the writer has coped with the consequences of those
choices . . . We “see” what the writer is doing because we read
as writers; we see because we have written ourselves and know
the territory, know the feel of it, know some of the moves ourselves. (61)
You are already an author, and that means you have a built-in advantage when reading like a writer. All of your previous writing experiences—inside the classroom and out—can contribute to your success
with RLW. Because you “have written” things yourself, just as Moran
suggests, you are better able to “see” the choices that the author is
making in the texts that you read. This in turn helps you to think
about whether you want to make some of those same choices in your
own writing, and what the consequences might be for your readers if
you do.
76
Mike Bunn
What Are Some Questions to Ask
Before You Start Reading?
As I sat down to work on this essay, I contacted a few of my former students to ask what advice they would give to college students regarding
how to read effectively in the writing classroom and also to get their
thoughts on RLW. Throughout the rest of the essay I’d like to share
some of their insights and suggestions; after all, who is better qualified
to help you learn what you need to know about reading in college writing courses than students who recently took those courses themselves?
One of the things that several students mentioned to do first, before you even start reading, is to consider the context surrounding both
the assignment and the text you’re reading. As one former student,
Alison, states: “The reading I did in college asked me to go above and
beyond, not only in breadth of subject matter, but in depth, with regards to informed analysis and background information on context.”
Alison was asked to think about some of the factors that went into the
creation of the text, as well as some of the factors influencing her own
experience of reading—taken together these constitute the context of
reading. Another former student, Jamie, suggests that students “learn
about the historical context of the writings” they will read for class.
Writing professor Richard Straub puts it this way: “You’re not going to
just read a text. You’re going to read a text within a certain context, a
set of circumstances . . . It’s one kind of writing or another, designed
for one audience and purpose or another” (138).
Among the contextual factors you’ll want to consider before you
even start reading are:
t
t
Do you know the author’s purpose for this piece of writing?
Do you know who the intended audience is for this piece of
writing?
It may be that you need to start reading before you can answer these
first two questions, but it’s worth trying to answer them before you
start. For example, if you know at the outset that the author is trying to reach a very specific group of readers, then his or her writerly
techniques may seem more or less effective than if he/she was trying
to reach a more general audience. Similarly—returning to our earlier
example of beginning an essay with a quote from President Obama
How to Read Like a Writer
77
about the war in Iraq—if you know that the author’s purpose is to
address some of the dangers and drawbacks of warfare, this may be
a very effective opening. If the purpose is to encourage Americans to
wear sunscreen while at the beach this opening makes no sense at all.
One former student, Lola, explained that most of her reading assignments in college writing classes were designed “to provoke analysis and
criticisms into the style, structure, and purpose of the writing itself.”
In What Genre Is This Written?
Another important thing to consider before reading is the genre of the
text. Genre means a few different things in college English classes, but
it’s most often used to indicate the type of writing: a poem, a newspaper article, an essay, a short story, a novel, a legal brief, an instruction
manual, etc. Because the conventions for each genre can be very different (who ever heard of a 900-page newspaper article?), techniques that
are effective for one genre may not work well in another. Many readers
expect poems and pop songs to rhyme, for example, but might react
negatively to a legal brief or instruction manual that did so.
Another former student, Mike, comments on how important the
genre of the text can be for reading:
I think a lot of the way I read, of course, depends on the type
of text I’m reading. If I’m reading philosophy, I always look
for signaling words (however, therefore, furthermore, despite)
indicating the direction of the argument . . . when I read fiction or creative nonfiction, I look for how the author inserts
dialogue or character sketches within narration or environmental observation. After reading To the Lighthouse [sic] last
semester, I have noticed how much more attentive I’ve become
to the types of narration (omniscient, impersonal, psychological, realistic, etc.), and how these different approaches are utilized to achieve an author’s overall effect.
Although Mike specifically mentions what he looked for while reading
a published novel, one of the great things about RLW is that it can be
used equally well with either published or student-produced writing.
Is This a Published or a Student-Produced Piece of Writing?
As you read both kinds of texts you can locate the choices the author
made and imagine the different decisions that he/she might have made.
78
Mike Bunn
While it might seem a little weird at first to imagine how published
texts could be written differently—after all, they were good enough
to be published—remember that all writing can be improved. Scholar
Nancy Walker believes that it’s important for students to read published work using RLW because “the work ceases to be a mere artifact,
a stone tablet, and becomes instead a living utterance with immediacy
and texture. It could have been better or worse than it is had the author
made different choices” (36). As Walker suggests, it’s worth thinking
about how the published text would be different—maybe even better—if the author had made different choices in the writing because
you may be faced with similar choices in your own work.
Is This the Kind of Writing You Will Be
Assigned to Write Yourself?
Knowing ahead of time what kind of writing assignments you will be
asked to complete can really help you to read like a writer. It’s probably impossible (and definitely too time consuming) to identify all of
the choices the author made and all techniques an author used, so it’s
important to prioritize while reading. Knowing what you’ll be writing
yourself can help you prioritize. It may be the case that your instructor has assigned the text you’re reading to serve as model for the kind
of writing you’ll be doing later. Jessie, a former student, writes, “In
college writing classes, we knew we were reading for a purpose—to
influence or inspire our own work. The reading that I have done in
college writing courses has always been really specific to a certain type
of writing, and it allows me to focus and experiment on that specific
style in depth and without distraction.”
If the text you’re reading is a model of a particular style of writing—for example, highly-emotional or humorous—RLW is particularly helpful because you can look at a piece you’re reading and think
about whether you want to adopt a similar style in your own writing.
You might realize that the author is trying to arouse sympathy in readers and examine what techniques he/she uses to do this; then you can
decide whether these techniques might work well in your own writing.
You might notice that the author keeps including jokes or funny stories and think about whether you want to include them in your writing—what would the impact be on your potential readers?
How to Read Like a Writer
79
What Are Questions to Ask As You Are Reading?
It is helpful to continue to ask yourself questions as you read like a
writer. As you’re first learning to read in this new way, you may want
to have a set of questions written or typed out in front of you that you
can refer to while reading. Eventually …
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