Reading, Writing, Marking, & Difficulty: Re-Reading Salvatori in Light of Digital Writing Practices

At tomorrow’s pedagogy workshop here on campus (2.17.10), we’ll be reading and discussing Mariolina Salvatori’s College English article “Conversations with Texts: Reading in the Teaching of Composition” (1996). While acknowledging that I’m oversimplifying, I want to mention four important points in the article, and think through them (now, 14 years later) in terms of pedagogy inflected by digital writing tools. Salvatori herself describes the project of her article as “an argument on behalf of the theoretical and practical appropriateness of using ‘reading’ as a means of teaching ‘writing'” (441). Within this frame, she works through several related ideas; I’d like to think though the following four:

1. One of the activities she often asks students to work through is to reflect on their own mark-making practices as active readers of a text, and then to consider what those marks – the nature of the marks, what gets marked, what doesn’t–might reveal about knowledge-making practices, reading, and writing.

2. Another activity she asks her students to engage in is to describe and analyze the difficulty that certain texts present in reading. What moves are difficult to engage, what types of knowledge or warrants are challenging, etc. Then students can reflect on their process by sharing it with other students/teacher and offer a more concrete, specific strategy for reflecting on reading and writing practices.

3. She characterizes one composite description of types of resistance as that of “creative writing” students. (She’s much more tactful and articulate than my representation of her). She suggests that while this orientation often results in rich reflections on acquisition of literacy skills, it also is usually accompanied by a resistance by students to reflect on or inquire into specific processes of meaning-making.

4. Another type of resistance she characterizes as the cultural studies critique, which warns against the dangers of avoiding discussions of race, gender, politics, economics, etc by focusing too much on notions of coherent, autonomous subjectivity and the unlikelihood of approaching the description of reading/writing processes with much veracity.

I want to think through some of these ideas in terms of a variety of contemporary digital writing practices. But before I do that, I should probably foreground some assumptions I’m making about her text. First, she’s not really clear on what sorts of texts these activities might be appropriate for. Really the only thing we have to go on is the mention of a couple of novels and short stories, and the mention of student highlighting/marginalia. So I’m thinking that she’s working with traditional literary texts or various types of articles. The other assumption here, and it only LOOKS like an assumption when, 15 years later, paper is less the default medium for reading than it used to be. I certainly hope you don’t read these as criticisms. Now… my initial responses, followed by a bit of reflection on my own response and assumptions.

1a. The idea of making marks on texts has changed significantly in academic contexts in the last 15 years. There’s nothing wrong with asking students to print out a chapter or article for class discussion. But I do think it’s important to consider that print-paper and pen is only one of many options that students have to engage their texts. And often it is not the cheapest or most convenient. My guess is that Salvatori would be must more interested in these options than investigating only the print-paper version. But that’s only conjecture. Most students will get their texts (if other than a bound book) via the web as an electronic file of some sort. PDF’s. Kindles. ePub. Web pages, electronic textbooks, etc. Mark making practices on each of these media is highly variable and idiosyncratic. I’m not sure if situation renders Salvatori’s exercise more or less practical or revealing. Focusing on paper-only would eliminate MOST reading practices, as would the decision to focus on any one method of reading/marking. Is, then, a polyphony or practices more practical? I’m not so sure. Would seeing other students’ practices with alternative technologies encourage students a more contextualized understanding of their own practices? Or is there a danger that students would dismiss the alternatives as reasonable and respectable, but ultimately not their own? And then there’s always the difficulty in finding ways for students to document and share their practices. So, in a collaborative context, I’m not sure Salvatori’s exercise is as germane as it used to be, but in terms of getting students to reflect on their own practices, it still seems to have much, much potential.

2a. I’m not sure that the emergence of subsequent technologies has really affected the efficacy of Salvatori’s “difficulty” exercise. I think it’s actually great. The only new inflection I would add would be to consider the material/physical aspects of a students’ reading processes as an additional factor affecting the “difficulty” of a text.

3a and 4a. Salvatori wonders about the source of resistances from the “creative writing” and “cultural studies” camps. To this question, I would encourage scholars and students to reflect on the impulse and implications of the rise of collaborative technologies, software alternatives to traditional word processing activities, and the ways mobile technologies have illustrated the powerful influences exerted by hardware, portability, and networking on the nature and types of texts we produce in different contexts. Conversations about the importance (or even the construction of) “literacy” initiatives and “the digital divide,” or the impact mobile phones have on the ways we consume and generate content, or the ways increasing bandwidth have have fostered the development of simple tools for the production and distribution of multimedia texts. Discussions might even range so far as to as if writing is becoming so ubiquitous as to disappear from conscious reflection altogether.

At this point, I guess I’ve concluded that although in its specific attention to paper-print marking, Salvatori’s text is a little dated, it’s still extremely valuable in offering a framework (and theoretical background) through which to engage students in reflecting on their own reading/writing practices.

Salvatori, Mariolina. “Conversations with Texts: Reading in the Teaching of Composition” College English 58.4 (1996) 440-454.

Image Credits: Thanks to Cobra Libre, whose image “Ulysses, James Joyce” appears via Flickr. License: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic.