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.

This article has 6 Comments

  1. As someone who teaches composition regularly, I appreciate the reference to Salvatori’s article. I’ll certainly be getting a copy and reading it, too.

    As someone who edits and maintains ProfHacker, the site from which you’ve linked the above image, I have to make two observations about your use of the image:

    We’ll be making some changes in the next few weeks that will break your link to the image, so if you could upload it to your own server (or link it from its origin on Flickr) that would probably be better for the longterm digital health of this post.
    The image should be attributed to Flickr user Cobra Libre, who originally posted it with a Creative Commons license that specifies anyone who reuses it should include an attribution statement.

  2. Hello, George. Thanks for the heads up. I love, love, love ProfHacker! I’ve already provided a link and comment to Monday’s post “University Presses Embrace Electronic Publishing?” at your site. It will appear in this Friday’s “Diggidenda” post here on Digital Bibliography.

    And sorry for not adequately crediting the image. You’re right. I should have made a more clear reference to the picture’s source in the post. I figured that linking the picture directly back to the source would have been enough, but that was probably informed by the fact that it was a little easier for me to do it that way. As always, reader comments are helping to make this a better blog (and to keep me honest!)

  3. Yo T,

    I find the last sentence of section 2a to be the most interesting portion of your post. Maybe because I’ve heard the rest of it from you before!

    It seems to be that in one way, your argument that teachers should “consider the material/physical aspects of a students’ reading processes as an additional factor affecting the “difficulty” of a text” provides a possible answer to ideas you are presenting in section 1a and on the other hand it speaks back to the complications you raise in the same section.

    I, to use one of your phrases, “totally totally agree with you” that we need to make the material/physical aspects of reading/writing more visible to our students and need to draw connections between physical/material reading. So, the most obvious answer is to (in addressing 1a) invite students to bring all of their “material/physical” reading practices into the classroom. To be generous to Salvatori’s work, though, her focus is primarily in offering students strategies on how to approach a text (assumed to be the same for everyone). So, now my most obvious reaction to the idea of inviting all these reading practices into the classroom is to say, “No, we all need to do be working with the text in the same physical format.” And we all know that usually takes the form of traditional, printed copy (at least in my class!)

    So, there’s the desire to invite in the actual “material/physical” reading practices that students actually use (and are too various to count). There’s the counter-desire to offer some form of sameness for the sake of focusing on the strategies to read the text. But, then there’s the counter-counter argument that the strategies are contextual to the physical/material conditions. And from there, questions arise along the lines of “OK, if I have them do it one way, will they be able to reconceptualize the strategy for their own purposes?” I almost just used the word transfer, but I think that would, in this context of digital/physical/material, border on offering the idea of linear application.

    You know me (we’ve been friends for awhile even if you don’t want to admit it), so you know my interest is in the strategy. This focus is to the poin where, as a teacher, I want students dealing with the (same) physical, printed text. I want to believe that I can exclude issues of the material in favor of focusing on the strategy/approach. But, I’m pretty convinced that’s not how it should work. But to make it work any other way is to invite the complications you point out in 1a.

    While more might not be better, is avoiding the physical/material just as not useful? I feel like I’m caught in a tension where I want to bring these difficulties related to the physical/material to the surface in my class, I just don’t want doing so to get in the way of the strategies I teach! Although, clearly, the physical/material is already present in the strategies even if I don’t want to admit it.

    I think I’ve completed my circular journey now. I’ll be getting out of here now…

    Thanks for writing a blog I could respond to.

  4. Wow, Dowell. This is a thoughtful and impressive response. And one to which I will be writing a substantial response. But I won’t be able to get to it until tomorrow. Might even offer it up as a new entry. I’ll message you when I post it. Thanks again. I’m still waiting for you to find a way to contribute a guest entry to Digital Bibliography. Hoping. Waiting. And by Saturday eve, having a nice glass of wine with you and CW. Soon, then. T.

  5. Dowell,

    (Sorry to take so long to get back to you on this response. Louisville Conference is over, now, and I can give your comment to attendant response it deserves. And thanks again for taking the time to post!)

    I sense in your response that you might be a little anxious about the level of complexity (confusion) that some of my potential strategies might produce (such a provisional statement!). Having students bring in laptops, kindles, copies with one page per sheet, with two pages per sheet, or needing to work in a lab to accommodate students who work on desktops only. And then having some of them marking up with Acrobat, or another sort of PDF reader. Some underlining, some highlighting, some dropping notes into the document margins, some writing notes at the end of the document. Some using pop-up notes. Some notes appearing over the text. Some students taking notes away from the text, as storing them elsewhere: notebook, voice recording, OneNote, Evernote, Txt file, Word file, etc. And this list is missing way more options than it actually contains. I can certainly understand an instructor’s hesitance to allow for the actual practices students enact to engage their texts. To tell you the truth, your note has even raised my own anxiety level about the possible implications of my proposed pedagogies.

    And about your mention of “transfer,” my reluctance to the term is minimal, provided it operates within specific meanings. I haven’t read much on the idea of transfer in our discipline, so feel free to recommend something, but it seems that transfer is inherent in any classroom. Unless we’re teaching students only to be really good at performing in the classroom, there’s got to be at least a smidgen of transfer assumed. Although there are plenty of contentious debates about what sorts of knowledges/skills/practices are preferable or even possible in our classrooms, I don’t think it’s possible to talk about the value of what we do without acknowledging that we DO commerce in it to some degree. I just think it’s important that anytime it becomes relevant to our arguments, we are explicit about the types and degree of transfer we’re assuming. So your gesture toward print as representative/introduction to other textual engagement strategies does have serious merit. Certainly worth talking more about.

    Maybe this is me trying to establish some middle ground, or at least meet you there. I think the paper-ink strategies, where everyone has the same book or the same photocopies could work. Really well, actually. But in my own classroom, I could only approach it this way if I carved out significant space in classroom discussions for how this particular strategy might galvanize some other strategies that students do, actually, enact. I still say that it’s limited in the ways I’ve articulated in the post above, but not necessarily to the degree I first suggested.

    On the other hand it might be interesting to allow for a variety of textual engagement strategies, but to limit those options. Maybe print-ink, Acrobat, and notes in an associated text file. Or maybe just the first two. Then we could have lively discussions about the affordances/drawbacks/demands of each method.

    So there are TWO patches of middle ground for us to cultivate. But there’s one more point I want to acknowledge/admit-to about my original post…

    I don’t have a single criticism of Salvatori’s argument or pedagogy given it’s own context (read: early-to-mid ‘90s). However, it’s a much, much different pedagogical move to adopt a print-ink-marginalia strategy now in the context of increasingly digital-and-networked universities. There can be all sorts of reasons to adopt Salvatori’s practices as-is, but I’d be a little curious, at least, as to what would motivate an instructor to do so. Obviously, you’ve articulated some very good reasons in your own comment above, and there are many others that are just as good. I would hope that an instructor who does adopt these practices would be as thoughtful as you as to their own motivation.

    … Okay, I’ll just get to. I fear that some instructors would employ this method for reasons I don’t find very valid. Maybe because this is how they, themselves engage the text, so they privilege it in a way that’s not necessarily useful to twenty-first century students. Maybe they’re unaware of other practices students are employing to engage texts. Maybe they don’t want to learn these alternatives. Maybe because they’ve just always talked with students about it this way. None of these suspicions are very generous. I’ll admit it. I just feel like it needs to be said.

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