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December 1, 2013
Vol. 71
No. 4

Reading As Wedding Crashing

Grappling with difficult texts—it's like trying to get your bearings in bewildering surroundings. Here are some strategies that can help.

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Near the beginning of the 2005 movie Wedding Crashers, John (Owen Wilson) and Jeremy (Vince Vaughn) contemplate crashing the wedding of the secretary of the treasury's oldest daughter: "We've never crashed anything like this! Five hundred single women! Three live bands! Oysters!" Because this is a clear step up for them, they review some of the wisdom passed on from their friend Chazz (Will Farrell), a veteran who has since moved on to crashing funerals. One of his rules was "toast the couple in their native language—only if you know the native language." (Jeremy had attempted a toast in Hindi—with embarrassing results.)
The art (and challenge) of crashing is to appear at ease in situations in which we don't belong, to which we have not been invited. It's an act of impersonation, of seeming to know things you don't know. It's knowing just enough to get by, to pass. Compared with the invited guests, the crasher has a much tougher cognitive task: to quickly figure out the dynamics of the scene; who's with the bride, the groom; the dynamics of the in-laws-to-be; the backstory.
I believe that "impersonation" is central to the act of reading difficult texts. As we read, we are always crashing parties that were not created for us. The more willing we are to invite ourselves in, the better learners, and readers, we will become.
Reading is a performance: The writer invites us to take a role that may be familiar to his or her typical reading community, but unfamiliar to others, who must pretend (or crash). No writer can begin from scratch, explaining every term, providing a context for every point. Much of this background knowledge has to be assumed. I hold that the mismatch between the reader's assumed knowledge and his or her actual prior knowledge is the greatest source of difficulty.

Complex—Or Difficult?

The term text complexity begins to get at this reading problem. The recent focus on challenging texts is a positive direction, although it seems to me the real issue is not complexity but difficulty: What makes a text hard to read, and what can we do to help students?
A number of relatively "simple" texts—for example, some of William Carlos Williams's poems—would be baffling to readers with no experience reading modern poetry. And, although many people find them daunting, I have little difficulty reading complex submissions to research journals because I have been reading them all my professional life. (Directions to our new widescreen TV are a very different matter.) So simple texts can be difficult, and complex texts can be easy—which is why reading-level formulas can only take us so far. The key is the ease or difficulty of taking on the role the writer has created for us. Are we invited guests or crashers? Or something in between?
As I see it, there are two major kinds of difficulty, and it is important to keep them straight. Let's call Difficulty 1 Bad Writing. There's a lot of it out there. With bad writing, even the intended audience has trouble. It takes forever to get to the point; the writer overuses passive constructions; key terms or acronyms go unexplained. Often, the writer is too much in his or her own head. There is no selectivity in presenting the findings, as if each piece of data is precious and cannot be omitted. We have death by information.
Irritating as Difficulty 1 can be, it's not the type of problem most students face when they confront a difficult text. In most cases, the problem—Difficulty 2—is a deep un familiarity with the genre, conventions, vocabulary, and even the issues raised. Students are not part of the audience being addressed; they may even have trouble appreciating the purpose behind the writing. Or they are un prepared for the attentional demands of the text, particularly texts written in previous eras. When students confront Difficulty 2, they often react to the text as if it were simply bad, boring, "academic" writing.
To make matters worse, these texts are often assigned, at least in college, by instructors who are deeply familiar with this type of writing. They misjudge its difficulty and assume knowledge of reference points that students don't have. ("You mean you don't know who Joseph McCarthy was?") Even an event so present in our minds as the September 11, 2001, destruction of the World Trade Center does not exist as a clear memory for current first-year college students, who were only 5 or 6 years old when it happened.

Readers—Left Behind

Typically, students read selections from an anthology, to the point where the anthology seems a natural, inevitable source. But the anthology lifts pieces from their original context.
Let's take as an example Nicholas Carr's widely read 2008 essay, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" which appeared in The Atlantic. Readers of this magazine will recognize the genre. The essay takes a provocative and contrarian view on a contemporary issue, includes a range of personal and scholarly sources, and anticipates a reader who will stay with it for about 30 minutes. The readership of The Atlantic is older (probably over 40) and college educated, so writers can feel confident that references to Rachel Carson or Reinhold Niebuhr won't need identifiers.
What typically happens is that an essay like Carr's is removed from its Atlantic context and is presented to students who have never read or perhaps never heard of The Atlantic—and who rarely read opinion pieces of remotely that length. Carr's opening paragraph is a reference to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey:
"Dave, stop. Stop, will you? Stop, Dave. Will you stop, Dave?" So the super computer HAL pleads with the implacable astronaut Dave Bowman in a famous and weirdly poignant scene toward the end of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Bowman, having nearly been sent to a deep-space death by the malfunctioning machine, is calmly, coldly disconnecting the memory circuits that control its artificial "brain." "Dave, my mind is going," HAL says, forlornly. "I can feel it. I can feel it."I can feel it, too.
Nothing that hard about this opening, right? To someone from my generation, the movie is a cultural landmark. I recall the scene and feel expertly addressed as an audience.
But 18-year-olds? Their landmarks are the Twilight saga, Hangover, and, well, Wedding Crashers. When I presented this article to a class of college freshman, few of my students, with the exception of some space adventure geeks, had heard of Kubrick's film. This scene was not "famous" to them—it was unknown. So right from the start, a student audience has to be willing to impersonate the obviously older audience the piece was intended for, a problem my students had with the entire essay.
Carr's major lament is that the sustained reading habits he developed before the coming of the Internet were being eroded, that his attention span has shortened as a result of this new technology. But my students had trouble assessing the seriousness of Carr's argument because they have lived with the Internet and digital technology all their lives. This loss, if it actually is a loss, was not a live issue for them. (They also found Carr to be something of a whiner.) In other words, they felt unaddressed.
I was also unprepared for the difficulty that the length of Carr's essay presented to students. Here is how one of them described his reading process:
It took me slightly under an hour to read this short article. It wasn't because I lacked interest or was trying to multi task. I just couldn't focus on it for very long. I found myself drifting away from the words about every paragraph and thinking about a multitude of different things. At one point I even started rolling around my room in my office chair, completely lost in thought. I would then realize I was distracted, return to the article, and reread what had not registered. This is the case when I read anything.
Even though this student's response supports Carr's point (as he acknowledges), I was blindsided by the difficulty students had—as if I were asking out-of-shape runners to do a set of quarter miles.

How to Crash a Text

If I were to pick a college anthology that consistently presents first-year students with difficult texts, the choice would easily be Ways of Reading: An Anthology for Writers, now in its 10th edition. First-year students are asked to read long and challenging texts by authors that include Paulo Freire, Edward Said, Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, and David Foster Wallace. (You know all of them, right? If not, you are pretending up, a basic crashing strategy.)
We can get a sense of this challenge in the short opening paragraph to the Freire (2011) selection, "The 'Banking' Concept of Education." Note the spots in these 62 words that would puzzle an 18-year-old reader:
A careful analysis of the teacher-student relationship at any level, inside or outside of school, reveals its fundamentally narrative character. This relation ship involves a narrating Subject (the teacher) and patient, listening objects (the students). The contents, whether values or empirical dimensions of reality, tend in the process of being narrated to become lifeless and petrified. Education is suffering from narration sickness. (p. 318)
The reader would probably know most of the words in the selection, with the possible exception of empirical. But the words themselves are used in a way that is unfamiliar. Students would most likely assume that narrative and narration refer to literature or stories and that Subject refers to a school course; they would surely be unfamiliar with the subject-object dichotomy in Western philosophy that Freire invokes. And, like most readers (including me), they would have no idea why Subject is capitalized and object is not.
To the extent that students understand that Freire is criticizing one-way communication in education, they may well reject his claim that this is the norm. At this stage in their college careers, many consider themselves successful students—and many feel they owe that success to teachers. For the most part, they do not consider their own education "lifeless and petrified." This kind of broad, unqualified, and initially unsupported generalization is exactly the kind of assertion they have been taught to avoid. They are off-balance from the start.
So let's play friend Chazz from Wedding Crashers and offer some principles for crashing. We might take a cue from the Gene Kranz character (played by Ed Harris) in the film Apollo 13 (my last movie analogy, I promise). At the point in the movie where there's a cascade of mal functions, Kranz asks, "What's good?" In other words, Is anything working? And he redirects the efforts of the ground crew. Now if students ask the same thing here—What's working?—they can make a start.
So what makes sense in these 62 words from Frire's text?
Well, the essay is about education and about what Freire thinks is wrong with it. Can we assume that this is the dramatic core of the piece—the un productive relationship of teachers to students? And if we assume that narrating is the same as talking, it means that teachers talk too much and that students listen passively. Further, we can assume that Freire will probably go on to explain why this happens, what damage is done, and what we can do about it. That's probably enough to go on.
This advice is similar to that given by Ella Baff (n.d.), the executive director of Jacob's Pillow, a national center for contemporary dance. She reminds us that in foreign countries (like in modern dance) we have resources for understanding:
You may feel ignorant not knowing the language, but relax: You packed your instinct, intelligence, interpretive skills, and curiosity. Let the work you see on stage happen rather than trying to make it happen. A dance will often reveal its own rules about how it should be "read" if you are attentive and patient. You may not know a particular dance tradition, form, choreography, or company, but you are already equipped with tools that translate in new territory. No passport required.
The same goes for reading a difficult text. We enter it with tools and knowledge to help us make our way. We have to trust them.
A few key crashing strategies can help students with difficult texts:
  • Pay careful attention to the title and opening paragraphs. The harder the text, the more important to enter it slowly.
  • Identify what you think is the central conflict or point of the writer. He or she is addressing some problem, challenging some position. This dramatic center can be a touchstone for the reading. What is at stake in the text?
  • Identify key words and work to understand them. Look for key metaphors, like "banking," an apt metaphor for education in the Freire article because the author considers teachers as depositors and students as depositories. Authors spend a lot of time finding the right metaphors, so pay attention to them.
  • Give yourself time to read the text. Reread it if possible. If not, reread key parts. Beginnings and endings are usually crucial.
  • Develop a system for marking. For example, question mark = confusion, star = key point, —al line = useful summary. Scrap the highlighter.
  • Accept the fact that you may not understand some parts. It's not your fault. It happens to all readers. Bluff and pretend.
The most helpful advice I ever received came when I was a freshman at Oberlin College. A psychology professor told us that a key part of studying was recognizing when your energy or attention level was used up, that to persist beyond that point was often unproductive. As Daniel Kahneman notes in Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011), we actually use up a lot of glucose when we have to be this deliberate. Better to monitor our efficiency and take a break, then come back in a better state of mind. It is so easy—so easy!—to shift into an inattentive drifting state.
I have even applied that principle to hiking in the White Mountains. There is usually a point in any serious hike when the grade shifts or when it becomes rocky and difficult. Suddenly I find that I'm getting out of breath, my legs are heavy, and I'm sweating more. Even my balance seems off because of the fatigue. A competitive part of my brain urges me on.
But I've learned to silence it. I stop frequently if that's what I need to do to get my breath back. I experience two beneficial consequences from this attention to fatigue. By stopping, I enjoy the hike more because many of these steep sections are the most spectacular. And I feel in control. Paradoxically, I feel even more powerful by stopping. If I can control my fatigue, I can hike anything.
The same goes for reading. By monitoring our effectiveness and not pushing beyond our limits, we can handle harder texts.

An Outsider's Insights

It is easy to feel that as outsiders, we are at a disadvantage, but as Wedding Crashers illustrates, the crasher has powerful advantages. As boundary crossers, travelers, trespassers, we can go anywhere, learn from anybody.
We don't need an invitation. We live by our wits, by our quick recognition of situations. We have the tools to worm our way in, and once we are in, we can sometimes see what insiders cannot always see—in the case of the Wedding Crashers, what an absolute loser Secretary Cleary's middle daughter, Claire, is about to marry.
The more we crash, the more confident we become. But a toast in Hindi may be pushing it.
References

Baff, E. (n.d). Invitation to the dance. Beckett, MA: Jacob's Pillow Dance. Retrieved from www.jacobspillow.org/festival/SeeingDanceTalkingDanceinsertJuly1.pdf

Carr, N. (2008, July 1). Is Google making us stupid? What the Internet is doing to our brains. The Atlantic. Retrieved from www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/07/is-google-making-us-stupid/306868

Freire, P. (2011). The "banking" concept of education. In D. Bartholomae & A. Petrosky (Eds.), Ways of reading: An anthology for writers (pp. 318–328). Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's.

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Thomas Newkirk has contributed to educational leadership.

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