Teaching Critical, Empathetic Reading in the Post-Truth Era | A Conversation with Ellen C. Carillo

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In the past few years, Dr. Ellen C. Carillo, associate professor of English at the University of Connecticut, has emerged as a leading voice on teaching reading within writing studies—a topic that should be of interest to teachers of any discipline involving reading, writing, and critical thinking. Her books include Securing a Place for Reading in Composition: The Importance of Teaching for Transfer (2014), A Writer’s Guide to Mindful Reading (2017), and, forthcoming later this year, The MLA Guide to Digital Literacy. But the book of hers that I think has the broadest appeal is Teaching Readers in Post-Truth America (2018). This book addresses the political situation we find ourselves in at present in the United States, a situation where so much of public discourse has been divorced from reason and ethics. Carillo offers reading—that is to say, teaching students to read critically and empathetically—as a response. She identifies two obstacles: the narrow way in which reading is often taught in college (without adequate attention to emotions) and the even narrower way in which reading is imagined in the Common Core State Standards shaping the K12 education of almost all students currently in college (without attention to what the reader brings to the experience of reading). She also offers ways around these obstacles. It was a delight to chat with Carillo about this book by email.

Corrigan: In the introduction to Teaching Readers in Post-Truth America, you describe feeling some guilt after the 2016 presidential election about the political situation we’re in in the United States, unhinged from reason and civility, because as an English teacher it’s your job to teach such things as ethical and rational discourse, including the use of evidence and credible sources and so forth (p. 3). I really appreciate you saying this because I felt a similar moment of weighty introspection. But I think some teachers would push back against this idea that we’re responsible for this mess. We can only influence students so much. It’s up to our students, in the end, whether to accept or reject patently hateful and false rhetoric, no?

Carillo: I don’t know that teachers are responsible for this mess, but I do think we can do more than perhaps we were doing now that we are in it. I think our current climate has brought into focus the importance of what we do and the consequences if we don’t try to do a better job of it. Certainly students have a role to play in this, as well. Teachers can only do so much, and I wouldn’t want any teachers to think that I am putting the burden on them. But, I do think it is our responsibility not only to teach students about ethical and rational discourse, but to engage them in discussions of why this is important. I think that piece is often missing, and it goes back to what it means to be a citizen in a democracy. Democracies depend upon its citizens to be educated and informed and to engage in ethical and rational dialogue with those who have different and, perhaps, opposing views. I think it’s important in this moment to discuss with students the far-reaching effects of the work we are doing in class. We are not teaching these ways of reading (and being) to only prepare them for their next class or to meet some sort of curriculum standard. The stakes are much higher than that. I think if students begin to see how our course goals are connected to sustaining a fully functioning, healthy democracy, then they may be more willing to take what we are teaching more seriously.

Corrigan: Based on your analysis of the Common Core State Standards, which you find presenting a truncated view of reading, focusing exclusively on the text itself and ignoring the reader and the process of reading, you make suggestions of things secondary school teachers could do in teaching reading. You offer this as another example of college/high school teachers in conversation, an idea I really like (p. 12). But I am imagining a skeptical high school teacher might ask, “You teach college. High school is totally different. What’s your basis for making recommendations for high school?” What would you say to that?

Carillo: I have worked with a lot of high school teachers, and I am consistently impressed by how hard they work, particularly because of the constraints they often work within. My experience has shown me that more than anything high school teachers want to know how to best prepare their students for college-level work, including college-level reading and writing. When I make those recommendations in my book they are in that spirit. That’s not to say that high school teachers have the freedom that college instructors do, but I have found them to be a creative and ingenious group that takes their role seriously, particularly when it comes to preparing juniors and seniors for college. Despite some of the problematic recommendations that the Common Core makes, many high school instructors are already finding ways to offer a more nuanced approach to reading and teaching literature, ways that align better with what goes on in the college classroom. There are some scholars that have gone far beyond what I have said and have recommended that high school teachers refuse to adopt the Common Core in their classrooms. In my mind that’s going too far because in many cases these teachers could lose their jobs for doing so. I like to think that my recommendations offer a more balanced approach to the issue while seeing to it that high school teachers are preparing their students for college-level work.

Corrigan: I am so glad to see you citing Louise Rosenblatt, the theorist who as early as 1938 began publishing groundbreaking books on teaching reading and literature but whose work is often overlooked. What would you say other teachers stand to gain from her?

Carillo: Rosenblatt has long been a touchstone for me because her literary theory puts the reader and the reading experience at its center. She also has always thought of reading as an act of composition (although she doesn’t use that terminology) that occurs in the space—or the transaction—between the reader and the text. Her conceptualization of reading as composing allows teachers to connect reading to writing since the latter is also often described as an act of composition. In addition to providing a grounding theory that allows teachers to connect reading and writing, Rosenblatt provides a vocabulary for thinking about different ways of reading: efferent and aesthetic. We often lump all ways of reading together, simply telling our students to read X, Y, or Z for next class. But we don’t often enough tell them how to read what we assign. Rosenblatt provides teachers with a way to talk to students about different ways of reading, including the role that one’s purpose for reading plays in the act of reading. Finally, it’s also helpful that Rosenblatt is widely known by those in literary studies, as well as in composition/rhetoric. This creates important common ground for instructors from these different fields who often find themselves in the same department teaching the same students.

Corrigan: I want to run by you an idea I had while reading your book. In Chapter 3, which I take to be the heart of the book, you critique teaching, including your own teaching in the past, that “remains staunchly in the cognitive or rational domain,” rather than attending to the emotional or affective realm as well (p. 42). You go on to make a strong case for attending to emotion in our teaching, particularly in teaching reading. One important facet of your argument is that thinking and feeling are, scientists tell us, intertwined, and so any pedagogy that wants to attend to thinking effectively must also attend to feeling. Before I read your book, I was pondering how to design a first-year writing course around the concept of Fake News. The problem I was running into is that I know many students will not automatically be interested in the steps for determining fallacies, credibility, and so forth. Some may find it interesting, but many would not be very engaged by that. But after reading your book and being reminded of the importance of emotion, I have thought of an expanded method to teach students about Fake News. Instead of starting and ending with the tools for verifying the accuracy of some bit of news or of an accusation of “fake news,” I want to teach students to pause and to seek out the stories of the people behind the news and then, after having encountered those stories, whether through a poem or a documentary or a conversation with someone affected by the issue, they will hopefully have an emotional investment in doing a proper job of sorting out the lies. They will care. Then they will be ready to take up the analysis of fallacies and so forth. Do you think such an approach aligns with the argument you’re making? Do you have any suggestions for me?

Carillo: I like this idea, and I think it aligns in particular with my discussion of the importance of empathic reading. What you are describing involves asking students to take a step back to understand the person behind the news, where that person is coming from, what that person’s worldview is, and so on. By focusing only on someone’s argument or position, our students don’t always engage with the worldview or values that underlie that argument or make that position possible. As such, students may agree or disagree with the argument or position, but they don’t have a complex or deep understanding of it. The assignment you are describing asks students to engage in this complex, but necessary work.

Corrigan: Your book pitches reading as a response to the post-truth situation we face in the US (pp. 7, 94). I really like that, in part because I value reading so much and in part because this specific argument for reading surprises me. The argument I would expect someone to make in this situation would be to pitch research skills or information literacy skills or training in identifying fallacies or biases. Of course, all of those involve reading and reading might include any of them. But your focus on reading itself is very purposeful. Why do you propose reading as a response to our post-truth situation?

Carillo: In my forthcoming handbook, The MLA Guide to Digital Literacy (2019), I do pitch research skills, which are important, but what separates that book from others and from the kind of pedagogy you are describing is that it spends a significant amount of time on the practice of reading. While it is tempting, particularly in this climate, to focus exclusively on what you describe—teaching students to judge the credibility of publications and authors as they conduct their searches, as well as how to recognize bias during these searches—we often neglect to directly, consistently, and deliberately teach students how to read those sources once they find them, how to work closely with the complex ideas in them. Reading is and always has been at the center of the research process, but it is often obscured by other practices. If students can’t understand, analyze, synthesize and engage with credible sources—if they can’t read them—then what good are their abilities to locate them?

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