Monday, May 9, 2011

The Self-Directed Student of Literature

I recently completed listening to the audiobook version of a biography of Isaac Newton by James Gleick. I was both impressed and disappointed over Newton's life and his tactics. On the one hand, he exemplified the life of an autodidact, someone who taught himself and was continuously engaged in attentive learning. On the other, he often delayed publishing his work, or worked in secrecy, paying too much attention to issues of prestige and academic politics.

But I'm glad I read / listened to the book, and this has spurred me on to read other books both about the Enlightenment and books by James Gleick. Recommended by a friend, Gleick's The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood is now on my to-read list. I have lots of books on that list, and I face the same problem described by Ben Wagner, that my lists of things to read grow much more quickly than my capacity to read them. (This all started because of a post by Nyssa Silvester in response to an NPR piece about never being able to read everything that you want to.)

So, does an institution direct your reading of literature, or do you?

This is the question that I want to ask of literature majors within undergraduate programs. There is a tendency to trust the curriculum to guide one's reading. And there are reasons to respect majors, survey courses, and even well curated book lists like this one. But even at that, there are too many classes to take, and too many books on that huge list. I think most students end up selecting a major, and then classes within that major, but in general they largely turn over to the institution and its personnel the daunting task of choosing which books will actually consume the attention for so much of their time at college.

The great irony in this for English majors is that it is usually a deep love of independent reading which leads them to a major that requires them to sacrifice literary exploration. Instead of being fun, reading becomes a chore.

The flip side of this is that lots of people can idealize self-directed literary learning, only to find that unless they submit to some kind of course or curriculum -- something that puts something at stake like grades and accreditation -- they simply won't do the self-directed reading they want to do.

As a teacher of literature, one that is very concerned about possibly propagating a system in which students skills in self-directed literary learning atrophy in the act of getting certified in literary studies, I ask myself, How can I lead my students toward authentic, self-directed learning? How do I train habits that will continue beyond the brief weeks of the current course? 

I don't have all of the answers, but I do believe I have discovered one key factor: making self-directed learning social. This can help to recuperate the joy of self-directed reading. As students share their insights and make connections with other people who share their literary tastes, it can ignite a desire to delve deeper -- both into the books and into the social webs that form around good books. I know it isn't everything, but I know it is something.

That's why I'm requiring my students to create accounts in Goodreads (or comparable social book networks). Hopefully, this will spark longer-term action in literary pursuits precisely because of the interaction that's baked into the package.

Manuscript for Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle
flickr-OctopusHat (creative commons licensed)
Here's how the social nature of book reading that we can tap into online has kept me in the game. I glanced down the page on Goodreads for the Isaac Newton biography, and found that one of the reviewers, Brett Miller, came to this book by way of Neal Stephenson's series, the Baroque Cycle. The first book in that series, Quicksilver, included Enlightenment thinkers like Newton.

Wait! I'd heard of that book and that series. A friend of mine had talked it up and even loaned me the hardback of Quicksilver. Then, when visiting the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in Seattle last year, I saw the actual manuscript of Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, a huge stack of 8 1/2 x 11 paper (that he'd actually penned these novels onto -- wow). Anyway, my point is that I continued by self-directed reading about the Enlightenment (I downloaded the audiobook and started "reading" it) once I had gotten some "social proof" through recommendations like these.

Well, not only did I start reading Quicksilver, but on Goodreads I checkout out Brett Miller, using the "compare books" feature. It turned out we had 10 books in common and that our ratings aligned at 87%. In other words, I am likely to like other books he's found. I'm anxious both to read his other recommendations and to share my own back.

Oh, as a bit of a side note, while searching for the picture above (of the manuscript of Stephenson's Baroque Cycle), this search took me to the blog or one Ryan Grier, whom I do not know, but who posted about starting Quicksilver a month ago and also listed other books by Stephenson that I know and have read. Another potential reading buddy!

My point: once you put your reading into a social context, it can propel you toward self-directed reading program that is both personally and socially enjoyable. Goodreads is not the only way to do this; but it is a good way.

1 comment:

  1. I'm glad you posted this. I can totally vouch for goodreads and how much more effective it is for reading to be social. I am goodreads friends with people who I've only met through their blogs; with people I've met in classes; and with friends of friends who I've discovered share similar book interests to me. Some of these people are MUCH better self-directed readers than I am.

    I have two friends who are part of a reading community that encourages each other to read a book about a specific topic each month and a certain (rather large) amount of books every year and to review them for each other both on blogs, goodreads, etc. Then they have to list out what they did to fulfill those challenges on their blogs. It's incredible how much these women are reading and how much of a social act it is even though they live much too far apart for an actual book club. I plan to join their little community for a while during the summer and then again after I graduate this year (believe you me, it would more than double the reading I do as an English major).