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Reading as Interpretation Excerpt

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on November 17, 2011 at 11:36:09 am

Meaning-Making Concepts

Barbara Bird, Taylor University



Reading as Interpretation

The concept of reading as interpretation is foundational to meaning making. Writers must interpret, not merely apprehend, the texts they read in order to generate a meaningful response that actually contributes to verbal culture conversations. Basic writers tend to simply apprehend texts, excluding themselves and their reactions to the texts in their reading process, an exclusion that prevents them from finding something they want to say about the conversations that text engages. Without interpretive reading, we cannot make meaning and thus lack anything new to contribute to conversations. As James Reither notes, although school writing assignments tend to begin with a command to write, real writing rarely beings with a command  to write but instead a need to communicate something, to participate in verbal or written culture. Thus, writers must begin with textual interactions, really engaging with what others have said in ways that produce meaning and the need to communicate that meaning. Employing his famous “parlor” metaphor (learning to write in University is like walking into a parlor full of smart people mid-way through their conversations, you need to listen to catch up, then step into the conversation at the right time), Kenneth Burke similarly argues that writing begins with listening, listening until we find a spot where we can put in our “oar” (110-111). Similarly, other reading-writing scholars have noted that entering conversations means listening to others and finding or creating a “hole” that we want to fill with our own words (Bazerman; Brent; LeFevre). In order to find a hole in our “listening” (reading or researching) process, our basic writers need a conceptual shift from apprehending information to interpreting and interacting with texts.


The concept of reading as interpretation grounds the meaning making process. Mariolina Salvatori explains the role of interpretation by looking at Wolfgang Iser’s work on reading: “As Iser suggests, the reader passes through the various perspectives offered by the text, relates the different patterns and views to one another, and in so doing, ‘sets the work in motion and himself in motion, too’” (660). Interpretation requires the reader to put “himself in motion.”  Because of this deep involvement, interpretive reading views the ideas in texts as “perspectives offered” and actively relates various ideas to each other, including the reader’s own ideas, experiences, and perspectives. Readers who use interpretive reading thus conceptually view texts very differently from non-interpreters, as Ann Penrose and Cheryl Geisler document in their article, “Reading and Writing Without Authority.” Their study of two students (one a freshman and one a graduate student) found four primary differences in how these students viewed texts: the graduate student viewed texts as being authored, as having claims of knowledge (not facts), as having claims that can conflict with other textual claims, and as having claims that can be tested. This view of texts is the meaning-making concept of interpretive reading. 




Writing as Responses to Ideas

Basic writers need to understand writing as a conversation, a response to others’ ideas. Patricia Bizzell notes that “academic literacy” includes the ability “to think in academic versions . . . to generalize, to reason abstractly, to evaluate evidence and critique ideas, and so on” (131). Writing “in academic versions” means engaging in the whole writing process at a deep level, at the idea level rather than the word level. This focus on ideas then leads to the higher-level thinking that Bizzell describes: abstract reasoning (or rhetorical reasoning/logos), evaluating, critiquing, etc. Giving students opportunities to read essays that discuss complex reasoning, or study complex concepts provides basic writers with the conceptual knowledge of how to think critically. This conceptual knowledge also helps our basic writers develop “intellectual autonomy,” which most of our students lack. Students can better judge their efforts in complex thinking-writing if they know what it is they are aiming for, if they know what intellectual processes they are trying to achieve through their writing. Ann Berthoff made this comment about theory that applies to students’ ability to develop intellectual autonomy: “The primary role of theory is to guide us in defining our purposes and thus in evaluating our efforts, in realizing them. How can we know what we’re doing, how can we find out where we’re going, if we don’t have a conception of what we think we’re doing?” (Making 32). Our basic writing students cannot develop intellectual autonomy unless they “have a conception of what [they] think [they’re] doing.” Or, expressed another way, “[s]tudents cannot be expected to take a self-directive role in their cognitive development unless they themselves, and not just the teacher, have a sense of where development is heading--where the growing edge of their competence is and what possibilities lie ahead” (Bereiter and Scardamalia 336).




Affective Influences on Writing

Engagement in verbal or written culture, though, requires more than interpretive reading and deep-level writing: this engagement also requires our affective responses. Some affective responses, though, are negative, and a common dysfunctional affective response that prevents the positive affective involvements (and one that many basic writers have) is writing anxiety or a propensity to give up and lose patience. Mike Rose explains two key concepts in writing anxiety in his “Rigid Rules” article: planning and rule adhering (390-393). This conceptual understanding helps basic writers to better understand both the impact of a common affective influence on writing, writing anxiety, and what anxious writers can do to deal with their anxiety. Rose explains what causes much of the blocking and what concepts nonblockers embrace in order to move out of this negative affective response and move into positive affective influences on our writing.

Not all of our basic writers experience writer’s block, but all writers (student writers and nonstudent writers) require the affective influence of motivation. Our students have a very well entrenched writing process that functions without motivation, but this motivation-less process prevents them from engaging in meaning-making writing (and deep learning). The five paragraph-theme and school-writing processes our students are proficient in demonstrating a mastery of form writing, not meaning-making writing. Thus, they need to be engaged in discussing concepts of affective motivation, motivation that will finally move them beyond their former rigid forms. But simply telling our students that college writing has more flexibility or that they are not stuck with only writing five paragraphs seldom works. Our students need to read the concepts of motivation. For example, ... they need to embrace their location as “beginners,” but also that even beginners can “give” to the conversation.


Probably the most powerful affective concept for my students is emotion’s influence on writing. Laurie Micciche contends that “emotion is always bound up with knowledge, what is thought rather than exclusively felt” because “emotion is part of what makes ideas adhere, generating investments and attachments that get recognized as positions and/or perspectives” (6). Emotion is central to meaning making because it is central to thinking and even, as Micciche explains, creates the glue that “adheres” ideas to motivations, an adherence that is essential for strong writing processes. 



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