When I was working on my MA in Literature, I had the opportunity to serve as a fellow at Georgetown’s Center for New Designs in Learning in Scholarship (CNDLS for short). This work proved to be transformative for me—at least as much as completing my Masters itself—shaping the way I think about education, online spaces, academia, and technology. One of my roles at CNDLS was assisting with the Apprenticeship in Teaching Program for graduate students who hoped to prepare themselves for future teaching roles. These workshops were built around the premise that as graduate students become experts in their given fields, they aren’t necessarily becoming expert educators. While many aspire to become professors, most grad students aren’t required to take education courses. These workshops were meant to fill that gap—offering some basics of instructional design, classroom rapport building, and pedagogical principals to future academics across all fields.
I loved working on this endeavor, and one particular experience from these workshops stuck with me. At the time, the head of CNDLS was a wonderful philosophy professor named John Rakestraw. Prof. Rakestraw talked a lot about the importance of making critical thinking visible—about the fact that we expect our students to learn essential skills that we don’t spend time in our classroom modeling. His favorite lesson in any class he taught was to find a philosophical article he hadn’t read yet and to read it aloud to his students, modeling his thinking process as he went. He’d pause his reading to say things like, “here I’m wondering about the meaning of this term” and “this point brings to mind a contradictory argument about this subject” and “at this point I’m starting to see what the thesis might be” and “here I’m wondering why the author chose this phrasing”—you get the picture. (As a side note, if you’d like to experience this type of reading modeled for you I highly recommend George Saunders’ A Swim in the Pond in the Rain.)
This type of lesson—this type of reading—was totally revolutionary to me. My teachers had never modeled reading for me in this way. Reading was always either completely internal or uninterrupted reading aloud—often a terrifying experience for this introvert. As such, I’d never thought much about what was going on in my brain while I was reading until I witnessed this act of reading in public. As a high school English teacher, I tried to work this type of modeling into my courses frequently. And as someone whose job it now is to have public discussions about literature, I often wonder how I might be approaching the same text differently from my fellow readers.
Fast forward a decade and my own work is very much about public reading. I still can’t believe my good fortune that a grad school project (conceived of and begun during that same time at Georgetown!) has evolved into this small but mighty business. It’s now my actual job to read, write about, and discuss literature for public consumption—how incredible is that?!
Being a public reader has also changed my reading life—in some wonderful ways and in some ways I don’t always love and couldn’t have anticipated. What I read, how I read, and how I think about what and how I read are all shaped by the fact that my reading is public. Part of my slow reading project for 2023 (inspired, of course, by this episode of the Ezra Klein Show) is a reaction to these changes and an attempt to recapture some of what I loved about my pre-FictionMatters reading life: getting completely absorbed by prose, reading books that feel like they were written just for me, exploring literature at a leisurely pace, and putting more value on the questions I derive from my reading than the number of books I got through each year.
And so…Reading in Public begins
Inspired by recently ruminating on what it means to be a public reader, remembering the experience of seeing close reading modeled, and receiving frequent questions about how to get more out of books, I’m excited to launch Reading in Public as an ongoing component of the FictionMatters newsletter.
Here’s some of what you can expect in this series:
Reflections on how being a public reader has impacted my reading life.
Explanations of how I read for various purposes: pleasure reading, teaching, reviewing, etc.
Thoughts on how to deepen the reading experience—including the questions I ask myself while reading and after finishing books.
Revelations from my 2023 deep reading journey.
Explorations of genre, style, literary trends, and reader expectations.
Book lists and reading suggestions for an engaged reading practice.
I want this to be a place to read in public in a different way—to reveal and reflect on how I read in addition to what I read. While I’m invested in exploring the how of reading, this series isn’t exactly a how-to guide—or, for that matter, a suggestion that you ought to read in the same way I do. Rather than serve as something prescriptive, these musings are an exercise in making something invisible, visible—something private, public—and, in doing so, an invitation to deepen your own reading alongside me.
After today, these issues won’t replace my typical Sunday newsletter. Rather you’ll see them show up as sporadic, but recurring additions to your regularly scheduled programming. Many of these emails will be available to all subscribers. Others will live behind the paywall if a topic is particularly personal or required an additional amount of research and reflection.
I’m already feeling inspired and delighted by this new undertaking, and I hope this sounds like an interesting project for you as well! Next Sunday I’ll be back with two weeks worth of book reviews, links, and what’s bringing me joy. And until then, I hope your weekend is filled with good books and deep reading.
If you’d like to support my work, please consider forwarding this newsletter to a book-loving friend, upgrading to the paid version of this newsletter (annual subscriptions are 20% off), shopping through my Amazon or Bookshop storefronts, or buying me a coffee!
Thanks for all you do to keep FictionMatters running!
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That’s so interesting. The last time I remember anyone reading that way out loud was in elementary school when you’re just beginning to work on critical thinking. I think I do that as I’m writing my books but how worthwhile to say it out loud. I’m thinking specifically of how when I help my kids with homework. Can’t wait to see how you sprinkle this through your newsletters!
What a treat to have a professor like that! I love hearing about the transformational courses of peoples' educations. Thanks for giving us a peak into yours!