Academic journal article Journal of Thought

"Pedagogical Reading": The Aesthetics of Attending in Reading Student Work

Academic journal article Journal of Thought

"Pedagogical Reading": The Aesthetics of Attending in Reading Student Work

Article excerpt

      A teacher at my first school loved grading student papers. "It's    where I really practice my craft," he maintained. Long after the    rest of us had finished--content to make a few cursory corrections    and assign a letter grade, we were out the door by four--he would    sit in a pool of light in his dark office, attentively reading and    typing. Every student received a page of single-spaced comments and    suggestions, in 10-point font and finished with his signature. He    was the very model of what we aspired to be: never bored, never    impatient, never anything but enthralled with his students' work    and completely consecrated to it.        Why did he work so long and write so much, when he must have    known so little of it would be read and acted upon? It seemed a    miserable life, even to us, the first-year teachers who had    (tentatively) chosen it. We discussed it at Friday happy hour:    spending one's life immersed in juvenile work seemed to feed the    durable "those who can't do, teach" meme. Maybe those who were    committed to attending to half-done, beginner's work were somehow    malformed. If they were not, after all, wouldn't they be doing    something more gratifying, or at least have found a better "work    / life balance"? There must be something arrested, some shortcoming    in such people. Maybe they (we?) were not smart enough to get past    the preliminaries and basics they (we?) now teach year in and year    out. Maybe we are afraid to reach for more, afraid to be judged by    any but the immature, who have no perspective to know any better. 

Our culture's ideal teacher spends enormous time with his students' work, lovingly celebrating and perfecting it. A student paper marked up in red with a dense note in crabbed handwriting at the end says first, whatever else it says, that this student has been attended to. She has not been left behind.

What compels such teachers to attend so closely--so lovingly--to student work? Work, remember, that is usually immature by definition: poorly-formed and cursory, often written on deadline with scant emotional investment. Work that offers few, if any, of the rewards of the carefully crafted texts we choose to read when we have the opportunity. Student work is incomplete. It lacks the mechanical and stylistic components of mature work that we have come to seek, but primarily it lacks the developed sensibility that comes through the long experience that makes connoisseurs out of consumers and gourmets out of gourmands (Eisner, 1991). And work of limited sensibility will invariably offer limited aesthetic gratification. How could it be otherwise?

Maybe some of us tolerate student work and are holding out for the occasional prodigy--the precociously articulate student who shows up every couple of years and gives us the uncanny thrill of fully realized prose from an unlikely source. We can't live for these satisfactions, though: prodigies are few and far between. Besides, the idea of enduring the mediocre many to celebrate and nurture the brilliant few offends the deep values of equity and access that underpin the unwritten Hippocratic Oath a teacher takes. Enduring mediocrity while waiting for brilliance is not what we do, not really.

Or perhaps the answer is that we read student work closely because we are supposed to: because we should. The social and institutional role of requires two motivations of teachers for what I will here style "teacherly reading": an altruistic pull to help each student improve, nested within a larger dedication to the betterment of society. First, we expect of teachers a personal, selfless dedication to the individual, one that transcends differences and personal prejudices. We might understand the last decade's accountability measures as institutional efforts to ensure that no individual student is elided from these attentions--an effort, it has been noted, that tacitly ascribes maleficent intent to teachers by implying that they probably would leave some behind, if they were not watched to make sure they didn't (Taubman, 2009). …

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