Academic journal article Reader

Disrupting Closure: Making Reading Visible

Academic journal article Reader

Disrupting Closure: Making Reading Visible

Article excerpt

The beginnings of peer tutoring lie in practice, not in theory.

- Kenneth Bruffee, "Peer Tutoring and the 'Conversation of Mankind'" (1984)

Peer tutoring in writing centers is a profoundly practical, visible act. Yet the practice that initiates the training of most peer tutors is a practice in reading, an act which after childhood we experience as private, internal, and largely invisible. New tutors experience theories of peer tutoring as instructions at odds with each other be minimaluti no, be directive!), as contradictory, competing perspectives that offer less than clear advice on how to productively and ethically engage in the practice of tutoring. Examining how peer tutors in training negotiate conflicting theoretical claims prior to engaging in the practice of peer tutoring offers a window into the broader issue of how students develop critical reading skills in the face of learned cultural practices inherent to reading and writing as undergraduates, practices which privilege resolution of conflict and premature closure in reading and subsequent writing processes.

Kenneth Bruffee's work with peer tutors at Brooklyn College in the 1970s is central to die work done in writing centers staffed by peer tutors today. Bruffee's chief insight, drawn from Michael Oakeshott and Lev Vygotsky, held that thought is an internal conversation, and diat writing is an externalization of that internal dialogue, diat "writing has its roots deep in the acquired ability to carry on the social symbolic exchange we call conversation" (7). Consequently, the central work of the peer tutor is not to serve as a junior teacher, but to engage in an open-ended, exploratory conversation with fellow student writers, in service to reexternalizing thought. As has been the case with practice drawn from progressive education theories since John Dewey, Bruffee's collaborative learning model clashes with dominant meritocratic and assessment-driven practices deeply engrained in American culture and education.

Kathleen McCormick's The Culture of Reading and the Teaching of English investigates ways in which our educational system values closure over exploration, and how tentativeness "is often seen as a mark of an ignorant rather than an explorative mind" (112). Certainly, much writing practiced in our K- 12 institutions, as well as at our colleges and universities, requires "simple information transfer rather than more sophisticated interpretive strategies" (114). Information transfer favors the succinct, the concise, and the factual. Ambiguity is suspect; readers prefer that writers resolve conflict in the process of summarizing observations and data. This preference for closure and mitigation of conflict and contradiction bears on how students, to and through their undergraduate education, process required academic reading. Though there are clearly exceptions to the rule, our academic culture on balance privileges reading protocols designed to deliver answers rather than more questions. This is a circumstance driven more by assessment practice than by a philosophy of education; open-ended reflection offered in response to reading is difficult to score. Even an exam such as the Collegiate Learning Assessment, which demands a synthesis of text and data in some sections, is ultimately scored on the degree to which students can resolve conflicting data.

The notion that the desired product of academic reading is a demonstrated ability to transfer knowledge embodied in that reading is deeply inculcated in most students as they begin a post-secondary education. As McCormick notes, "students believe the educational system wants them to produce written texts with closure, without contradictions, that are apparently objective, and 'faithful' to the texts they have read" (103). In a writing exercise posed by McCormick and colleagues at Carnegie Mellon as part of a first year course, "Reading to Write," students were asked to "interpret and synthesize" a short text on time management into a "brief (1-2 page) comprehensive statement" (98). …

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