27 December 2007

Performing Reading

So, no one's interested in showing off their languages. Moving on, then.

Stephanie Trigg, in responding to the Books You Loved meme, turned the question around to ways you performed reading in 2007. An excellent question . . . particularly as one of my Christmas presents responds to both halves of the meme: it should be on the original list as a book I loved in 2007 (and which actually came out this year), and I have been performing from it to anyone who will listen (mainly Sir John and the cats). The book is Decca, the letters of Jessica Mitford, and it has me (as the Mitfords would say) in shrieks.

Performing reading comes in two flavors, for me: private and public. Private performance happens at home, when Sir John and I read bits we like to each other (from newspapers, magazines, books). I probably read to him more often than the other way around. We don't do extended reading-aloud sessions, like some of our friends. (We know a couple who take turns reading a chapter or two aloud every night, often from young-adult fiction.) But snippets are a good way to share our reading interests.

Then there's public performance of reading, which happens in the classroom. I read to my students, and make them read aloud, quite a lot. In Middle English classes, it's a way to work at pronunciation and comprehension, demystifying some of the spelling, insisting on the difference made by the Great Vowel Shift. In other classes, I hope to train students to listen to the rhythms of prose and poetry, to get away from reading for plot and hear the language. (Suddenly I am very conscious of the clunkiness of my own prose.) Many students read aloud very flatly, slowly, dully; I aim to change that, to make them lively readers.

I am planning an assignment sequence that begins with preparing a reading performance. Rather than my calling on people randomly in class, students will pick a passage they want to read aloud, and practice it, figure out what its rhythms are, what words should be stressed, what they want to convey, and then read it to us. I guess I'm trying to mimic private reading performance, in this: "Here's a bit I love and I want to share with you." I will use the reading-aloud prep to segue into the Close Reading: why did you stress these words, what's important about them, how do pieces of this passage work together to create the whole?

I hope this will work. I believe in Close Reading as a tool: it's worth paying attention to details, thinking about all the layers of meaning in a selection of prose or poetry, unpacking metaphors and images. And for some reason, my students have a lot of trouble with the concept. They tend to read for the big picture---plot, themes---not details. Maybe working on presentation first will make clearer why the details matter.

The drawback here is grading. Grading close readings is easier if everyone does the same passage; then I look to see if they hit most of the high points, or at least some of them, comment on writing style and mechanics, and move on. If everyone does an individual passage, papers will take longer to grade. However, hearing them read in class will make me fairly familiar with their passages. I might also do this as an "informal" assignment, checked off rather than formally graded, as a preliminary to a formal paper for which everyone would work on the same passage.


squadratomagico said...

That's an interesting point -- how students tend to read for the bog picture rather than thinking in terms of close detail. I think my students have the same general impulse, but I've never articulated it to mself that way before. However, since I have built one of my classes for next quarter around close readings, I'll have to remember to explain this issue to them explicitly. Thanks for the post!

Peter said...

I was drawn to your blog by a Google alert for "Jessica Mitford." I am the editor of "Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford," and needless to say I was intrigued by your post about "performing reading." With great delight, I have been "performing reading" from the book throughout the six years it took to compile it, and subsequently in bookstores, libraries, interviews and other locales.

Perhaps I can broaden the question slightly to say that the continuum starts with performing writing. Decca herself was an enormously popular lecturer, and her letters are often a kind of performance piece. I continued that process in editing her letters for publication.

As I gathered her letters in archives, friends' basements and other locales and then pulled them out, at first almost randomly, to see what was there, I found myself repeatedly calling out to my wife in the next room, "Listen to this one." The reading aloud helped me find the tone and rhythm of Decca's letters, her life and her personality. (One letter in particular, beginning on page 251, is a miniature masterpiece of auditory writing.)

After the book's publication, actresses and others participated in my public readings from the letters, and BBC aired a week of daily readings from "Decca" by actress Rosamund Pike.

To me, the reception to the book underlines the importance of story telling, which I discuss in the book's introduction. I also wrote there that Decca's "life and her art were at times inseparable, a kind of social and political theater." Discussing the ties between her writings and her speeches and interviews, I note that "she reveled in the pure act of expression."

It is good to see that this performance act has a life beyond the pages in the book. In a sense, it can be a continuing act of expression, with the reader's participation, as your posting makes clear.

Peter Sussman

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

Thank you both for your comments--and Peter, thank you for your work on the book! (Surely one of the most fun pieces of "work" a person could do? Getting to read other people's letters licitly is a joy in itself, but Mitford letters are sublime.) Anyway, I think it was my best present this year--and the Charlotte Mosley edition of all six sisters' letters was second best.

highlyeccentric said...

could you give your class a selection of passages to choose from for the formal assignment? depending on the size of your class you might also be able to give them those passages for the reading assignment, although that does detract from the personal choice aspect of it.

as a student, i'd much prefer to have the choice for both the reading and the formal assignment. The trick is to be very clear, when giving a wide choice, exactly what you want out of the diverse essays. Some suggested passages might not go astray, either, for those struggling with picking a passage.

[/nosy studently commentary]

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

Oh, there's usually a choice, Highly Eccentric. I agree with you about the desirability of choices. But the point remains that if there are 2-3 possibilities, the grading goes much faster than if there are 30 completely different papers--and you do want your papers back reasonably quickly, right? I'm terribly reluctant, though, to say "You must pick one of these 5 passages to read," when what I really hope for is that people will share something they like rather than something they felt forced to like.

highlyeccentric said...

Just a note to say I gave this a link in the latest carnivalesque: