I have just returned from the National Association of Developmental Education (NADE) annual conference, and a term from keynote speaker Dr. Stephen Chew of Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama stuck with me: the curse of expertise (or the curse of knowledge). In short, the curse afflicts those who have attained expertise and forget what it was like to be a beginner, someone who does not have a conceptual framework or vocabulary for a particular discipline. Experts who are cursed in this way struggle to communicate effectively with novice learners.
In another NADE session, Sonya Armstrong and Normal Stahl discussed the “fall of the field” of college reading. Among the factors influencing the decline of the field, Armstrong and Stahl noted the rise of composition-centric integrated reading and writing classes, often taught by instructors with little or no background in reading theory and pedagogy (and as I have seen in many community colleges, a dearth of resources and funding for professional development). Without that training, composition instructors—and content instructors across multiple disciplines—can easily succumb to the curse of expertise when it comes to reading.
You may have heard the language of the curse in hallways and faculty meetings: Why can’t they read? Reading is a skill they should have learned in high school. Once you’ve learned to decode, you can read anything. I am not assigning much reading; my students can’t comprehend the text. I know they can’t because they fail the multiple choice comprehension checks I give them. If they can’t read this, they aren’t college material. When I was in school…
But as “expert readers,” perhaps we have forgotten the journey that brought us where we are – a journey of misreading and revision, of developing conceptual schemata and lexical sophistication, of growing awareness of genres and disciplinary conventions, of connections and the pleasure of shifts in our thinking. There was probably a moment when we first began to argue with texts or smile upon meeting a familiar idiom or rhetorical strategy in use. But before that familiarity, there was surely some confusion or frustration.
I would like to make three recommendations for IRW instructors:
- Try to remember a reading challenge from your past. For me, it was early in my graduate studies in linguistics. I had not yet had a formal syntax course, but I was asked to read Denis Bouchard’s On the Content of Empty Categories. Each paragraph was painstaking and slow for me, although I considered myself a strong reader. I did not have the background knowledge to make sense of the text or build a coherent understanding; my copy of the book is riddled with question marks and attempted marginal paraphrases, most of which are either erased or crossed out. It took months of study and multiple readings for my mind to begin to construct an understanding of this book. (If you are struggling to remember such an experience, ask a colleague in another discipline to identify a seminal but advanced text in the field. Try to read it, and compare your reading with that of your colleague. As a reader who lacks disciplinary expertise, you may better understand your students’ struggles).
- Familiarize yourself with the robust published research in college reading. As a starting point, I would suggest an article by Armstrong and Stahl, “Communication Across the Silos and Borders: The Culture of Reading in a Community College,” or a white paper by Jodi Patrick Holschuh and Eric J. Paulson, “The Terrain of College Developmental Reading.”
- Finally, as you structure your IRW course, think about adding as extra “R”: Integrated Recursive Reading and Writing. Growth in reading takes time: time to read extended texts and to come back to them multiple times as meaning is constructed and refined. Composition teachers know that strong writing involves multiple drafts, and we tell our students that revision means re-seeing their written work. But so often, as “cursed experts,” we expect reading to happen fully and quickly after just one exposure to a snippet of text. Just as you might restrain the tendency to mark every grammar error on the first draft of an essay, hold back on your comments if students’ first reading does not yield a coherent interpretation, or if the students seem to have missed a rhetorical feature that is quite obvious to you. Give the students ownership of the reading, so that understanding can develop with time, and try not to tell them “what they should have seen.” After all, as novices, the students shouldn’t have seen what you did: you are reading as an expert. Acknowledge what the students did see, and invite them to visit the text again.
It’s so easy for students to see recursion, revision, and repetition as signs of failure. But we know they are not—they are the hallmarks of what we (as experts) do.
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