3 Tutorials that teach Engaged Reading
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Engaged Reading

Engaged Reading

Author: Gavin McCall

This lesson introduces the idea of engaged reading and explains the value of engaged reading in English Composition in particular and in college work in general.

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Source: Woolf, Virgina. “To the Lighthouse,” Harcourt, Inc. Orlando, Fl: 1927. Rockwell, Norman. “Freedom From Want,” Wikimedia Commons, 8/22/2014 .

Video Transcription

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Hi, and welcome to English Composition. I'm Gavin McCall. What are we going to learn today? We're going to learn about engaged reading, a subject that we've only brushed the surface of so far.

Today, we'll cover what engaged reading is and what it's good for. Then we'll look at ways to apply it to text. And finally, we're going to see a range of things that can be used as texts in college.

It's been a while, but we've already been introduced engaged reading. We've seen how important it is for critical thinking. But now, we'll take a closer look at what exactly it means to engage with the text.

There are several key factors to engaged reading. You have to be able to perform all of them in order to reap the benefits of any. But don't worry, it'll all become second nature with enough practice.

Engaged reading is entering into a conversation with a text, which means you're not just a passive witness to what the text says or does. You're part of its world. You're implicated by it. You're engaged with it.

Engaged reading is also reading for the author's argument or purpose in writing. It's recognizing the author's techniques, which means we're making ourselves aware of the text's form and structure, its logic, and its rhetorical appeals. But engaged reading is more than just paying attention.

It's going beyond that by thinking critically about the author's goals and values, as well as style, things like word choice and tone and use of figurative language, and then taking all of this and using it to respond to the text with your own ideas, your own opinions, your own knowledge.

And while you're doing this, you're thinking about ways you could use the text to support your own arguments later. So as you can see, engaged reading, and everything that it entails, is the key step in furthering the academic conversation.

There's really only one way to understand the value of engaged reading. And that's to do it yourself. So let's try it.

Here's the passage from an early chapter of Virginia Woolf's novel To The Lighthouse. I won't even attempt to summarize the book Itself. But suffice to say, it's about relationships and perception and how the two interact.

In this passage, told from the perspective of the character Lily, an artist, we get to see how Woolf's character feels about her painting sometimes. It reads, "she could see it all so clearly, so commandingly when she looked. It was when she took her brush in hand the whole thing changed. It was in that moment's flight between the picture and her canvas that demons set on her, who often brought her to the verge of tears and made this passage from conception to work as dreadful as any down a dark passage for a child."

If you want more time to read the text more closely, pause the video here. So what do you think the purpose of this passage was? I personally believe Woolf was trying, among other things, to show us a different kind of artist, one who's tortured by the imperfection she's capable of, one who's at times paralyzed by fear and her own sense of inadequacy.

In Lily, Virginia Woolf gets to show us a different kind of art, one that fits the tone of the rest of this book perfectly. Believe me, if you haven't read it.

One of the other reasons I chose these two sentences, out an entire book of good sentences, is that I love the way they flow. This passage, as you probably saw, or at least hopefully heard in my reading of it, starts slowly, haltingly, like it's concerning what to say next.

But at the end of the first sentence at changed, it changes. It was then and from that point on that the sentence pulls us along, whether we want to or not, as if it's pulling us down a dark passage itself. This kind of parallel between the subject and the text itself is a tricky thing to pull off. But when it works, as I believe it does here, the sentences become more than just the sum of their words.

And thematically, this passage is strong. It's dealing with some very complex ideas about art and perception and how we as humans cope with the fact that we're never going to be as good at anything as we want to be. And it does so without falling into sentimentality or unearned emotion, even though there is emotional content here.

How else to talk about the kind of freezing fear Lily feels at times when contemplating her art? I think it's realistically portrayed enough that the effect for the engaged reader is magnified. And this is only one of the benefits you can get from really analyzing a text like this. I invite you to do your own analysis, see what you find.

It's important to note that while we've only looked at written texts so far, the scope of things you can apply engaged reading skills to is much, much broader. For our purposes, let's define a text as any object, written, artistic or other, that's used as the subject of a critical analysis or reading. So yes, anything can be a text.

Here are a few of the more common, non-literary texts you can analyze, movies and anything else on TV, including commercials. You can analyze drama and performances, as well as speeches, and any kind of visual or physical art. And of course, you can perform an engaged reading of music or any other kind of sound recording.

But this is an incomplete list. Anything else that you can think of could be included, provided you can think of some kind of benefit that might come from a critical analysis of it.

As an example of a wordless text, let's look at this painting. This is Norman Rockwell's painting Freedom from Want. So how do we interpret an artist's argument or purpose? The same way we did with To The Lighthouse or any of the other texts, by thinking critically about it. So what do you think?

Clearly, Rockwell was trying to comment on what it means to be happy. The title, Freedom from Want, was taken from a Franklin Roosevelt speech. But even without the title, you'd probably get that the painting was some kind of comment on joy or America or family.

It's a very American scene, isn't it? Thanksgiving comes to mind, in part because of the turkey, but also the multiple generations we see around the table and the oldest man and woman's position at the head of it. They are the center. They are the providers.

What does it mean that the rest of the family, assuming it's a family, are barely in the picture at all, scattered around the periphery, while we all focus on the huge roasted turkey? The subject of this picture isn't really the family, is it? It's more that the subject is what they're paying attention to, all but the two men, one near the bird and the other at the corner, who are instead looking back at us.

And who are we in relation to the picture? Are we part of the family? Are we invited? I guess it depends on your perspective.

As I said earlier, this is a stereotypical American scene. But I'd venture that not all of America back when Rockwell painted this, and even more so now, have ever experienced this kind of scene exactly as Rockwell painted it.

As an example I'm Caucasian. But my family looks nothing like this one. So my very personal reaction when I first looked at Freedom from Want was not to feel nostalgia or even to look forward to next Thanksgiving, but instead to wonder who these old people are. I didn't feel a particular connection to them.

So that was a very personal reaction, which is a useful part of a critical analysis. Since if I was going to create a response to this painting in whatever medium I chose to respond to it in, the fact that I didn't initially react as I suspect Rockwell wanted his audience to react would definitely play a part in that response.

Now, take another look at Freedom from Want. What is this text saying to you? And what might you say back to it?

What have we learned today? We learned about engaged reading, what it is and what it can be used for. Then we practiced applying it to a literary text, seeing how much a critical analysis can provide for us, even from a couple of sentences.

Then we expanded on the idea of the text and looked at a non-literary text and performed the same kind of engaged reading of it too. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me.

  • Text

    Any object—written, artistic, or other—used as the subject of critical analysis or “reading.”

  • Engaged Reading

    Reading a text actively and critically.