Reading, flow, and the joys of the English major

(I recently recovered this little piece I had written back in 2009 for English majors, before I knew about “contemplative pedagogy.”)

Much of the reading I do these days should be called “skimming.” I skim web pages looking for the main gist of an article, an answer to a specific question, or contact information. Many high school assignments actually trained me to do this kind of reading. For example, when I’d be assigned a chapter to read in a Social Studies textbook, I’d also be given a list of questions. By skimming for key words (i.e. “cotton gin”), I’d answer all of the questions correctly (“Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin.”). I did not read. I hunted and gathered. I am now an excellent and efficient skimmer of online information.

But when I read, really read, other stuff happens in my brain. I use my memory, remembering conversations or experiences I’ve had or other texts I’ve read. I use my imagination, forming new connections and wrestling with unique constructions of thought. Rather than myopically hunting for a fact to complete an assignment, my curious mind ranges freely among sentences, allowing the text to act upon me.

When my brain is active like this, really engaged in a text, I enter the state called “flow.” I don’t recognize time passing. I am completely absorbed. I am both out of my body (ek-stasis) and deeply rooted in my body at the same time. It is utterly delicious!

I have a theory that all English majors have at some point experienced flow when reading or writing. What draws them to this major, perhaps unconsciously, is the desire to tap into that feeling on a regular basis. We’re looking to recover that particular kind of pleasure that lies beyond aesthetics, that’s rooted in the activity of our brains. Is this true for you?

I find that when I’m restless or bored by reading, it’s because I haven’t tapped into my own curiosity and energy. When I mindlessly approach literature as though it were an online article or textbook—skimming—I deny myself the ecstatic experience of losing and finding myself in active reading. What a relief and joy it is for me to remember that all I need to do is close my door, tune into the book, and become lost in the mental aerobics literature inspires my mind to perform.

Accessing that flow, that ecstasy, is part of our homework as English majors. Aren’t we lucky? We aren’t required to skim textbook material; we are instead, each evening, invited to plug our minds into a rich text and begin exchanging information with it, stretching our abilities to comprehend, imagine, and create. Each hour we have the opportunity to be moved and utterly absorbed—we simply need to remember that this is the goal of our reading, our purpose as English majors.

And so I invite you to come to your reading with an awake mind, eager to be fired up, to remember, and to imagine. This kind of reading not only inspires us to take notes, develop ideas, and ask questions in class. It also trains our brains to recognize patterns, to synthesize parts into a whole. When we read well, we have the big picture in sight, and we rarely feel overwhelmed by and lost among details.

Commercials, web pages, and magazines target us by our age, gender, socio-economic class, and ethnicity. When we read these texts, we often encounter our own familiar version of reality reflected back to us. Literature is different. As English majors, we intentionally expose ourselves to texts that aren’t necessarily “meant” for us. Perhaps they were written a long time ago, or by someone on the other side of the world. As strong readers, we rejoice in the opportunity mingle with this “otherness.” Watch yourself when you next encounter a strange or difficult text. What do you do when you encounter such diversity? Do you neglect it? Run from it? Disconnect from it? Or, do you get curious about it?

I invite you to explore your own personal boundaries through strange and difficult texts. As you learn more about them, your own boundaries will shift. Your range of understanding will expand. You will get more confident and fearless in the face of the strange or difficult. Ignorance can feel pretty scary, but it’s temporary. We have the ability to activate our memories and imaginations to encounter difference with joyful curiosity. In fact, that’s our duty!

Active, alert reading that fires the memory and imagination can carry over into our lives and relationships. We can learn how to prioritize sentences and experiences, to linger on surprising phrases and people, to explore confusing concepts and situations.

We are so lucky! Our homework assignments have the capacity to be gateways to bliss. Are you up for the adventure?

“Advanced literacy is a specific intellectual skill and social habit that depends on a great many educational, cultural, and economic factors. As more Americans lose this capability, our nation becomes less informed, active, and independent-minded. These are not the qualities that a free, innovative, or productive society can afford to lose.”–  Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, The Boston Globe, April 10, 2005


Historical Diversity and “Reality”

In the British Literature survey, we move through texts from the Anglo-Saxon, medieval, and Renaissance eras. Sometimes, when comparing and contrasting medieval and Renaissance texts, students will claim that the medieval texts, particularly the romances, are “surface-y” and “fake,” while the Renaissance literature presents more “realistic” and “truer” versions of, say, love.

The idea that the concepts, aesthetics, and forms of the Renaissance are more “realistic” is problematic for a few reasons.

First, it ignores how our own ideas about and experiences of the phenomenal world are themselves constructed and lensed. Why do we think that our version of love is the “real” or “true” one and not merely our own experience and perception of it at this particular moment in time and space? People lived within certain paradigms in the past and will (presumably) live within others in the future. I don’t believe their experiences or articulations to be more or less “true” or “real” than our own.

Second, calling Renaissance perspectives “real” or “true” hides the extent to which our own contemporary cultural norms are influenced by that era, which is, significantly, also called the Early Modern era. Religious toleration, separation of church and state, and freedom from press censorship have been central tenets of liberal bourgeois thought for centuries. It’s perhaps be more accurate to say that the aesthetics and articulations of seventeenth century texts are more familiar to us and our perceptions and values, not objectively “truer”.

Third, when we dismiss medieval aesthetics as something untrue that “we” transcended, we can be blind to the less savory or shameful aspects of our own aesthetic field.

Sometimes students denigrate the romances of the Anglo Norman period because they feature elaborate descriptions of the material world and its beauty: clothing, castles, and women. They’ll say things like: “Back then, people were all about surfaces and the external. That’s so unlike today where what’s inside matters.”

What a delightful delusion! Look at how much appearance matters in our contemporary media. From magazines, commercials, and products to television shows about makeovers and remodeling, we are all about externals.

We also must remember that we are dealing with literary representations, not historical truths. But I won’t go into that here.

I’ve written earlier about how studying literature from the past can make the familiar unfamililar. Here I suggest that it also encourages us to see our lived experiences and tastes as constructed, historically informed, and sometimes “backwards.”

These ideas have implications for encounters with diversity. Sometimes my students deride the European historical “other” as unreal, false and infantile in a way I hope they wouldn’t deride a cultural other.

Reading historical stuff can get us more sensitive to not only our own environment but also to all kinds of diverse environments. As I’ve written about here and here, I invite students to see what is familiar about the past but also to play with and within that which is distinctly different, to take it seriously as a worldview with merits as well as demerits.

Medieval texts are more than curious artifacts from before we rightly “discovered” the self, and my teaching, I hope, provides the opportunity for us to read in ways that help us imagine, respect, and even adopt alternative worldviews.

Our pedagogy can do this no matter what the content of the field. What does it look like in your realm?

“Beowulf” and Love

This evening I’d like to share what I like about reading literature from the medieval past.

First, reading broadly can prevent the tendency to reduce people in other times and other cultures to sweeping generalizations and broad stereotypes, which are dehumanizing. Dirty, bawdy riddles; personal, heart-rending elegies; psychedelic religious visions; gory and glorious epics… These were all a part of Anglo-Saxon literary culture—a culture with just as much emotional range as my own.

Reading broadly also helps me see my own past differently. In college “The Dream of the Rood” had struck me with how it laid bare a human sacrifice at the heart of a religion I had grown up, rather unthinkingly, with. The familiar became strange.

Of course it’s also fun to explore themes across time and space. We can consider the Anglo-Saxon’s poetic advice that men eager for fame “bind fast their breast-coffers,” (hold in emotions), and discuss whether we have such expectations of masculinity here and now in our own world. In high school, students use Beowulf to ask “what makes a good hero? A good king? A good leader?” And I wonder why, from Beowulf to Game of Thrones, we still fantasize about dragons.

But what interests me these days about Beowulf is how it navigates the role of an individual required to live in community.

I may feel alone and may feel urges that are sometimes pathological or anti-social—to lie, cheat, inflate my ego, take from the earth and others without even thinking about giving back, to break things without repairing or growing anything. And yet in the poem, this larger-than-life Beowulf and his unquenchable thirst for glory is channeled into socially beneficial acts (saving people from demons.*).

Which makes me see anew my own daily life and the ways I react to someone or something extraordinary—how I judge the boastful, or am jealous of the awesome. And how it is sometimes difficult for me to feel amazing, or simply safe, at home in the world. In what ways am I complicit in reducing the awesomeness of others and myself?

Similarly, when I read about the elaborate gift-giving ceremonies in the poem, where good deeds are rewarded with physical, material objects that are valuable in themselves but carry additional value by the stories they tell—the stories embedded in their history—I see in a new light my own embarrassment about receiving gifts or getting payment for a good deed.

Sometimes, for me, gift-giving can be an awkward time of guilt and obligation, of embarrassment around exchanging objects as tokens of love and appreciation.

But other times I feel joy and anticipation when I know I’ve found something “perfect” for someone I care about and when I receive something obviously very thoughtful from a beloved. Sometimes, when receiving a gift, I’ve felt really seen and known, which has brought deep gratitude and a sense of belonging, of intimacy.

There’s a lot about the Middle Ages I don’t want to go back to. But when I read Beowulf, I long for more ways we can mutually support one another in our awesomeness. I appreciate how we can tell our stories and become linked to another person through material goods (rather than being in competition for them).

So, I can read Beowulf to learn more about the past; to escape into a fantasy world; to practice analysis and critical reading skills. But I can also empathize with and come to embody the values of this mythical world, which at first seemed strange but has become familiar through contemplative reading.

And I can then return to my world seeing what was familiar in a new way. I can be transformed by my visit to the past. And that’s what I think a great gift of reading about the past is. We can return transformed with the potential to transform. It can make the familiar unfamiliar, which is the start of love—seeing something we’ve always seen as though we’ve never seen it before. It keeps me enchanted with the world!


*Yes– saving “people” from “demons” is problematic for notions of Otherness. But that’s for a different posting!