“A Challenge to Social Power”

The experience of reading seems inherently passive. Our eyes skim each line, following the same patterns, taking in information in the order in which an author has arranged it.

Of course, the best readers are those who engage in conversations with their readings, asking questions, considering personal connections, or simply trying to rethink the writer’s ideas.Unless we’re engaging in deliberately active reading, we’re allowing information to simply soak through, right?

Well, as I completed the readings for my UWP 270 seminar this week, I learned that even as we read “pleasurable books,” ones in which we may not feel compelled to engage in academic discourse, our brains are still working in complex ways. As reading practices move from the page to screen, our brains may end up working in even more active ways (at least in some respects).

But I suppose I’m getting ahead of myself.

Maryanne Wolf‘s Proust and the Squid is a kind of “popular science” treatise on “The Story and Science of the Reading Brain,” so naturally, she spends quite a bit of time exploring cognitive processes and their implications. Wolf does a nice job of mixing warm, motherly anecdote with clear scientific explication. Think Oprah meets NOVA.

What struck me was the understanding that “reading does not just happen to anyone” (115). Rather, “emerging reading arises out of years of perceptions, increasing conceptual and social development, and cumulative exposures to oral and written language” (115).

What this means is that developing readers’ brains are engaged in processes of symbol recognition, sound recognition, and emotional connection. Wolf gives a lot of very detailed cognitive explanation for what parts of the brain are activated at different stages in the reading process, but the “take away” point for me (and the point that I think is especially relevant for considering the implications of digital literacy) is that emotional connection to reading is absolutely crucial for developing that “love” for reading. If you read my literacy narrative, you know that I grew up in a household that encouraged reading. My parents read. My sister read. My friends read. My school held “read-a-thons.” In short, reading was valued and students are drawn to engage in practices that are positively reinforced.

Wolf provided a staggering figure: 30-40% of children in the fourth grade do not become fully fluent readers with adequate comprehension (135). How could this be? I can’t help but imagine that this has something to do with a lack of reading reinforcement at home.

I can imagine that this figure may only grow wider as reading practices change. Not to sound like a “literacy fatalist” or anything, but as children grow up in more “screen-focused” environment, traditional reading practices may prove increasingly irrelevant. If I see my parents only using the screen, if I see my friends only using the screen, what’s the point in turning to the page? Of course, reading happens all the time on the screen, but because reading on the screen privileges the image to text, how might this impact children’s desire to spend time with text?

With that somewhat dire scenario out of the way, I think Gunther Kress makes a fantastic point in his chapter on reading practices in Literacy in the New Media Age that reading on the screen does not necessarily lead to a cultural “dumbing down.” Rather, the “reading path” for texts online may actually give readers greater flexibility and, consequently, help them develop even stronger critical thinking skills.

To clarify, on a page, readers can really only read in one particular way. Words are arranged in a certain order (in English, we read from left to right). We must follow one “reading path;” there’s really no way of getting around that (unless we skim pages, read writing only under certain headings, etc).

Yet on the page, readers can read in any number of different ways. We click. We play. We search. We scroll. In fact, you may have scrolled down to this particular moment in this blog entry without reading any of what came before. That’s simply the logic of the screen. We actively make choices about what we want to read and in which order in a way that we don’t do on paper.

In a way, this is terrifying for an author. Writers essentially lose control over how they want to convey their information. I want you to read this blog entry in a linear way but you may not at all be inclined to do that and, on the screen, that’s totally acceptable. In fact, that’s normal. I find that I rarely read an article on the screen in a linear fashion (though I’m attempting to try and gain greater awareness of when I SHOULD read an article online as I would read an article on a page and when I should simply maintain the “multimodal” reading practices I’ve developed through experience).

I think Gunther Kress says it beautifully when he explains why readers and writers feel threatened by the shift of reading practices to the screen: “[Multimodal reading practices] are felt as challenges to social power, which they are” (160).

Wow! What a zinger! If reading is, indeed, a form of control (allowing us to absorb certain kinds of information in very particular ways), then changing the way we read is a way of changing a way that we think. When we’re inclined to make independent reading choices (as we are when we read multimodally), I think we may also be more inclined to formulate independent thoughts rather than immediately accept what we read.

That, my friends, is quite the challenge, indeed!

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