Reading while teaching; Teaching what you read

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If you do an image search for ‘teaching’ and ‘reading’ (as I just did), you get lots of pictures of the quote “If you can read this, thank a teacher.” So you modify your search terms (because who wants a treacle quote to being their blog post) to “teaching english university” and you get pictures of lecture halls and students with their hands raised. Because that’s what teaching looks like (on Google at least): a classroom with a teacher, students and some kind of learning going on (hopefully). What you don’t find when you do an image search is a picture of the teacher (me) buried in articles, reference books and webpages frantically preparing for a class. And not reading other things. And making my book club read a book I’ve already read so that I don’t have to read something new. And placing books on hold at the library for the winter break when I’ve promised myself a reward of reading all the things I’ve wanted to be reading, but haven’t had the time to (or more properly the reading energy – more on that to come).

In my more desperate moments I convince myself I haven’t read anything since September. Untrue! I’ve reread the novels assigned for the course (The Book of NegroesIndian Horse and In the Skin of a Lion) and read dozens of texts surrounding these novels (and I read a collection of essays on motherhood *The M Word* before bed, but I didn’t blog about it because essays and I just didn’t). Surely this preparatory work ‘counts’ as reading?

Why then, when I’m teaching what I read, does it not feel like reading? It’s not quite that it feels like work (though it *is* work), it’s more that it feels like their are two tracks of running simultaneously: the reader and the teacher. The reader-me is paying attention to formal elements, to the experience of reading, to making connections. The teacher-me is paying attention to passages that might be included in a lecture or on an exam, to anticipating questions from students, to imagining how to present complex ideas in ways that will be engaging and enriching. It takes energy – “reading energy” – to read on these two tracks.

I probably sound like I’m complaining; I’m not complaining. Much of the time it’s exciting to be doing this work. To plan lessons that will invite students to analyze and to support their enthusiasm for reading (and they are brilliantly engaged and lively students). Some of the time it’s exhausting and frustrating. All of the time it’s a privilege: to be in the classroom, to work with the students, to have the opportunity to teach.

The real effect though is to limit my reading energy for books outside of what I’m teaching. Is it that I’m getting older and just don’t have the same energy? Because in my PhD I read for ‘work’ and then I read for ‘not-work.’ I did the 100 book challenge in the year I wrote my dissertation! So what is it about *teaching* what I read that, for me, makes it so much harder to eek out the time/energy to read-for-me?

As I consider whether to teach again next semester (or ever again!), I place high on my pro/con list the loss of reading-for-me.  To help me decide, my analytic-minded partner, S., generated a spreadsheet ranking different pro’s and con’s. When asked how much it mattered to me whether I had energy to read other things, I ranked it the highest as a con for teaching. I miss one-track reading.

So I’ve started reading something just for me. I’m reading Elena Ferrante’s *My Brilliant Friend* with S. (the other S. – my brilliant friend, S.). I’m hoping that in what remains of the semester I can find a pace that lets me read this way. And if I can’t? What do I do? Blog-readers-who-are-also-teachers: what do you do? How do you create the space for different ways of reading? Teach me your ways.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Reading while teaching; Teaching what you read

  1. Hello E.
    Your post sums up what I’m feeling right now. I’m in the middle of the semester, and I’m struggling to read for pleasure. The only things that I can read for pleasure right now are comic books or graphic novels. I suspect this is because they are quicker reads than a novel. I’ve also noticed that when I’m reading something to teach it, it takes me longer than normal to finish a book. In some ways, I almost avoid reading it (although I’m also rereading a few novels for the 3rd time in less than 18 months …). Anyways, all this to say that I’m guessing what you are feeling is probably common amongst English academics. If you can figure out a way to get past it, let me know!

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