What is critical reading today?

Each week, Symposium Magazine invites an author to expand on his or her essay. This week’s guest blogger is Prof. Lutz Koepnick of Vanderbilt University.

To teach students to be critical is one of the central aims of higher education, a pedagogical program repeated over and over in the mission statements of colleges, the teaching philosophies of its faculty, and in state educational guidelines. But what does it mean to be a critical reader? It certainly involves our ability to discern the compositional principles of a given text. We need to understand its internal structure, its particular devices to communicate meaning, its ways of addressing the readers’ mind and appealing to their emotion.

It also involves our ability to develop interpretations, place materials in cultural and historical context, and competently form synthetic or aesthetic judgments. Critical reading requires work and distance. It cannot do without an ongoing willingness to read and assess one’s own reading.

Students today often assume that critical reading happens whenever we learn how to contain the sheer joy of being absorbed into a book or text. Critical reading and pleasure, or analytical distance and self-forgetting absorption, are presumed to be at odds with each other. Yet given the ceaseless reading required from us to make it through a single day, and all the bursts of short-lived attention produced by today’s culture of omnipresent computing, perhaps we should think of a reader deeply absorbed into the pages of a book as a profoundly critical reader as well — as someone who challenges the restless and discontinuous itineraries of our highly connected present.

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