Have reading skills, will travel

I had required reading last night for the first time in almost a month (and only for the second time since I graduated with my MLS six years ago). As an added challenge, this required reading is for a history class—literature’s cousin discipline. I had to read to take in information that was just there, on the page for anyone to see, without having to interrogate the narrator’s motives. It was disconcerting for a former English major.

Matt Taylor

Matt Taylor

This semester, I am embedding myself in an upper division history course as part of my ongoing experiment in trying to find the best way to teach students information literacy in an authentic (and therefore more effective) way. But because it’s a history class, I have to read the required material—so that I don’t sound like an idiot when I talk to students. Part of the required reading was from Frontsoldaten, a history of the average German soldier. Unlike the actual textbook for the class, Frontsoldaten does have an argument: that German combatants cannot be viewed as a monolithic group. It was more familiar territory for me in that, after a few pages, I realized I was using the same close reading techniques I normally use for literature. I wasn’t lying to the students when I told them that there wasn’t much difference between how historians and literary critics go about their work (unless you’re an archaeologist).

Close reading is a set of skills that take practice to perfect. I hope the students in this history class can learn to question historians’ arguments, wonder about what’s being left out, analyze generalizations and value statements, andabove all—engage with the text. I’m just glad that I had the spring semester to get back in the habit of being cynical and scholarly.


2 thoughts on “Have reading skills, will travel

  1. After reading your opening passage I was going to say that I think in history writing you always do have to interrogate the narrator’s motives because it is most likely that they will have had an agenda (even if they are not aware of it) when they select what facts they are going to present and how they are going to go about that presentation. However, you seem to have got there yourself. I have had some of my best arguments with absent authors of historical works, although, of course, I will have been basing my side of things on my own particular agenda:-)


    • What I worry about is whether the instructor and I can get the students in the class to argue with the historians they read. During an earlier embedded librarian experiment, I noticed that students were very timid about challenging critics.


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