The Reading Protocol

Today I interviewed a faculty member who will be teaching an online cross-cultural communication course at the university where I work. The online course is new but her expertise in the area is decades-long and rich and varied, and I enjoyed talking to her about how one goes about studying and practicing something as ubiquitous yet nebulous as communication.

One of the first assignments in her language classes is a reading protocol, or series of questions prompting students to reflect on their reading practices. The reading protocol is an opportunity for her to get to know her students and their learning needs, but also to encourage them to prioritize self-care in their education. When you take the time to notice, do you find that you need absolute quiet when you read? Well, seek it out, find that space. Does repetition help you or bore you? Are you taking care of your body while you do the necessary work?

She moved to hand me the worksheet but it was in German, so I just jotted notes as she translated. The questions included:

  • where do I sit when I read?
  • what do I do when I read?
  • what do I notice when I read?
  • what moves me when I read?
  • what excites me when I read?
  • when do I get bored when I read, and what happens?

Her questions resonated with a practice I first encountered in one of my online creative writing classes last fall, when the instructor asked us to notice which passages glow as we read–and how we felt about the glow. Several assignments involved copying out passages that glowed, and then writing a response to them; for me, those passages could be particularly beautiful, meaningful, opaque, mournful, or infuriating.

I told that to the language professor, and added “That was the first time in my education anyone asked me how I felt about the reading. And I have a PhD in literature.”

“Oh my God,” she said.

If you peruse my reading roundups, you know that I do spend a lot of time now thinking about how books make me feel. Whether I read them fast or slow. Where I am when I read them. How my environment affects my reading. Etc. It’s my book journal, I do what I want. But I can’t recall being a student in a classroom where my experience as a feeling mind inside of a feeling body was as integral to my interpretation as my training as a critical thinker. Even as an instructor, I mostly invited students to talk about their book feelings as a sort of icebreaker, a warmup lap before diving into a difficult text. To hear an experienced professor insist that personal reflection was essential to learning–“I see no way around it,” she said–well, I felt moved. Elated.

And a little sad too. Why were we inhaling all of that incredible literature if not to feel something?

Anyway, consider this your invitation to think about how you were taught to read at a college level–or any level, really–and how you were taught to think about the purpose of reading and literature classes.

Consider this also your invitation to think about your own reading protocol. Where do you read? How do you read? When do you feel most focused when you read? (If you want more reading in your life, can you make an adjustment to your habits to allow it?) What makes you feel? What bores you? What excites you? And so on.

I’ll start: I mostly read on my subway commute, which means short bursts of reading (10 or 20 minutes depending on which train I’m on). If I’m anxious to finish a book, I will stay up late and read it in bed. I occasionally treat myself to a book lunch, and sit at a cafe near my work to read while I eat. (I always read something while I eat, book or internet, unless I am in company.) I have recently rediscovered the pleasures of reading in the bath; a distraction-free stretch of soaking my sore muscles is perfect for long or difficult books. I do not really have a comfortable chair to sit and read in at home, which is absolutely something to change in my environment. I am currently reading Black Leopard Red Wolf by Marlon James, and it is just as challenging to read as everyone said–dense, cryptic, hallucinogenic–and I am finding it easiest to hold it very lightly in my mind, as one might to with poetry, and let the images wash over me. It is by turns stunning and exciting and frustrating and gross and poignant.


1 thought on “The Reading Protocol”

  1. […] Black Leopard Red Wolf by Marlon James. I’m not very far into this tome, but I can see why people compared it to Game of Thrones as soon as a bunch of people got stabbed and one lost an eye just a few pages in. I’m not really in the right headspace for this level of violence–remember how it took me years to read Who Fears Death?–but I have a limited library loan of this bestseller, so I press on and find that I enjoy it most when I let my mind move lightly over the prose, and allow the astonishing imagery and language to glow. (I wrote more about that yesterday.) […]

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