#MLA18: Anxious Reading, Anxious Learning

This past year has brought a welcome break from the classroom. In my new-ish position as a graduate assistant in a teaching and learning center, I’ve had the opportunity to explore and reflect on what it takes to build fruitful, engaging, challenging learning experiences. Working “behind the scenes” with students, staff, and faculty to support learning inside and outside the classroom has highlighted the challenges, rewards, and precariousness of working and learning in higher ed.

I’m excited to share my experiences at #MLA18 this year as part of Session 203 – Anxious Pedagogies: Negotiating Precarity and Insecurity in the Classroom. If you’re in NYC, please join us for what promises to be an engaging (and early!) conversation about pedagogy and precarity. You can find my prepared remarks below.

I’m so grateful to be on this roundtable with such gracious and anxious voices rethinking our disciplinary practices and pedagogies. Many thanks to Shawna for gathering us all for this conversation!

I am here as a graduate student, instructor, and, in my current position, as a graduate assistant working in student support and faculty development. My own research explores the literary encounter – the ethics, empathy, and sometimes violence that shape and are shaped by our reading practices.

And, so, I want to spend some time thinking through the constitutive encounter of our discipline and what it means to read in the classroom in this state of anxiety, and to offer ways we might address and embrace anxiety in the classroom.

Reading is risky. Reading makes us anxious. A text gets under our skin, bends our bodies, catches our breath, holds us in thrall, in suspense, in adoration, in disgust. As an embodied, affective experience, reading takes us apart and reorients our relationship to the world, to desire, to what can be known, to each other.

Wai Chee Dimock reminds us that the literary objects we read also have unstable ontologies, resonating in unexpected and often unruly ways when touched by readers in different historical moments and contexts.

This instability is what fuels reading inside and outside the discipline. We risk ourselves in the possibility that we might be remade in the experience of reading, in the hopes that our experience might remake the world.

But this unstable, unruly, anxious reading, with all its risk and hopes, isn’t the kind of reading I see in the classroom.

The kinds of reading students are required to do – by institutions, by circumstances, by us – is predicated on security and location. In the college literature classroom, we ask students to “master” texts. We expect them to determine meaning, to define terms, all of which we assess and quantify in rubrics and exams. We ask students to approach reading with suspicion, detached and disinterested.

This kind of reading is how I was taught to read in college, in graduate school even, but it feels so alien and alienating to my actual experience – both what drew me to the field in the first place and what guides my research.

As others here have suggested, anxiety is about our attachments rather than our detachment, our complex, fraught, and often messy embeddedness in the text and in the world. Denying the anxiety – often a pleasurable anxiety – we feel when reading squashes the full range of connections forged in our encounter with literature, denying the ways that our lives are bound up in each other, bound up in language, bound up in stories.

Suspicious reading demands security. It becomes, as Eve Sedgwick notes, a “strong theory” which “blot[s] out any sense of the possibility of alternative ways of understanding things or of things to understand” (Touching Feeling 131). Suspicious reading forecloses what’s possible in its paranoid defense of its own mastery.

Anxious reading is generous to a fault, opening both text and reader to disorientation and dislocation. I don’t want to downplay the risks in this kind of reading (a kind of reading many of us practice already when we read for “fun”) – we open ourselves to being wounded by texts that deny us or dehumanize us. But this anxiety can also open us up to new ways of seeing and thinking, making space for different ways of knowing and being in the world. Anxious reading’s unstable ontologies and anxious attachments open up new avenues for relationality and demand a different response and different pedagogical, ethical, and political responsibilities.

I’m heartened and excited by the recent moves to reexamine our methods and motivations – critical digital pedagogies, surface reading, thick description, postcritique, affect theories, etc. Probing the stakes of what we do as a discipline should recalibrate what we do in the classroom. Exploring “alternate” models of “serious” reading gives us an opportunity to engage, value, and extend the kinds of readers and reading we encounter in the classroom rather than discipline students into an unrealistic and alienating detachment.

As Rita Felski argues, “We need a critical vocabulary that is more attuned to the complexity of ties – as not just chains of domination, but also indispensable forms of relation. Bonds do not only constrain, but also sustain: they enable, create, make possible” (“Postcritical Reading” 4). Embracing the anxiety of reading might build a pedagogy of sustinative, ethical attachments, a literary pedagogy that recognizes the ways that reading brings us closer not only to the text, but to each other and the world.

So far I’ve been painting a relatively rosy picture of the anxious encounters at the heart of our discipline – the idea that leaning into our anxiety as readers might reorient our pedagogies toward the ethical stakes and dynamic affects (and effects) of the literary encounter.

But I am deeply conscious of the ambient and lived anxiety, precarity, and vulnerability of our current moment. How can I ask my students to take risks when we are all so precariously positioned inside and outside the classroom?

I’ve primarily taught core writing and literature courses to non-majors at a decently sized private Jesuit institution. I often hear refrains of resistance from even the most generous students: I am only here because this class is required. The reading is (too) hard. We should be reading more relevant/popular/better things. This class is too hard for a core class, too hard for non-English majors. I don’t see how this class is relevant to me. This resistance is felt in some measure across the board – from business and nursing, pre-med and engineering, communications and science students.

This resistance has many causes – the vocationalization of higher education, the failure of the humanities writ large to articulate, defend, and advocate for their value, my own failures to articulate learning goals and justify what we’re doing in the classroom. These refrains of resistance echo so loudly, even before we step into the classroom, that they drown out the possibility of different melodies.

But these refrains also index our precarity in higher education. We are so institutionally bound up in one another – for grades, requirements, teaching evaluations, tenure files, etc. – that we cannot see or take pleasure in the intellectual, affective, experiential, and pedagogical attachments we form in the classroom. We, and here I think especially students, can see the institutional stakes so clearly that they blind us to the pedagogical and ethical stakes of building a collaborative, productively anxious classroom. It is difficult to create spaces where anxiety leads to risk rather than resistance.

It’s no wonder that students who take on crushing debt for the increasingly ephemeral economic opportunities a college degree offers; who have been taught that college is a path towards a job; who don’t see themselves in a largely white, male professoriate; who struggle with physical and mental health; who are disabled and underserved by ableist institutions; who work multiple jobs; who are “non-traditional” students; who are caretakers for family, friends, and communities; who are homeless or who face housing insecurity; who are victims of violence, including epidemic violence on campus; who are learning the language; who are facing uncertain legal status (and the list goes on . . .) resist the anxiety of reading and learning, seeking instead the comforting fictions of mastery, instrumental reading, and instrumental education.

The anxiety of our precarity in higher education all too often drowns out the anxiety of learning.

And so I want to end with questions: How can we create a classroom and build a pedagogy that embraces the anxious encounter at the heart of our discipline? How can we embrace the anxiety of reading and learning from positions of precarity? How can we build classroom spaces and learning experiences where anxiety produces risk rather than resistance?

// Photo by Eli Francis on Unsplash

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