Deep Reading

The following is a message I sent Sunday night to my provost Marc Conner, who is an English professor and scholar of African-American literature. By chance over the weekend, I stumbled across something that he wrote at the end of The Way of the Writer: Reflections on the Art and Craft of Storytelling by Charles Johnson. It was such a jarring experience that I had to reflect on it, particularly since the afterword was titled “Notes From a Former Student”. I never expected that I actually knew that former student. My message veered into not just writing, but reading, coding, and digital storytelling. All of which are territory of this blog. So, I figured these thoughts were worth sharing more broadly. And that I should maintain the original context in terms of the message.

Dear Marc,

I experienced a surprise tonight when I reached the end of a book on the craft of writing by Charles Johnson. The afterword with your name took me back for a moment. (It was that sense, “Wait, I think I know this guy.” I knew of your scholarship on African-American fiction, particularly Ellison but I hadn’t realized your connection with Johnson. Obviously, I’ve not studied your CV.) Initially, I came across The Way of Writing this weekend while browsing the online site Tricycle and discovering a short interview with Johnson. (https://tricycle.org/trikedaily/master-class-charles-johnson/ ) For many years, I’ve known his novels and respected his study of Zen as well as his admirable physical fitness.

As one who dabbles myself in creative writing, I devour works on writing in hopes of unearthing new insights into my own understanding of how we write and tell stories in the multimodal environment of digital media. I’m struck by the apprenticeship model described in your afterword. At the same time, I’m taken with your phrase: “the majesty and magic of deep reading experiences”. I strongly attribute my own capacity for understanding technology to my undergraduate days as a computer-phobic English major who spent the majority of those four years immersed in the deep reading and analysis of complex literary works. At times, I often worry that the digital humanities are diluting the educational experience by taking the student’s attention away from close reading. Of course, our career-motivated students are hungry for technical skills. However, we have an obligation to put those skills in the context that those very skills will be subsumed in coming years by artificial intelligence and a cheaper international workforce. With the DCI minor, I’m searching for ways to re-create a deep pattern of thinking about these issues while also equipping students with enough confidence that they already possess the aptitude to learn any technical skill on their own. I’m nearly 30 years in my journey through digital craftsmanship but am only now growing more and more cognizant that work itself (whether it’s librarianship, teaching, or service to the university) is an intentional effort, a creative practice and not one of lurching from one crisis to another.  

Anecdotal evidence suggests that most people in the world of business (the world for which so many W&L students strive) don’t read fiction. You end the afterword with the description: “This is his phenomenology of teaching, as all distinction fades and the reader is left in the solitary confrontation with the transcendent written word.” I find myself reading that line several times since it triggers a sense of reflection. I wonder how well we prepare students for their own solitary confrontation with the world and the many ways in which communication is now (and will be) manifested. 

I feel that I should pose some insightful question to you but I have none that possess a ready answer. I’m going to embark on reading more by Johnson, and then someday I would like to chat with you about that. In the end, the whole point of this message is that I just want to say that it was a delight to read such a thoughtful afterward to such a thoughtful book that is provoking so many thoughts. 

Best,

jeff

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