News | 31 January 2012

Understanding the written word: Educators, students weigh in at UC Santa Cruz on past, present and future of reading


Alberto Manguel

Alberto Manguel (photo credit: JON WEIAND/SENTINEL)

Understanding the written word: Educators, students weigh in at UC Santa Cruz on past, present and future of reading

Posted:   01/26/2012 08:45:53 PM PST

SANTA CRUZ – In the world of e-readers, 150 character narratives, and text-message novellas, literature professors often look over a generational – and technological – gap when addressing their students.

But professors, faculty and interested students from UC Santa Cruz, UC Berkeley, Stanford and Mills College are critically examining the ways in which the reader and act of reading has changed over the years in the project “What is a reader?”

Sponsored by the Teagle Foundation, the project, launched in 2008, looks at the ways that readers interact with various forms of literature and media.

Alberto Manguel (photo credit: JON WEIAND/SENTINEL)

“All of us have been trained with the assumption that the way you study literature is by sitting down with a book and spending quality time with it, re-reading passages … really letting the text settle with you,” said UCSC literature professor Deanna Shemek. “[But] we began to wonder if we were asking people to do something that they are less inclined or use to doing.”

Professors and faculty with the project met Thursday at UCSC’s McHenry Library to engage in a day of lectures and workshops focused on the history of reading.

The morning’s workshops launched with a presentation by Elisabeth Remak-Honnef, special collections librarian at UCSC and a lecturer on Medieval texts.

Facsimile manuscripts and single-leaves from medieval texts were displayed on the table, their pages gently turned by professors in attendance.

Professor Heidi Brayman-Hackel, of UC Riverside and an expert on early modern English readers, was the other presenter in the morning. Among other things, the group discussed a published article by Professor Juan Poblete.

Alberto Manguel

Alberto Manguel (photo credit: JON WEIAND/SENTINEL)

Poblete lectured on two historical periods he pinpointed as having shaped reading practices in Latin America: the first colonial period from 1550 to 1650 and 19th century with the emergence of more widely circulated periodicals and newspapers.

Knowing the ways in which reading practices of the past developed can allow us to better look at our own moment, Poblete said.

But “What is a reader?” does not only look retrospectively at the act of reading, it looks to the students – the readers – of today.

But their goal for the project is not to become a forum for criticism of changes in readership, but rather a place for thinking through such concepts.

“We’re coming at this with a pretty open mind,” Shemek said. “We want to learn and we’re not coming into this wringing our hands. We’re taking this time to try and look at the big picture and how it will make us better teachers.”

The day closed with a final lecture with writer Alberto Manguel who penned, “A History of Reading.”

Thursday’s events were the third time the project had met as a collective. Previously, those involved met at UC Berkeley and Stanford. The group will meet again in the spring and hold its next public event at Mills in the fall.

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