Saturday, December 3, 2011

Why Can't Tori Read?

The Problem with Reading            

            I spend a lot of time thinking about reading and writing. That is, after all, my job, was the center of my college education, and is one of my favorite pastimes. And more and more, I am realizing how much of the confusion, miscommunication and general shouting past one another that goes on in our discourse stems not from an intractability in people's divergent viewpoints, but instead from many people's overestimation of their skill as a reader.

            I always considered myself a good reader... well, not always, I was in the lowest reading group through 2nd or 3rd grade, but then something clicked and by sixth grade I was doing book reports on Moby Dick and by 8th had finished the King James Bible, and generally was pretty confident in my ability to decipher text. Then, in my junior year of college I took a class on critical theory- structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstructionism, marxist readings, feminist readings, queer readings, all that academic BS. At the start of the class, the prof said, "This will be the hardest class you ever take." Well, I scoffed at that, did all the required reading, wrote my first paper, turned it in... and got a C-. And that was on the upper end of the curve. 

             What had gone wrong? Well, I had basically completely inverted the author's meaning (I think it was Saussure.) I had read the text with the rigor I had used for other non-fiction, but in this case it wasn't good enough. I realized then that I wasn't nearly as good a reader as I thought I was, and for the first time in a long time, actually had to think about the act of reading itself while engaged in it- monitoring my own comprehension, making and confirming predictions, mentally summarizing what was just read and then rereading to ensure accuracy, reading with a dictionary handy, etc.

              (As an aside, the above is why, even though I think most of the "theory" one learns as a philosophy or English major is total crap, the education itself is useful, because it teaches very high-level reading and critical thinking skills. Almost like Mr. Miyagi's "wax-on-wax-off," while the connection to reality might not seem apparent at first, practice in that skill does pay off.)

            As an English as a New Language teacher, these are the skills I am trying to impart into my students every day. And since most of my students come from a background of illiteracy, (people often talk about a student being the first in their family to go to college- many of my students are the first in their family to learn how to read) it can be quite a challenge. And what I witness, on an almost minute-ly basis, are students who are able to move their eyes over a text, are able to shape their lips and tongue to form the words- but have absolutely no idea what those words mean. They can say the words almost as well as you or I, and they can tell you what almost all of them mean individually, but they struggle immensely to extrapolate from those smaller units of meaning to sentences and paragraphs.

             But what makes this even more challenging is that they are convinced, absolutely convinced, that they are "reading." What else is there, besides moving your eyes over the text and saying the words, either aloud or in your head? Well, if you are reading this blog, you must be a fairly competent reader (more on that in a moment.) So you know that there is much more to reading than the mechanics of it.

               But my question is this: At what point do the rest of us run into texts that we are "reading" but not comprehending? I have often noticed in my own writing, this blog, emails, facebook arguments, that when people respond to it, there are a great many times where I can quickly see that our disagreement is not simply ideological, but is often more due to the reader's lack of careful attention to the meaning of the writing. And I am guilty of this as well- over the last year or two, I proofread a friend's work on Buddhism and Stoicism, not light stuff, and we spent many months going back and forth on things we essentially agreed on, but were having trouble reconciling because I wasn't fully understanding his intended meaning. Sometimes that was on him as a writer (which is why you have proofreaders) but it was more often on me for not reading carefully enough.

            Just last night, I sent a lengthy email to a friend of mine on a subject that was highly emotional for both of us. This person is the vice-president of a national company, and travels all over the US giving trainings and lectures. In other words, a highly successful and intelligent person. When he responded, he had read my email to have exactly the opposite meaning of what I had intended. Now, blog readers, I know I can be obtuse, and I do like to frig with the language to keep myself from getting bored, but I think, I hope, that when I wish to be clear, I can do so. I feel this email was pretty clear. But he had keyed in on one particular sentence (which, unsurprisingly, happened to be what he expected me to say), took it out of context and read the entire email in that light.

              At the same time, I got into an ideological discussion on religion and faith on google+ with a friend of mine who is a lawyer. She and I agree on many things, but disagree very strongly on a number of things as well. However, as I said to my wife this morning, no matter what the subject, or whether or not we leave the discussion agreeing to disagree, as we usually do, I always enjoy exchanging ideas with her because she reads everything I write very carefully. There is an actual discussion, and an actual exchange of ideas, not just two people presuming to know what the other person intends to say and responding right past them. So say what you will about lawyers, at least they have that going for them.

               These two diametrically opposed experiences trying to communicate myself through writing made me curious, from a personal perspective, about the semantic difficulty of my own writing. One tool we use as educators when selecting texts for our students is "lexile level." This is a measure established by a private company that measures the difficulty in reading a text. It does not take content into account, just the rarity of the vocabulary, the semantics of the sentences, and some other things (you can go look, I'm too lazy). The scale is from 200-2000, with each hundred (very) roughly corresponding to grade-level reading. (400-500 texts would be appropriate for 4th graders, very roughly speaking.) Anyway, I took the first 1,000 words of this post and fed it into Lexile's analyzer. The lexile of this post is 1470, which makes the challenge of reading it equivalent to John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism, and more challenging than the GMATs and the CPA exam. The New York Times is around a 1380. Now, I was as surprised as you probably are by this, but recall that Lexile only takes certain aspects of a text into account. For example, no specialized knowledge is required to read this post, whereas you certainly  would need some specialized knowledge to understand, let alone pass, the GMATs or CPA exam.

             I guess the point of that, besides satisfying my own curiosity, was to show that even when we are reading the writing of a friend's blog, or an email they sent us, there is a lot more room for error than most of us realize. Because most people do not read comfortably beyond around 1300, which is where 12th grade texts leave off, and let's be honest, most people, sadly, stop reading for knowledge after they no longer have teachers telling them to do so. Harry Potter is not exactly making you a better reader, or raising your IQ. (As a further point of reference, The Sorcerer's Stone- L880, The Deathly Hallows- L980, and much of that relatively high score for a YA novel comes from the made-up words, not the rigor of the language.)

Yes, yes, but what does this have to do with Dungeons and Dragons?

             I'll answer that in a second...

            There is a greater point here, and it does have to do with intelligence, in a broad sense. Part of my job is to attend school administration meetings, and every time I have to go to one of these, I sit in shock and awe (although I shouldn't at this point) at people's utter inability to actually hear what other people, who are sitting right across the table from them, looking them right in the face, are saying. Obviously, some of this has to do with people's egotism and love of their own voice, tuning other's out until they get their turn to talk. But I think it also has to do with intelligence. And this is why Dungeons and Dragons is so instructive.

             For those of you whose lives were not fortunate enough to spend at least a spell as a role-playing geek, in DnD (and numerous other RPG games) you create a character who you "role-play," speaking and making all decisions for them in a fictitious world. The game attempts to quantify your character's attributes, Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Wisdom, Intelligence and Charisma by assigning them numbers 1-20. Now, for the physical stats, the first three, it is relatively easy to imagine yourself as a character who is stronger or weaker than you, quicker or slower than you, or healthier or sicklier than you. And for the mental stats, it is not that much more challenging to role-play a character who is stupider than you, more foolish than you, or who lacks your social graces. 

            However, it is nearly impossible to accurately role-play a character who is smarter than you, wiser, or more charming (social intelligence). We find it nearly impossible to genuinely put ourselves into the head of someone who is smarter than us. How could we? If we had access to that degree of intelligence, we would, by necessity, actually be that intelligent. A computer can be programmed to run a simulation of a slower machine, but it can't be programmed to run a simulation of a faster one.

              The next part of this is going to sound wretchedly, horribly conceited. Please forgive me that, because I think the point is relevant, worth stating, and may help others who find themselves in a similar position. (Which is probably most of the people I know who read this blog.) I have noticed, increasingly over the past few years, that I am often frustrated with people I am not intimate with, co-workers,  store clerks, etc. for the same recurring reason. I will often find myself in a position where I have asked a question or made a statement and their response is infuriatingly not a direct response to what I said. I repeat myself, then restate it, then explain it six more ways to no avail; I keep getting the same irrelevant answer. And then I realize- they are answering not based on what I am saying, but on the highest level of conception of the topic at hand that they can muster. For whatever reason, they cannot conceive of what I am saying, and so are resorting to what they know about the subject, in the best way they understand it.

             Yes, I know that is wicked arrogant. But before you get truly disgusted, consider two things. One, why is it that intelligence is the one human trait that we can't bear to hear that some people might posses more of than others? Most of us have no problem admitting when someone is faster than us, stronger than us, funnier than us, nicer than us or even better looking. I can, off the top of my head, think of at least half a dozen people in each of those categories who I know personally that posses those traits to a greater degree than I do. But we get really squeamish when we start talking about intelligence. True, intelligence is harder to quantify than some of those other traits- it's pretty hard to argue you are faster than someone who consistently beats you in a foot race. And it is also true that we consider intelligence to be the quality the draws the sharpest distinction between us and any other animals- it is the most "human" trait. But I think the attachment is still more emotional than rational.

             And further- Why is it that intelligence is one of the few traits that we feel it okay to despise the lack of in someone else? In general, most everyone else will consider you quite the prick if you openly despise people who are slower than you, get sick more often than you, or are not as good-looking as you. But we all love to complain about how "stupid" people are. There are traits worth being disgusted with in other people- lack of self control, lack of moral standards, lack of kindness, but it is odd that people so often accept intelligence as one of them. (Myself included.)

             So I'll be blunt. Using one measure of intelligence, IQ, I happen to posses a trait to a degree which separates me more from the "average" person than the average person is separated from Forrest Gump. (Try to think of this objectively.) In other words, as frustrated as the average person would be trying to communicate a complex idea to Gump, people with significantly above average IQ experience the same frustration when trying to communicate an idea to the average person. This revelation, rather than making me more cock-sure and conceited than I already am, actually has helped me be much less of a dick (I think) when I am trying to explain something to someone and they just aren't freakin' gettin' it! And as I said, most people that I know who would be reading this are probably in a similar position, and I hope that even a quiet acknowledgment that some people simply possess more intelligence than others makes people less inclined to treat others with disrespect when they are "being stupid."

Who Cares, Rob?

            We live in a golden age of communication. The increasing ubiquity of the internet has democratized and spread interpersonal communication to aspects of our lives that previous generations could scarcely conceive of. You can read dozens of viewer-reviews of a movie you are about to stream on Netflix, or consumer-reviews of a product you are going to buy on Amazon, you can read friend's blogs, try to interpret their cryptic tweets and texts, or get yourself embroiled in a shouting match in the comments section on The Huffington Post or Fox News. We spend a tremendous amount of time these days trying to convey ourselves to fewer and fewer people we actually know, whose quirks, backgrounds and manners of speaking are familiar to us, and more and more time trying to convey ourselves and understand people who are increasingly geographically and culturally removed from us. 

             The old rule of thumb used to be, "You don't discuss sex, religion or politics in polite company." Their may be a new rule, "No sane person reads the comments section on a news article discussing sex, religion or politics." If you ever have, and we all have, you should recall that the most infuriating part is not humanity's bottomless stupidity, but rather the way someone will post a smug rebuttal to someone else's comment and it has nothing to do with what the first person was saying. 

              Technology is only going to increase the degree to which we rely on communication and discourse from people we do not know to makes decisions that greatly affect our lives. Lest intelligent discourse succumb to that cacophony of stupidity, as individuals we each need to take two active steps. One- Recognize our own limitations as readers and thinkers and work diligently to correct them and make up for them. Two- Recognize the limitations of others, and when the mistake is one of communication, work patiently to correct it, and when the failure is one of deeper understanding work hard to attempt to see how they understand the topic at hand, so that you can help them bridge the gap to your way of understanding, so that both positions can be judged on their merits, not on how close to home they originated.



  1. A pleasure as always. Also, nice swervy title.

  2. I didn't comment on your last one, the one about journalism, 'cause I read it on my phone, but again, weird how synchronized our thought processes can be. Similar vein, anyway.

  3. Nice post.

    "why is it that intelligence is the one human trait that we can't bear to hear that some people might posses more of than others?

    I think intelligence is so off limits when being critical of others because people view their own and others as something that can't be changed. Which obviously isn't true, most people just don't want to put any work into after high school or college. Other traits like strength, speed, looks, weight etc are all something more easily improved. So feeling like that's the card they were dealt, including myself, just tend to get so emotional about it.

  4. Yeah, I agree, Chiefy.

    Here's an article I just read on the WSJ a few days ago that kinda got me thinking about this in the first place. It basically cites some studies that show IQ is a product of how often a brain is challenged by learning new tasks. Some of it is innate, of course, like any other trait, but like those others, is a product of what people do with it. Anything can atrophy.

    My point wasn't really about IQ, overall, but just about how we all can only imagine that everyone else is capable of the same things we are, which isn't true, and how often we get unjustifiably frustrated because we feel they are just being difficult.

  5. I wasn't trying to prove your point of lack of reader comprehension by misinterpreting your main point, honest. ha. I felt like there were a few things to take away. I just don't fall into the frustrated category.

  6. Lol. No I get it.

    I just got nervous that people would read it as me talking about me, when I was really just trying to use myself as an example because that is what I know best.