On the Value of “Soft Reading”

Blame it on Oprah.  Blame it on One City One Book.  Blame it on the declining reading habits of ordinary Americans (as recent popular wisdom would have you believe). Just about every highschool, community center and early-college common curriculum in the past decade or so has tried out some version of a community-read initiative.  SUNY Cortland, the state college at which I teach courses in first-year writing, has selected Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s non-fiction book We Should All Be Feminists as its community read for the upcoming Fall 2017 semester.

We Should All Be Feminists originated as a talk delivered at TEDxEuston, a yearly conference concerned with all things Africa: culture, economics, sociology, entertainment, pop culture, technology, innovation.  The book (and its accompanying TedTalk) argue a number of relevant points in their brief spans.  Running a mere 48 small pages, the book is not what anyone might call heavy on detail.  Indeed, I was able to comfortably read it in its entirety while watching Cornell rowers begin and run through their practice at Cayuga Lake’s Cass Park.

I was finished by their cool-down lap.

Teaching a book like this at the collegiate level presents a number of predicaments for the dedicated writing instructor.  I’ll outline them below, but suffice it to say: the book is not heavy on detail, nor critical thought, nor demand on the reader’s cognitive, reasoning or evaluative faculties.  It asks little of students, other than to consider everyday events from the perspective of another identity (which is no small feat, and We Should All Be Feminists does this to a great extent).  The book begins a conversation, which is important, but my worry as an instructor is that the book makes no attempt to finish or provide answers to those conversations.

What is the value of “soft reading” to the first-year writing classroom, and to critical thinkers at large? Here are some considerations:

The predicaments:

(1) We Should All Be Feminists is, in all of its being, a decorated TedTalk that hasn’t even been decorated up much.  It adheres to the standard pitfalls characterizing the genre: a compulsive avoidance of any sort of complexity or fuzziness, an intellectually paralyzing reliance on the charm and charisma of its dazzling speaker, a hyperbolic hopefulness for the future and its grandiose, shiny promises.

TedTalks are full of fluff.  Their goal is to reach a wide audience, and they do this expertly.  The tradeoff, however, is that they become the Donald Trump of educational oration: emotional response, rather than knowledge acquisition, is the real takeaway, and the curators amplify this in their delivery and presentation choices.  The attention to atmosphere is paramount, as is the importance allocated to speaker ethos, to noble treatises on the capacity of technology in conjunction with human action, to the effectiveness of positivity and optimism and all things buoyant.

I left the book with feelings of optimism, rosiness and idealism.  I left daydreaming.  Where do we start? Adichie says we begin by raising our sons and daughters better, by asking them to examine the society around them and to critically examine how we treat gender, otherness and difference. But what does it say to our students, in what is likely their first semester of college learning, and perhaps is even their first jaunt into university-level reading, that we give them a document so unexacting, untaxing, untroublesome? We Should All Be Feminists likely will not be disagreeable, at least on an abstract ideas-based basis, to even the most socially conservative of students. It makes no explicit mention of white privilege.  It does not go excessively far to challenge existing constructions and institutions. It is rarely specific. This isn’t Judith Butler, for god’s sake. Adichie in this book is to feminism what a Tim Cook iPhone-release video is to hard coding and programming: a pretty face that fails to address some real, complicated headaches. Some topics may not be picturesque, but they’re worth to examination, even in first-year writing.

Adichie’s book wanders dangerously close to surface marketing divorced from actual content, unless you define “content” in the way Buzzfeed or Screenrant or The Richest do. Is this what we want our students to be confusing with intricate, complex academic argumentation?

(2) We Should All Be Feminists begins conversations it does not in any way attempt to finish or venture answers to.  A short snippet:

Culture does not make people.  People make culture.  If it is true that the full humanity of women is not our culture, then we can and must make it our culture. (46)

Nowhere else in the thin pages of the essay are these short introductions to social constructivism detailed further.  Adichie does dedicate small sections to discussion of gender roles and gender performativity, but they aren’t suitable for more than a few minutes of sustained conversation regarding the specific incidents the book outlines.

(3) Practically speaking, We Should All Be Feminists is painfully limited.  I plan to spend two class sessions, at most, discussing the book, and perhaps incorporate it into a few writing assignments later on throughout the semester.  I will perhaps weave it into a possible paper topic, and I’ll maybe even incorporate a “make your own TedTalk”-like option into an “UnEssay” project I’m currently theorizing based upon a recent essay in College Composition and Communication authored by Patrick Sullivan. The practical reality, however, is that the book will be only a minor part of the course I end up teaching.  Perhaps this is a suitable position for the the community-writing initiative.  We need to be realistic, in any case. We Should All Be Feminists is only what it is.

The vindicators:

(1) We Should All Be Feminists introduces students to feminism and begins a conversation, especially among cis-male and white students, that they may not have actively discussed before. One of the chief walls Adichie attempts to broach in the book is the difficult initiative to kindle conversations that may be difficult to begin with, to spur social changes and action at the micro level. Adichie includes five or ten specific events from both her childhood and adult lives which students will, in concrete terms, be able to analyze, pick apart, discuss, scrutinize, evaluate and break down.

The book, while being simple on detail, is not altogether simple on ideas.  Masculinity, privilege (based upon gender, race and class, and often in combination), pay inequality, social construction, and structural patriarchy all make at least episodic appearances.

(2) Students read an authoritative, commanding and decisive black female writer who is able to plainly and precisely expound upon points that are problematic to encounter from any other perspective.  As a composition instructor, I’ve seen first-hand how difficult it is to find texts written by underrepresented and systemically-oppressed groups– there just aren’t as many texts written by black women as there are by caucasian men, and even in 2017, it’s not a close call.  Simply put, there are more options that fail to diversify the author list for a particular course than there are who do.

(3) We Should All Be Feminists does the dirty work.  It makes a few uncomfortable points, such as that much of the problems it brings up are completely avoidable and fixable.  It raises awareness, and it suggests avenues, briefly, in which our society should turn toward in order to better itself.

I’m excited to teach We Should All Be Feminists during the upcoming semester, though I shall do so with reservation based upon the predicaments outlined above.  I don’t plan to disparage the book for its airiness and superficiality to my students during lecture sessions. Rather, I plan to situate the book within my classroom as a piece to begin semester-long ongoing conversations on the second or third discussion session and then to periodically re-visit its pages throughout the semester, incorporating it into discussions of genre, audience, authority, purpose, ethos/pathos/logos, even discussions of citizenship, academic honesty and the power of writing. Additionally, I’d like to offer a few alternative text suggestions that might serve similar purposes for SUNY Cortland and community-reading initiatives like it: Adichie’s own Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions, which could likely be taught in a single class session, or Alain Badiou’s The True Life, a short commentary on modern living from the renowned philosopher written specifically for dissemination to a mass audience to communicate what Badiou considered of paramount importance to the burgeoning generation. A third choice that might be equally fantastic is Brooke Gladstone’s The Trouble with Reality, which would ask our students to consider questions of media, representation, fact, political bubbles and the construction of reality itself.  I find these texts extremely appetizing for an introductory first-year writing course.

Are these conversations not part of what composition is all about?

I’m spending the summer hosting wine and beer tastings at a winery on Cayuga Lake in the Finger Lakes region of New York.  Anyone who knows me will tell you there’s little I like more than to analyze the contours of a fine wine (the full-bodied and mature of which Paul Valery refers to as nature’s perfect objects) or to spur palate development by recommending the double-hopped IPAs I’ve become such a fan of. If you’re around, stop by Americana and say hi.  I’ll be hanging.

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