April 10, 2021

Interdisciplinary Discourse

Forum for KU Academics

Reading for Assimilation

Hem Raj Kafle
I have been teaching “Four Levels of Interacting with a Text” (Literal Comprehension, Interpretation, Critical Thinking and Assimilation) for ten years. It is a part of the course in English communication skills for Kathmandu University’s science and engineering freshmen. We English teachers sometimes share what each of us has been teaching in addition to following the guidelines from Adventures in English (now replaced by Flax-golden Tales). We make passing remarks about such cases that students copy readymade ‘levels’ from guide books, or mistake one level for another, or write the same thing for all levels.
I have tried hard from the beginning to give my freshmen the correct sense of the aspects of reading and writing about a text. The success still is scanty regarding student presentations during the in- and end-semester exams. The one reason, which all of us may readily accept, is that teaching of these skills starts long before students have learned to own texts and got sense of the value of serious reading. In my opinion, one who hasn’t learned to read with purpose and passion hasn’t learned to own a text, or vice versa.
With this conviction as a guiding principle, from last year I decided to modify my earlier approach which was to make students read guidelines from the text, see the editors’ sample on “Yudhisthira’s Wisdom,” lecture on the texts, and ask students to produce their versions. The modification involves four important components. First, I assign students to ask questions in emails on any of the four levels, and answer them with examples and explanations. These emails are forwarded to all the class members so that everyone gets my version of the reading/writing. I also make a point that my version need not be final and that they can still work on it. Second, I familiarize students with diverse kinds of short texts and check their level of comprehension in each, especially the level of internalization, skills in summarizing or retelling, and critiquing.
Third, I tell them real stories of how people own texts and reading. This occasionally draws my own passions and prejudices for certain writers, books, texts including those in the syllabus. I emphasize that personalization of texts and reading culminates in better understanding and critical thinking. Fourth, I ask students to create a complete “text profile” of the texts,  which they are required to put in their journals. The profile contains all the fundamental elements of a text:  title, author, genre, setting, tone, main themes/arguments, main characters, main events/actions/scenes, important paragraphs/lines, important excerpts, and a brief summary. A complete profile functions as a rich resource for writing the four levels.
I hope my reading classes now fare better than two years ago. I have kept myself alert to check the outcomes.
Of the Four Levels, I find assimilation the most pertinent and interesting. To me assimilation means personalization of reading. But how does one personalize it? How do you know someone has done this? So, in the past, I always looked for samples of assimilation so that I would understand it myself and teach students more substantially. I did not realize my own experiences with certain books could prove a sample. I might be waiting for a chance or a coincidence or an exposure to realize this. And I did not get it until June 2008.
Early in the morning on June 28, I joined a queue in front of the counter of Northwest Airlines at Suvarnabhumi Airport, Bangkok. It was my first transit point towards Japan on my way to University of Florida, Gainesville, USA. I was nervously waiting for the agent’s queries and boarding passes when I noticed a book in the hand of a white man standing in front of me.  It was not unusual to find a European or an American with a book in an airport. But what really caught my eyes was the title: Lies My Teacher Told Me. I thought it was some sort of memoir of someone who grew up to know that one of his teachers had told certain lies. It was no time and place to talk about books, standing in a fast moving queue, and right before the book-owner reached the agent and started his business. He got his work done in a few minutes and hastened away tugging a large suitcase. I caught last glimpse of the book and presented myself to the agent for my transit clearance.
I forgot the book for about a fortnight. On July 13, we were taken to a book store, (Books and Books) in Corel Gables, Miami. I vainly searched for some serious books on diaspora or communication, whereas some of  my companions got hold of a couple or more of different stuffs.  I was going to look either a miser or a philistine without a purchase. But I suddenly remembered the book and inquired the manager if they had it handy.  He was not sure but promised to check. And he had a last copy. I did not check the price. Enthralled by this find, I picked up half a dozen other curious titles just before our director beckoned us for leaving the store. In addition to Lies, at least two of the other books happened to be great: The Book that Changed My Life and The Bitch in the House.
Lies… by James W. Loewen turned out to be a different work from what I had imagined it to be. It was the rewriting of some of the major facets/facts of American history which, according to the writer, were distorted in history textbooks. This revelation sufficed to keep me glued to the book almost all the night. But, I read the preface and jumped to the most familiar title “The Land of Opportunity” (Chapter 7). The following quote at the beginning of this chapter made my further reading meaningful:
Ten men in our country could buy the whole world and ten million can’t buy enough to eat.  [Will Rogers, 1931]
I began to see America differently from the following day despite my awareness that looking at it in the light of the 1931 statement would be anachronistic. At one point the director asked me of my impression of Miami. I said, with my eyes on a beggar to the other side of the street, “Looks much like an Indian city.” She did not ask any other question, nor demanded explication for my terse analogy. I knew she did not like it at all. The sight of the beggar had induced me to allude to Will Rogers’s ten million.
Later, I marked the presence of the “homeless” in the streets of New York and Washington DC, and willingly gave one dollar bill to whoever accosted me for it. Some friends teased me for this appearance of generosity. I explained, “It’s their money and their people. And it is big for a Nepali chap to be giving a buck each to some of Uncle Sam’s poor nephews in Washington DC.”
The Book that Changed My Life has stories of seventy one “remarkable” writers, who “celebrate the books that matter most to them.” The book presents intimate accounts of how reading helped these writers find directions in life. Sounds curious, right? I love this book so much. The Bitch in the House can prove yet another milestone for a reader to see American society in a new way, especially in the light of how contemporary feminist writers define their roles as lovers, wives and professionals in the changing times. 
These stories may suffice to create some awareness in my students that books help us redefine our view of the world and its people. And there lies the value of personalizing books, making them a part of our lives.

[Courtesy: Yatree’s Ruminations]

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