“Reading With” is a project born out of my research and teaching experiences. The idea is that we might fill in the blank with any number of audiences: reading with engineers, reading with economists, reading with lawyers, reading with inner-city communities, etc. My current course at UC Santa Barbara, “Reading with Scientists: How to Export Literature,” begins what I hope will be a longer thought process about how books might build bridges between specialized communities otherwise isolated from each other. Assignments from the course, which include designing a lesson plan to teach literature in a science classroom and annotating a literary text for a scientific audience, will form the basis of a fledgling website for the project: readingwith.com.
In order to overcome divisions between readers, it is important to embrace reading with each other, rather than reading to, reading for, or reading at. To this end, our class time in “Reading with Scientists” follows a general pattern of analysis and application. On Mondays, “Reading Days,” we concentrate on more traditional literary study, understanding and processing nineteenth- and twentieth-century novels, short stories, and poems on their own terms. On Wednesdays, “Practicum Days,” we explore pieces about contemporary scientific issues and spend time discussing how we might “translate” or “export” our literary texts for a scientific audience. A key focus for our scientific selections is textbooks, some of which are being assigned in science courses offered at UCSB this quarter.
“Reading With” is grounded in archival research that I have done about nineteenth-century reading practices in Mutual Improvement Societies, small informal reading groups that fostered a model of rotating expertise. Members took turns presenting papers and leading discussions on different topics, ranging from astronomy to fiction, from politics to poetry. I also see “Reading With” as a way to overcome two kinds of specialization that I trace in my research: that between academic disciplines and that between the academy and those outside it. Stay tuned to see how the project develops!