What Happens When Our Students Read, and What Can We Do About It?

[As published in Reading Empirical Research Studies: The Rhetoric of Research, ed. John R. Hayes, Richard E. Young, Michele L. Matchett, Maggie McCaffrey, Cynthia Cochran, and Thomas Hajduk. 43-73. Hillsdale, New Jersey: Erlbaum, 1992.]

Additional Note by the Author:

In an article about the changes in my own and my colleagues' ideas about reading, teaching and learning over the decade between 1977 and 1987, I said that when you stop being embarrassed by what you used to believe, you've probably died and simply not noticed (Hunt, 1987: 148). So, it's no surprise that much about this study seems misconceived to me now, almost ten years after it was conducted. Most obviously, the ease with which I assumed that I knew what Graham Greene's story was "about" or "did" seems to me a very strikingly questionable assumption. Almost equally important is what I now see as my underestimation of the power of the reading situation, that is, the way the students and my colleagues understood the social situation central and important parts of the reading process.

On the other hand, there's a good deal about the study which I'm still happy with. More than anything else, I'm still pleased with the way in which it tried to address, directly and perhaps naively, a question which many English teachers, it seemed to me, did not want to address; the question of what really was happening when their students read rich and complicated literary texts. My continuing attempts to address that question have led me (and perhaps some others as well) toward a great deal of learning -- only some of it about what happens when my students read -- that I suspect I might never have come to otherwise.

Another way to describe that basic intention might be to say that the study tries to occupy the territory between research and teaching. I'm no longer so convinced that you can do that this easily, but I continue to think it's worth doing. We need to continue to keep research and theory in touch with practice. That second question -- "and what can we do about it?" -- may have been an arrogant one, but it highlighted the sense I had that I was at least as much a teacher as a researcher, and that my need to know was fueled by an even more immediate need to do.

The study also acknowledges the ethical problem I've faced a little more self-consciously since that time: what are our obligations to our research subjects? The problem's not posed here in the dramatic way it is for, say, a medical researcher, some of whose subjects may die in the course of demonstrating that the treatment they didn't get was the efficacious one. But it's nonetheless real: as a teacher, it seemed clear to me that in justice I could only design a study from which I believed my students could learn something. That may, incidentally, be one of the reasons the study may seem engaging to read: it was shaped as much by a desire to share that story and to help the participants in the study grow as readers as by a need to learn about the processes involved. The "data" it yielded were almost a by-product.

As I have continued the process which I was beginning at the time of this study -- trying to understand more about why people (especially students) read as they do -- I've come to be more and more aware of the limitations, for my purposes, of what Stephen Jay Gould calls "experimental results," and the advantages of what he calls "historical explanation" (Gould, 1989; see Hunt and Vipond (1992) for an account of the research which has pushed me in this direction). Perhaps paradoxically, I now see what I acknowledged in 1982 as the limitations of the study -- its ignorance of the methods of statistical inference, its lack of generalizability -- as it strong suits. It did push me, and may have pushed some of those who heard it at the conference or read it in manuscript, toward looking hard at what individual readers were doing (as opposed, for instance, to looking for statistical generalizations across readers). Whether we understood any better is probably not as important as the fact that we were trying to understand what those readers were doing, just as Mina Shaughnessy had (1977), a few years earlier, urged us to do with our writers.

The question raised most immediately by a rereading of this study, however, is one that would have surprised me very much in 1982: what is the status of the story as it appears in this text, as you sit and read it as a part of this book? Whose utterance is this story here and now, how is it framed, what points does it afford construction of by its various readers? It seems to me clear that I had not -- have not yet -- given up on my attempt to frame this story so that someone else would "get it" in something like the way I "got it" when I first read it. I had, the study makes clear, failed with all of my students and virtually all of my colleagues. Like the storyteller who gets to the end and realizes it hasn't worked, that her listeners are desperately resisting the impulse to say, "So what's the point?" (Polanyi, 1979), I eagerly participate in the negotiations that will let us all come to agree on a satisfactory point, and get to some sort of closure on the story. I'm still doing it.


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