Russell A. Hunt
St. Thomas University

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.]

[Introductory Note by the Editors]

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

Let me begin with a quick summary of some of the important assumptions that lie behind the exercise which forms the basis for this paper (a fuller exposition can be found in my article in College English, April, 1982). Fundamentally, what is involved is my belief that as teachers of introductory literature we need to attend to -- and, as well, to teach our students to attend to -- the processes which occur as our students read rather than the results of those acts of reading. This is particularly true, I think, today, when our students are no longer largely drawn from the social classes that produce habitual and fluent readers of literature. There are important things one can learn about the skill of reading that the majority of our students haven't reamed. I believe many of them can still be learned, and that learning them can make vitally important differences, not only to the ways in which our students relate to language in their other classes and in writing, but to the way they lead their lives.

A secondary assumption which is important to me is that what has been learned about the mechanics of reading in the last decade or so has dramatic implications for the teaching of literature -- or, phrasing it a little more accurately, for teaching the students in our freshman and sophomore classes how to read literature. I am beginning with a complex of beliefs: (1) that it is possible to find some things out about the reading processes of our students by techniques like those of protocol analysis, (2) that it will help us to understand the kinds of things we find out if we begin with a notion of some of the basic components of the reading process, or with a simplified model of that process in our minds, and (3) that paying attention to those processes will be useful as a teaching device.

There are three fundamental sources for the kind of model of literary reading I'm trying to develop. One of them is the psycholinguistic work on reading by people like Kenneth and Yetta Goodman and Frank Smith, which offers, among other things, a view of reading as a meaning-driven process, one in which we project forward, construct meanings, and test what is on the page against our expectations. Another is in the work on basic language acquisition by Roger Brown, whose book, A First Language, has been very important to me, and which has much to say about the active and exploratory way in which we all acquire language skills. And finally, the increasingly important movement which is usually called reader-response criticism, particularly the work of Stanley Fish, has provided much of the theoretical underpinning for my study. Some of this work has been preoccupied with reading at quite different levels than the ones I am concerned with, but I have not yet seen any convincing evidence that the Goodman-Smith model of the basic reading process does not apply to and illuminate the reading of literature, or that Brown's view of the way infant human beings acquire language skills is not fruitfully analogous to the way our students acquire them. It seems clear, as well, that Fish's view of critical reading is applicable to the activities of the readers at the more basic level typified by our introductory literature students. One way of describing what I am attempting to do, in fact, is to say that I'm testing the hypothesis that it is useful to extend analogically what we know about basic language and language acquisition to more advanced forms of linguistic behavior and language acquisition, and to similarly extend what we know about more advanced ways of reading back down to basic levels.

There is a fundamental caution or two that I ought to offer here. For one thing, because what I'm doing looks at first glance suspiciously empirical, I should make clear that I'm not offering this work as empirical evidence of some general state of affairs, nor would I argue that my results are statistically significant. For one thing, there clearly is not enough data available to me yet; for another, as you will see, I'm still learning to make sense of what I have.

On the other hand, I do believe that examining the actions and utterances of real human beings individually considered remains the best way to understand human beings in general. There is a resonance, a recognition of pattern, that can occur when we watch human beings do things and listen to their discourse, and for the kinds of purposes most of us in the humanities are concerned with, that kind of understanding is more valuable than the results of calculating chi-squares and standard deviations among large groups of subjects.

Finally, before I describe exactly what it is I've been doing, a general caution -- or perhaps it ought to be called an admission: windows on cognitive processes, as Kenneth Goodman calls them, are questionable and delicate devices, and I have no real certainty that what I think I'm finding out is what is really happening. The great difficulty with examining the cognitive processes we ourselves, or others, are engaged in, is the delicacy of the processes. In physics, it's only at the subatomic level that it becomes a major consideration that to look at something is to change it. In the kind of thing I'm trying to attend to, it's the very first problem you face. Attending to your own cognitive processes is virtually impossible, of course, because as soon as you're conscious of them they change and vanish; to ask someone else a question about theirs is to interrupt, even annihilate, those processes and to put something else in their place. None of these cautions will be new to anyone who's looked at the workLinda Flower and John Hayes have done on protocol analysis in problem solving and in writing behavior. A lot of what I'm doing involves ways of putting people in a position to demonstrate that they are engaging in certain cognitive processes without triggering or determining the process by my question, and it is entirely possible that I've outsmarted myself pretty regularly.

Its empirical status, however, is not my major concern; I am using the technique not only, or perhaps even primarily, as a research tool. What I have found is that the very act of paying attention to the matters that I am discussing here has been a profoundly useful teaching technique, for me as well as my students. Whether it actually affords us a useful window on the cognitive process of reading literature or not, it seems to me, it offers us a way to turn our students' attention away from the results of their reading and back toward the experience of reading it.

Now let me say some things about the nature of the particular exercise I want to describe here. It worked like this. I divided a short piece of fiction into nine segments, and then presented the segments one at a time, in order, to groups of readers, asking each to write something in response each time. In this particular case, I presented it to two separate groups -- my last year's introductory literature class and a group of my colleagues on the St. Thomas faculty who volunteered to participate in the experiment. There were approximately equal numbers in each group (the number varied depending on how many participated in each episode, but tended to remain between ten and twenty). The students were simply all the members of my freshman class. My faculty volunteers comprised five members of the English department, three from history, two each from philosophy, education and Romance languages, and a sociologist, an anthropologist, a psychologist, and a specialist in Eastern religions. Not all of them continued through the whole experiment, and I'm not certain which dropped out because the responses were anonymous.

I decided the length of the segments by purely practical considerations -- how much new material I wanted to present readers with at each reading, and how much would fit on a particular duplicated page or overhead projector transparency. The exact points at which I broke the story were determined in large part by the kinds of questions I wanted to ask and by whether I thought certain kinds of expectations or problems would likely be uppermost at that point in the story. For example, if you were to break in the middle of a word, clearly the most conscious process and the one you'd be most likely to tap would be the reader's attempt to predict the rest of that word. Similarly with a sentence or paragraph or narrative episode: there is a hierarchy of expectations operative in reading, and it seems clear that at the more basic or simple levels of text processing, our expectations and predictions operate very powerfully and within a very short time horizon, whereas at higher levels we not only tend to be projecting farther into the future, it is much harder for us to attend to that process of projection or to talk about what it is that we're projecting.

The kind of question you ask or context you create will, of course, strongly affect the kinds of answer or response you get, and thus, the results you get may not tell you much about the natural reading process. What they may do, however, is allow us to make some distinctions between various kinds of readers and readings. In fact, the making of some such distinctions -- for instance, between the way the students tended to respond and the way my colleagues tended to respond -- turned out to be one of my major purposes in this exercise.

What I'm going to do here now is go through that story, section by section, partly so that you can partake of the attempt to make sense out of it along with my students and my colleagues. I think it's a good idea for you to go through the story with my subjects because it's so difficult for us in the profession to reconstruct, ex post facto , the processes of our own reading. For one thing, we hate to admit, even to ourselves, that we've been wrong; we have a professional interest in being "good" -- that is, correct -- readers. In general, it is central to the reading process to form lots of hypotheses and abandon them as they're disproved; one of the dangers of ex post facto discussion -- and even of exchanging responses as they occur in class, something I have done -- is that people become committed to the defense of their own hypotheses. Part of my aim in focusing all this attention on process is to get rid of the notion of right answers -- in fact, to get rid of the notion of "answers" altogether.

As I go through my results, I'm going to try to govern my selection of answers to quote by what I found typical -- but, of course, what I found typical may be conditioned by what I expected would be typical (after all, if the skull measurers in Stephen Jay Gould's The Mismeasure of Man found it possible to adjust something as concrete as their measurements of cranial capacity according to their preconceptions without knowing it . . .). My point here is that you should test what I quote my students and colleagues as saying and doing against your own experiences in class and against your own reading of the story. I hope that it's illuminating; I hope it doesn't contradict your experience, but rather suggests some things about it you hadn't noticed.

I did not give my class or my colleagues the title of the story. In part that was to avoid or minimize the chance that they would go and find a copy of it either in order to outsmart me or simply because they got impatient and didn't want to wait to find out what was going to happen. That lack of context may be one of the factors acting to prevent this from being a picture of real reading, because the title of the story is probably a significant factor in the processing the normal reader would do, especially of the first few paragraphs. Even the name of the author might affect the way one reads the opening of this story -- but, whatever problems it may cause, I didn't give the title or author to them and I'm not going to give it to you, at least not yet. I think what happens is of interest and value, but, as I have been saying, I would not offer it as a picture of what really happens when real readers read real texts in real living room chairs. Another reason I would hesitate to argue that it represents what readers do is that in most cases there was a significant lapse of time between episodes of the story. In each case, I presented the whole story to any point when I presented a new chunk; even so, I'm sure readers found themselves, as they engaged in this process, doing things they normally would not do as they read.

All these cautions aside, then, let me show you some of what happened during the two versions of this exercise. (I will skip some questions and will not try to summarize all my results, but I will stop after each section of the story.) Here is the first chunk of the story, and the questions I posed about it.

She found me in the evening under trees that grew outside the village. I had never cared for her and would have hidden myself if I'd seen her coming. She was to blame, I'm certain, for her son's vices. If they were vices, but I'm very far from admitting that they were. At any rate he was generous, never mean, like others in the village I could mention if I chose.

I was staring hard at a leaf or she would never have found me. It was dangling from its twig, its stalk torn across by the wind or else by a stone one of the village children had flung. Only the green tough skin of the stalk held there suspended. I was watching closely, because a caterpillar was crawling across the surface, making the leaf sway to and fro. The caterpillar was aiming at the twig, and I wondered whether it would reach it in safety or whether the leaf would fall with it into the water. There was a pool underneath the trees, and the water always appeared red, because of the heavy clay in the soil.

I never knew whether the caterpillar reached the twig, for, as I've said, the wretched woman found me. The first I knew of her coming was her voice just behind my ear.

  1. What do you know about the mother?
  2. about the son?
  3. Ask three questions that you think are likely to be answered as you read the rest of the story.

The first two questions are, I think, obviously trick questions, because answering them involves perceiving that the story is being narrated by an unreliable -- or at least characterized and thus not necessarily reliable -- speaker. Almost all of my students offered, in response to them, paraphrases of what the narrator had told them about the mother and her son. "She was a wretched woman," said another, adding, "She was to blame for her son's vices. She likes to interfere." Part of this response, of course, can be ascribed to the students' inference that this must be one of those "reading comprehension" tests students are always being asked to take (I can't imagine why else they imagined that I was asking questions whose answers must have seemed so obvious and stupid to them). Still, it is clear that virtually none of them were alerted to the narrator's problematic position, either by the caution that it was a short story or by the narrator's own obvious -- and questionable -- value judgments.

There were confusions which suggested more traditional reading problems as well, of course. For instance, one response, "she was the reason that her son ran away and hid," clearly implies that the student was confusing the narrator and the woman's son (his third-person reference to her son in the first paragraph doesn't seem to have been noticed). A difficulty like this, however, is not only easier to see but is also of a kind that is almost certain to be corrected by further reading. Whether a reader can so easily recover from an inability to perceive the nature of the narrator is a more difficult question.

Almost as important an issue, I think, is the entire lack of concern among my students at this point for what that caterpillar and leaf are doing in the midst of this discourse. The third question I asked was designed, obviously, to allow a reader to raise longer term questions like this one by projecting forward into the story. Almost the first question I myself asked as I read the story for the first time -- I can't be sure, of course; we never really know our own reading experience -- involved what that strange image with its oddly specified red water was doing there. I won't suggest that I thought it must be symbolic and have something to do with survival and damnation, because I think that would be a lie (the kind we all tell so often about our readings, the kind of ex post facto rationalization which makes us all seem so much better readers afterward than we were at the time), but I will say I believe that no sophisticated reader of fiction would pass over that odd juxtaposition without attending to it, whether he consciously noticed it or not.

And indeed, of the nineteen responses to this section I elicited from my colleagues, five directly addressed the problem of the caterpillar's position in the story. For instance, one responded with this question: "Why was the narrator out under the trees ('outside the village') watching a caterpillar crawling across a leaf that dangles from a twig? And what is the connection between the caterpillar and the narrator (and perhaps the mother and the son)????" Three others mentioned the caterpillar, though they did not specifically pose questions about its thematic or artistic function or relevance.

On the other hand, of the seventeen freshman students who were presented with the same question, only four mentioned the caterpillar at all, and three of them posed essentially the same question: does the caterpillar reach the twig? None of them asked directly about the connection between the caterpillar and the rest of the story. One did ask why "the water was always red in its appearance," a question which might have thematic implications; but there is no evidence in the rest of that particular student's paper that he was thinking thematically.

It seems to me that there are important distinctions being suggested here between more fluent or sophisticated readers and the apprentice readers in our introductory literature courses. One of them might be formulated this way: from the beginning, a fluent reader is operating on the assumption that divergences from what we might call "normal" discourse are significant or will be shown to be so later in the narrative, whereas an untrained or naive reader will not only not make note of such divergences, he will tend to ignore them.

A second, perhaps equally important difference has to do with the reader's attention to what Seymour Chatman calls the "story" at the expense of "discourse." (The phrase is his formulation of the Russian formalist distinction between fabula and sjuzhet, between the narrative surface and what it is that is being narrated.) The freshmen who wanted to know whether the caterpillar ever reached the twig were asking a question that sophisticated readers would guess to be irrelevant, because a sophisticated reader would be far more likely to see that the caterpillar and the leaf were part of the discourse, not part of the story.

The next installment of the story was presented as a slightly longer chunk of the story's beginning, and ended in the middle of a sentence. In this case, I asked six questions (it was too many, and I won't do that again).

"I've been looking in all the pubs for you," she said in her old shrill voice. It was typical of her to say "all the pubs" when there were only two in the place. She always wanted credit for trouble she hadn't really taken.

I was annoyed and I couldn't help speaking a little harshly. "You might have saved yourself the trouble," I said, "you should have known I wouldn't be in a pub on a fine night like this."

The old vixen became quite humble. She was always smooth enough when she wanted anything. "It's for my poor son," she said. That meant that he was ill. When he was well I never heard her say anything better than "that dratted boy." She'd make him be in the house by midnight every day of the week, as if there were any serious mischief a man could get up to in a little village like ours. Of course we soon found a way to cheat her, but it was the principle of the thing I objected to -- a grown man of over thirty ordered about by his mother, just because she hadn't a husband to control. But when he was ill, though it might be with only a small

  1. Write the end of the unfinished sentence which ends this excerpt from the story.
  2. What do you think is likely to happen in the next 50-100 words of the story? You can either describe, summarize, or explain it, or you can "write" the next 50-100 words as you think they might be coming.
  3. What important things have you learned about the mother?
  4. What important things have you learned about the son?
  5. Do you have an impression of the narrator's personality? What are its main features?
  6. Ask three questions which you want to have answered and which you think will probably be answered in the rest of the story.

Question 5 is perhaps the most important, because it tips my hand and directs the reader's attention to the question of the narrator, whether the reader had noticed him before or not. As one might expect, the frequency of responses referring directly to the narrator's reliability increases after this section. On the other hand, it is no clearer than before that the students in general made any operative distinction between the author and the narrator. Question 6, which probably duplicates the second question, in that both ask the reader to project forward, was not answered very often. This may be because six questions are simply too many to expect volunteers to answer.

Asking the students to complete the incomplete sentence is a device whose aim is fairly obvious, and indeed its effect was as I expected. When the students compared their responses with those of others, it dramatized in a way that my telling them could hardly do that texts put complex pressure on expectations. Virtually everyone who answered that question began with a noun or a noun phrase denoting some trivial ailment (nine used the word "cold"; two others used "ailment"; and there were others like "chill," "touch of the flu," "bug," and "fever") and every one continued with a similar syntactic structure saying that the mother showed real concern.

The second question, like many others in this exercise, is far more useful as a teaching than as a research tool. Like the sentence completion, it helped the students to realize the extent to which each of them was bringing his or her own assumptions to the story. One student predicted, for instance, an elaborately developed story which clearly arose out of her own interests.

I think that the boy, only I guess from the story he is not a boy, but a man, I think that he will probably realize a few good points about his mother. Maybe she pampered him when he was sick. The boy may be grateful for this. He will likely realize just how over protective his mother really is and maybe decide to get out on his own, away from her.
In general, however, the responses to this question, both among the students and among my colleagues, were too diverse and too different in kind to make generalizing about them very easy. On the other hand, reading them myself made me realize, in a way that I had not before, just how different from mine my students' readings -- and my colleagues' as well -- were, at least at this early point in the story. One colleague, for instance, offered the following prediction of what was going to happen:
Mother asks the man for money so that her son can get treatment in a hospital in one of the big cities (she can't pay for the trip herself). The man initially refuses to give her the money but finally agrees to loan the money to the son if he works in his store in the evening to pay it back. He also insists that the son will have to live in a rented room rather than with his masher because he will have to work long hours and get home late. Mother doesn't like that idea at all but finally agrees so her son can have the treatment he needs. And they lived happily ever after.
There is, of course, some doubt about how seriously to take that -- and a number of the other -- "predictions" of what will happen in the story. Nonetheless, it is a healthy reminder to everyone concerned of the variety of readers there are out there.

There is an interesting contrast in the responses to question 5. Among the students there was lots of intense but rather generalized hostility toward the narrator. A selection: "I get the impression that he likes to judge people. . . . [His] main feature is his hatred for the mother and explaining how he feels l about the villages "He really likes to find fault with people. He is probably an unhappy person. He seems to have a lot of anger. He has a childish behavior." "The narrator seems to be very opinionated and made rash decisions about the other characters of this story." "His personality dominates in respect to the harsh, opinionated judgments of the son's mother. It is clear that he is bitter against her, doubting her sincerity of treatment to the son."

Among my colleagues, as one might expect, the narrator tended to be the subject of much more sophisticated analysis. For instance: "aware of his limitations, but unable to do anything [but] accept them. . . capable of committing an isolated violent act." They were also less consistently eager to mistrust him: "He is perceptive and competent: he knows what the old woman is up to, and how to handle her, and he is not afraid to act accordingly." They also tended to pay more attention to the specifics of the text. Their skepticism tended to be based on observation of detail: "He describes things to his advantage the deceit involved in coming home late described as right, etc." And only among the faculty did I find analysis based on emotional impact of physical details: "Emotionally cold -- would watch a caterpillar to see if it would make the twig or fall off and drown. He could have helped it." No student tried to describe this kind of connection.

The third section of the story was another short one.

chill, it was "my poor son.. "He's dying," she said, "and God knows what I shall do without him." "Well, I don't see how I can help you." I said. I was angry, because he'd been dying once before and she'd done everything but actually bury him. I imagined it was the same sort of dying this time, the sort a man gets over. I'd seen him about the week before on his way up the hill to see the big-breasted girl at the farm. I'd watched him till he was like a little black dot, which stayed suddenly by a square grey box in a field. That was the barn where they used to meet. I've very good eyes and it amuses me to try how far and how clearly they can see. I met him again some time after midnight and helped him get into the house without his mother knowing, and he was well enough then -- only a little sleepy and tired.

The old vixen was at it again. "He's been asking for you," she shrilled at me.

"If he's as ill as you make out," I said, "it would be better for him to ask for a doctor."

"Doctor's there, but he can't do anything." That startled me for a moment, I'll admit it, until I thought, "the old devil's malingering. He's got some plan or other." He was quite clever enough to cheat a doctor. I had seen him throw a fit that would have deceived Moses.

"For God's sake come," she said, "he seems frightened." Her voice broke quite genuinely, for I suppose in her way

  1. As before, the fragment ends with an incomplete sentence. Finish the sentence.
  2. What do you think might happen in the next 50-100 words? Either write the next 50-100 words or summarize what you think is going to happen.
  3. Did anything in this new section surprise you?

The incomplete sentence here opened a window on what I suspect may be an important pattern. Among my colleagues, not one produced a completion which suggested anything other than that the mother "cared" or "really did love" her son, and each completion produced a more or less shapely, and certainly coherent, sentence. Among a high proportion of the students, though, something else happened. The hostility toward the mother on the part of the narrator seems to have been so pervasive that they found it impossible to believe anything charitable about her (or, possibly, to believe the narrator would say anything charitable about her) -- so impossible that they ignored the clear meaning of the phrase "quite genuinely." They also often ignored the grammatical structure of the sentence. Here are some typical completions:

. . . [in her way] she thought that this might persuade me to come with her.
. . . [in her way] of speaking, there was always some hint of over acting.
. . . [in her way] this was the only method of getting me to come.
. . . [in her way she never thought of her son trying to escape.
. . . [in her way it was as close as it ever could be to genuine.
Even when the students were prepared to accept the implications of the word "genuine," they were far more eager than my colleagues to ascribe the woman's concern to less than altruistic motives. In her way, one said, "she was really frightened of the fact that he might die." Or, "[in her way] it took a lot to practically beg me to come." Or "[in her way] of thinking, she might lose her only source of security." Only four of the twenty students who responded were prepared to allow the narrator to say -- or to say themselves; it's not always dear that they are speaking with the "narrator's voice" -- that the woman, even "in her way," really did love her son.

There was little pattern, again, among the answers to the question about being surprised. It is interesting that three of the students were surprised to see the narrator watching the son and commenting on the excellence of his eyes; only one faculty member remarked on this. Three students, as well, and one of my colleagues, were surprised to find the narrator was not a doctor. I found it interesting to look back over the story and see why it never occurred to me to think of him as a doctor, at least not consciously. The only reason I can find is the phrase, "of course we soon found a way to cheat her," which doesn't sound very doctorly to me.

she was fond of him. I couldn't help pitying her a little, for I knew that he had never cared a mite for her and had never troubled to disguise the fact. I left the trees and the red pool and the struggling caterpillar, for I knew that she would never leave me alone, now that her "poor boy" was asking for me. Yet, a week ago there was nothing she wouldn't have done to keep us apart. She thought me responsible for his ways, as though any mortal man could have kept him off a likely woman when his appetite was up. I think it must have been the first time I had entered their cottage by the front door, since I came to the village ten years ago. I threw an amused glance at his window. I thought I could see the marks on the wall of the ladder we'd used the week before.

We'd had a little difficulty in putting it straight, but his mother slept sound. He had brought the ladder down from the team, and when he'd got safely in, I carried it up there again. But you could never trust his word. He'd lie to his best friend, and when I reached the barn I found the girl had gone.

If he couldn't bribe you with his mother's money, he'd bribe you with other people's promises.

I began to feel uneasy directly I got inside the door. It was natural that the house should be quiet, for the pair of them never had any friends to stay, although the old woman had a sister-in-law living only a few miles away. But I didn't like the sound of the doctor's feet, as he came downstairs to meet us. He'd twisted his face into a pious solemnity for our benefit, as though there was something holy about death, even about the death of my friend.

He's conscious," he said, "but he's going. There's nothing I can do. If you want him to die in peace, better let his friend go along up. He's frightened about something."

  1. Has your impression of the mother been modified since your first introduction to her? In what way?
  2. How about your impression of her son?
  3. What kinds of things have you learned about the narrator, and what kind of judgment are you forming of him?
  4. Ask three questions that (a) you want to have answered; (b) you think are likely to be answered before the story ends; and (c) are about different aspects of the story -- are, in other words, different kinds of questions.

In response to the first question here, virtually everyone reported growing sympathy for the mother. She seemed to one student, for instance, "no longer a villainess, but rather a victim of cruel dishonesty. A frightened woman doing what she believes is right, but not clever enough to see the truth." (It may be significant that this student also comments on the narrator as "not as virtuous and innocent as he first seemed. But he is loyal and honest.") Only one reader -- a colleague, one of two who were at this point put off by the whole process and apparently bored by the story -- said anything negative about the mother, referring to "the self-concern of her own words."

There was much less unanimity about the son. Students tended overwhelmingly to be disapproving of the son, in conventional moral terms. This may, of course, be due to the fact that it's a class -- an English class, no less -- and those sorts of values often seem to be pushed in English classes. Only one student claimed to feel pity for the son. My colleagues, on the other hand, were much less disapproving, and, as you might predict, more analytical. "A sad case," they said, "insecure." One was surprised to find him bisexual, having concluded that he and the narrator were lovers. Another claimed to be surprised to find me using a masculine pronoun to refer to the narrator, asserting that until then the sex of the narrator couldn't be determined.

Comments on the narrator reflect the pattern of mistrust and hostility that had been building in previous installments, with one exception, a faculty member who said the narrator is "lacking verve, but for all that, a basically good person."

Questions about the story, here as elsewhere, were almost universally questions about the world reported in the story, not about narrative surface or structure. Most inquired about the psychological motivation of character or about matters of fact. The most common questions, of course, were whether the son were really dying and what he was frightened of. Only two questions came close to being concerned with patterns. One colleague asked, "why did the narrator bring the broken leaf-stem into the story?" which may be a question about psychological motivation, or may be intended to be a question about authorial purpose or the place the image has in the text as a whole. Another question involved the story's setting: a student asked, "where is it set in -- what country? It sounds eighteenth century European." An interesting question, I think, and one which, when it has been raised, changes the way you attend to the story.

The doctor was right. I could tell that as soon as I bent under the lintel and entered my friend's room. He was propped up on a pillow, and his eyes were on the door, waiting for me to come. They were very bright and frightened, and his hair lay across his forehead in sticky stripes. I'd never realized before what an ugly fellow he was. He had got sly eyes that looked at you too much out of the corners, but when he was in ordinary health, they held a twinkle that made you forget the slyness. There was something pleasant and brazen in the twinkle, as much as to say "I know I'm sly and ugly. But what does that matter? I've got guts." It was that twinkle, I think, some women found attractive and stimulating. Now when the twinkle was gone, he looked a rogue and nothing else.

I thought it my duty to cheer him up, so I made a small joke out of the fact that he was alone in bed He didn't seem to relish it, and I was beginning to fear that he, too, was taking a religious view of his death, when he told me to sit down, speaking quite sharply.

"I'm dying," he said, talking very fast, "and I want to ask you something. That doctor's no good -- he'd think me delirious. I'm frightened, old man. I want to be reassured," and then after a long pause, "someone with common sense." He slipped a little farther down in his bed.

"I've only once been badly ill before," he said. "That was before you settled here. I wasn't much more than a boy. People tell me that I was even supposed to be dead. They were carrying me out to burial, when a donor stopped them just in time."

I'd heard plenty of cases like that, and I saw no reason

Finish the sentence, and explain what you think is likely to happen in the next couple of paragraphs.

About half the students completed the sentence so as to express the narrator's belief in the situation the son describes; a couple said things like "[I saw no reason] that someone would want to do this to him, he never hurt anyone."

As seems usual, I found no clear pattern among the predictions about what was going to happen -- other than that half of them involved the notion that the son is afraid he's going to be buried alive (which, interestingly, is exactly what the narrator thinks). The class included one Pollyanna who invariably predicted, a la Melina Mercouri in Never on Sunday, that they would all go to the seashore. Here the prediction was: "I think that the boy will recover from his illness and will go somewhere, to start a new life."

why he should want to tell me about it. And then I thought I saw his point. His mother had not been too anxious once before to see if he were properly dead, though I had little doubt that she made a great show of grief. "My poor boy. I don't know what I shall do without him." And I'm certain that she believed herself then, as she believed herself now. She wasn't a murderess. She was only inclined to be premature.

"Look here, old man," I said, and I propped him a little higher on his pillow, "you needn't be frightened. You aren't going to die, and anyway I'd see that the doctor cut a vein or something before they moved you. But that's all morbid stuff. Why, I'd stake my shirt that you've got plenty more years in front of you. And plenty more girls too," I added to make him smile.

"Can't you cut out all that?" he said, and I knew then that he had turned religious. "Why," he said, "if I lived, I wouldn't touch another girl. I wouldn't, not one."

I tried not to smile at that, but it wasn't easy to keep a straight face. There's always something a bit funny about a sick man's morals. "Anyway," I said, "you needn't be frightened."

"It's not that," he said. "Old man, when I came round that other time, I thought that I'd been dead. It wasn't like sleep at all. Or rest in peace. There was someone there, all round me, who knew everything. Every girl I'd ever had. Even that young one who hadn't understood. It was before your time. She lived a mile down the road, where Rachel lives now, but she and her family went away afterwards. Even the money I'd taken from mother, I don't call that stealing. It's in the family, I never had a chance to explain. Even the thoughts I'd had. A man can't help his thoughts."

"A nightmare," I said.

"Yes, it must have been a dream, mustn't it? The sort of dream people do get when they are ill. And I saw what was coming to me too, I can't bear being hurt. It wasn't fair. And I wanted to faint and I couldn't, because I was dead."

"In the dream," I said. His fear made me nervous. "In the dream," I said again.

"Yes, it must have been a dream -- mustn't it? -- because I woke up. The curious thing was I felt quite well and strong. I got up and stood in the road, and a little farther down, kicking up the dust, was a small crowd, going off with a man -- the doctor who had stopped them burying me."

"Well," I said.

"Old man," he said, "suppose it was true. Suppose I had been dead. I believed it then, you know, and so did my mother. But you can't trust her. I went straight for a couple

  1. Finish the sentence.
  2. In this section, do you learn anything surprising about the characters? Are any suspicions confirmed?
  3. At this point, do you have any suspicions as to what's likely to happen in the story as a whole -- what the story's going to turn out to be "about"?

A couple of students and one colleague completed this sentence not with a period of time, but with people ("[went straight for a couple] of friends"). This poses an interesting question: would you have made that choice if you hadn't heard me read "went straight" as opposed to "went / straight for"? Knowing how the sentence actually finished, is it possible to reconstruct the first reaction to the phrase?

In a similar confusion about idiom, five students -- and one of my colleagues -- were surprised when they read "old man" as signifying that the characters were in fact old men. Maybe it's just an expression they are using," said one.

A continuing phenomenon which surfaces again here is the readers' trust of the narrator. However much they may know that he's biased and merely a character in the story, they keep coming back to his opinions and values as somehow privileged (partly, I suspect, this is related to the penchant, particularly among the students, for calling him "the author"). A couple of students, for instance, were surprised to see the son becoming religious; one of my colleagues accepted the narrator's judgment that the son "apparently cares little for his mother." Hostility toward the narrator, however, has hardly vanished: one faculty member says "the detached attitude of the narrator, his observant/expectant attitude, is beginning to look like voyeurism, touched with sadism."

Perhaps the most extreme view (though not entirely untypical) is this comment, from a student: "All the characters seem to have switched roles. The man seems to be very sincere and realistic. The mother seems to be the one in question. And the narrator seems to be very nice and trustworthy."

All the predictions about what's likely to happen have now become ponderously philosophical. Everyone seems to know that the story's going to have to do with death; many seem to have inferred that it's not going to be a conventional plotted story with a series of events. One faculty member said he was beginning to suspect "that the story is an attack upon religious-grounded fear surrounding death / after-life." Another proposed that "the friend is a minister or clergyman who will offer some type of last rites or spiritual consolation" (how that can be reconciled with snickering about a "sick man's morals" is hard to understand).

Unanimity was still well out of reach, however. One student proposed this scenario: "I think the old lady might be involved in some kind of religious ceremony for example K.K.K. or witchcraft, something weird like that. I think she might even be trying to kill her son."

of years. I thought it might be a sort of second chance. Then things got fogged and somehow . . . . It didn't seem really possible. It's not possible. Of course it's not possible. You know it isn't, don't you?"

"Why no, I said. "Miracles of that sort don't happen nowadays. And anyway, they aren't likely to happen to you, are they? And here of all places under the sun."

"It would be so dreadful," he said, "if it had been true, and I'd got to go through all that again. You don't know what things were going to happen to me in that dream. And they'd be worse now." He stopped and then, after a moment, he added as though he were stating a fact: "When one's dead there's no unconsciousness any more forever."

"Of course it was a dream," I said and squeezed his hand. He was frightening me with his fancies. I wished that he'd

  1. Complete the sentence this excerpt leaves incomplete.
  2. Has your view of what the storks going to turn out to be "about" changed as a result of this section?

Of the students, fifteen said that the narrator wished he'd change the subject. Two wanted him to fall asleep and one completed it this way: "[I wished that he'd] died the first time around." Most of my colleagues answered similarly, but one seemed to ignore the narrator's values altogether: "[I wished that he'd] never forsaken his promise to go straight after that strange recovery." (It's in phrases like this, I think, that you can tell what bases readers are really operating on, as opposed to what they say in answer to direct questions. It seems clear that at least that reader hasn't internalized any real hostility to, or skepticism about, the narrator.) On the other hand, one extremist completed it this way: "[I wished that he'd] died before I arrived."

In answer to the second question, our Pollyanna held on to the Melina Mercouri view ("I still feel that he will live and continue his life in a new place"), and another proposes that this time he will "take the warning to heart and remain straight for the rest of his life," but, in general, most readers took the view expressed by one of my colleagues: "Death is the focus of this story, not the relationship between the main characters." Many readers had expected up until this point that the son "had some trick up his sleeve," and now decided that he is genuinely going to die. But, as one reader asked, "what will the story be about after he dies? It had dealt mainly with him up until now."

die quickly, so that I could get away from his sly, bloodshot and terrified eyes and see something cheerful and amusing, like the Rachel he had mentioned, who lived a mile down the road.

"Why," I said, "if there had been a man about working miracles like that, we should have heard of others, you may be sure. Even poked away in this God-forsaken spot," I said.

"There were some others," he said. "But the stories only went round among the poor, and they'll believe anything, won't they? There were lots of diseased and crippled they said he'd cured. And there was a man, who'd been born blind, and he came and just touched his eyelids, and sight came to him. Those were all old wives' tales, weren't they?" he asked me, stammering with fear, and then lying suddenly still and bunched up at the side of the bed.

  1. React to it in any way that seems appropriate.
  2. If I told you that there was only one more paragraph to the story (if you were reading the story in a normal way, you could see that), how would you think it could possibly end' What questions would have to be answered in order for the author to have the story "finish"?

I expected that many readers would react strongly to the narrator's wish that his Friend" would die, and more than half of the students did. The most charitable reading was "perhaps he said that just because he couldn't stand to see his friend the way he is." Of eighteen student responses, only five mentioned any awareness of the religious overtones which were so much more obvious to most of my colleagues. Student awareness of this issue ranges from the general "the story is taking on an interesting spiritual tone" through a couple of specific mentions of Jesus, to this: "I was surprised that the story seems to go back to the days when Jesus was alive and the son may have been saved by Jesus himself when he was a boy."

My favorites, though, were these two: "I think the story is getting very confusing, and that the narrator is beginning to get mysterious also." "This is starting to get very weird, but it does sound familiar."

In general, my colleagues were far more aware of the wider issues, and far less surprised by "die quickly." "I had never imagined as I read that the story could have been set in ancient times," says one. "I assumed that it had to have happened in the last one hundred years. -- words like 'pub' and 'donor' seem out of place." Or: "this changes the whole story again and I don't like it. The miracle man character comes in at the end and trivializes, by an easy explanation, all the mysteries that had cropped up before. BOO!!"

The idea that there was only one more paragraph seemed to startle people and force them to think of outrageous or dramatic endings -- or else just give up on the story by saying that the son dies and that's about it. One student proposes that the narrator may reform because of the son's repentant example. But my favorite was this: "it seems like the story will have a strange ending and the question's answers will not be ones I want to know about."

My colleagues mostly speculated on the likely effect of the son's death (they all seemed to assume that the sudden stillness was death; very few of my students seemed sure of that) on the narrator. Only one faculty member still thought the story might end happily: "being an incurable romantic, I imagine 'the man' is going to appear physically/psychically and comfort the poor fellow, who will then die peacefully, and his friend will acquire a new lease on life."

I began to say, "Of course, they were all lies," but I stopped, because there was no need. All I could do was to go downstairs and tell his mother to come up and close his eyes. I wouldn't have touched them for all the money in the world. It was a long time since I'd thought of that day, ages and ages ago, when I felt a cold touch like spittle on my lids and opening my eyes had seen a man like a tree surrounded by other trees walking away.

  1. Are there still important questions which you think the story ought to have answered that remain unanswered' (I mean more specific questions than What does it mean")
  2. What many readers do when they come to a point in a story where they are surprised (particularly if it's the ending) is to look back through the story for information or ideas which justify the surprise, which make it something other than just a random accident. Do that now; the entire story is reproduced on the back of this sheet. Then, after having looked back, answer the next question.

  3. What two or three parts of the story seem relevant to this ending? Where did you look in the story for things which might explain or prepare you for the ending?
  4. Did the ending change how you felt about, or what you thought about, anything specific in the story? What?

At this point I have to make a confession. For all practical, pedagogical purposes, at least as they are traditionally conceived, this exercise was a failure. It did not -- as far as I can see from the answers I got to this section -- led a single one of my students to understand the point of the story, to savor or even understand the savage irony of the fact that the narrator has had his own sight miraculously restored and has forgotten" it; that he is so unaffected -- certainly unsaved -- by the miracle that he not only denies miracles but is apparently going around actively corrupting people.

For more long-term purposes, of course, the exercise was useful -- I learned a lot, for instance, and am still learning from it. I think that a lot of my students learned a good deal about being conscious of process as they read. But they did not have the sensation, which I had hoped for and planned on at least some of them having, of having the story's meaning explode on their consciousness the way it did on mine the first time I read the story.

I can't quote extensively enough from the responses of my students to the ending of the story to convey how desperately confused they were, and how defensive about their confusion. Their responses to the first question, for instance, suggested repeatedly that the only question they really wanted to ask was, "what does it mean?" Here are some samples.

Is this narrator the blind guy that the "Doctor" let see, is he the Donor, another patient of the Doctor? Does the dead son go through the same thing again where they know everything he did wrong? What is the significance of the trees in the last sentence -- anything to do with the first sentence?

What did he die of? What was his dream about? Did the mother in face have anything to do with it?

Well, I don't really understand what exactly happened. What is he talking about in the last paragraph? What exactly had happened a long time ago (ages and ages ago)?

Yes. (1) Why all the talk and interest at the beginning of the story when he was by the trees (2) what exactly did the narrator have to do with his mother (3) who was her son? (4) what part in time did they live in?

1. Who was this Rachel girl? 2. Who was the girl who hadn't understood? and why did they move away afterwards?

1) Just what exactly did the boy die from? 2) What was he actually afraid of? Dying? 3) Why did the mother and son seem to be castaways??

In some cases you can feel the process beginning that might produce an answer. One wondered, for instance, about the narrator: "the narrator says it was a long time since he'd thought of that day. I wonder what made him think about it now." But in general the more sophisticated the student, the more the prose retreats into generalities. "All the really important questions were answered; like what was on the son's mind, was he really sick . . . Only the unimportant questions are left like what happens to the author? The mother? The story seems to answer most of the questions brought up at the beginning of the story." Or another: "Clearly, none of us were ready or had suspected the outcome. I think that there may have been more important questions to answer like 'What about the mother's animosity,' and that sort of thing but all such questions rapidly fade away when one experiences a small bit of the son's fear and what he spoke of in his final words."

My favorite, however, is this response to the question whether there are still important questions which you think the story ought to have answered: "Only if the caterpillar made it without falling in the puddle. Also how old is the mother if the son is an old man."

Sending the readers back to the text, as the second question attempted to do, solved no problems for them, nor did the information about the author and title of the story they found on the back of the sheet (the story is "The Second Death," by Graham Greene, incidentally). The question about whether the ending changed the readers' reaction to the story didn't help either. Here are some responses to that question.

I never thought that vices like drinking and womanizing and taking money from your parents really were sins. But they are being punished in this story.

I was wondering about 3/4 through what was going to happen strangely. Now that I've read the ending I know something strange did happen, but I still don't understand what and how, and who was involved and who wasn't. I don't like surprise endings at all. This story confused me.

It changed my thoughts about the boy: at the beginning I thought he was pulling another prank. I'm also surprised about the narrator, he seems to be more sympathetic and really care for the boy, whereas he never did at the beginning of the story.

I guess I felt really sorry for the boy at the end. His friend could have been more understanding. The narrator does not seem quite so harsh at the end as he did in the first of the story.

The ending changed my view of the story because I thought there would be more between the mother and son, mother and narrator, and narrator and son. The story also seemed to take a very sharp turn towards religion, which was in direct contrast to what the narrator had first said about the son.

I was almost as surprised at the number of my colleagues who did not demonstrate an understanding of the story's irony (they, like some of the students, may of course have understood more than the kind of question I asked let them talk about). Some, of course, did markedly better than the students. Here's one comment: "I feel I would like to have an inkling why the 2 people who were touched by the Miracle did not become saved, rather why G.G. chose to deviate so far from the accepted surmise. On further thought I have a possible reason, but nothing in the story to confirm it (so far) --" Another responded to the question about whether the ending had changed anything with this:
Yes - the last couple of episodes made it clear that the story could be alluding to the miracles of Jesus Christ and what happened to the people on whom he worked his miracles. It also indicates or raises the question about "The Second Death". Was it a physical death, or the seemingly spiritual death of the narrator. He seemed to have none of the compassion for the dying man that someone else had once had for him. Someone had touched his eyes and given him sight; he would not even touch his friend's eyes to close them in death. Was the Miracle wasted on him? Is he dead spiritually? Or will this be for him a spiritual re-awakening?
This is, of course, not all that's involved. It had not seemed to me at the outset that it would be necessary to bring in the specific Bible references, because they did not seem to me to be absolutely necessary in order to "get" the story's impact. But as a pedagogical device in the class I now did that, and also distributed them to my colleagues.

Luke 7: 11-17

And it came to pass the day after, that he went into a city called Nain; and many of his disciples went with him, and much people. Now when he came nigh to the gate of the city, behold, there was a dead man carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow: and much people of the city was with her. And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her, and said unto her, Weep not. And he came and touched the bier: and they that bare him stood still. And he said, Young man, I say unto thee, Arise. And he that was dead sat up, and began to speak. And he delivered him to his mother. And there came a fear on all: and they glorified God, saying, That a great prophet is risen up among us: and, That God bath visited his people. And this rumor of him went forth throughout all Judea, and throughout all the region round about.

Mark 8: 22-26

And he cometh to Bethseda: and they bring a blind man unto him, and besought him to touch him. And he took the blind man by the hand, and led him out of the town; and when he had spit on his eyes, and got his hands upon him, he asked him if he saw ought. And he looked up, and said, I see men as trees, walking. After that he put his hands upon his eyes, and made him look up: and he was restored, and saw every man clearly. And he sent him away to his house, saying, Neither go into the town, nor tell it to any in the town.

Does reading this make any difference to your response to "The Second Death"? What difference? Explain on the back of this sheet.

Although virtually all of my students answered that reading the two passages did make a difference to their response, they were generally not able to tell me specifically what sort of a difference. All of them felt that it "explained" the ending, but I couldn't see that they understood the "explained" ending any better. For instance: "it confirmed my theory that the son had been raised from the dead by Jesus. The 2nd reading helped me understand the ending of the story. The narrator must have been visited by Jesus."

Two respondents admitted that the readings had been no help.

Well it confused me more . . . uh, I guess the spittle on the narrator's cold lips [sic] has some significance, but what I don't know. Well the only difference all this makes is I now feel that the narrator of "2nd Death" was a religious man, a man once not religious until he got a "2nd chance" at life and became religious.

Now we can make more sense out of the bizarre ending in the story. To tell you the truth, I still don't know what the heck the ending was about. I think it might have something to do with seeing his friend being taken up to heaven or the author is going blind because he is seeing men like trees. Therefore, he must be regressing in his vision. Or he was having hallucinations because he was upset over the death of his friend or on cheap drugs or something. Maybe when he saw men like trees, maybe he just saw trees and decided to put a metaphor or simile to it because he felt like getting fancy. Or maybe he saw men in trees because these men were in costumes that looked like trees. Actually, this story made me very frustrated and angry because when I don't know the answer to something I get mad!

I share that student's frustration. It seems to me there should be a way to help him, and his peers, learn how to read stories like this one -- no, to read literature in general -- in more effective ways. What these experiments have taught me over the last few years, more than anything else, is how much there is for students to learn about the way we read, and how little we normally do to help them. Sure, for some of the students in my class, the final discussion and explanation of the story's ending may have helped them to go at the next story they read. They told me it did, of course; and I could tell you that my students came out of this exercise -- and all the similar things we did last year -- better readers. But I always remember Mina Shaughnessy's caution: somewhere she says that we have made the classroom as private as a bedroom and the triumphs that are reported from there should be given about the same level of credence.

In some ways, this whole exercise has been an attempt to find a way to help someone to "get" the story, like a joke, without having to explain it. For many of my students, for most people generally, I believe, it is with a story as it is with a joke: if it has to be explained it's no longer effective, though it might have some theoretical interest. In general, it's harder for less sophisticated readers to recreate their sense of expectation and doubt and suspense. They already know "how it comes out." A Shakespeare teacher once told me in an undergraduate seminar that every time Macbeth meets the witches, he thought that maybe this time the poor sucker wouldn't fall for their line. It's a skilled reader that recreates the process of assembling the facts and the inferences on a second or third reading. It's worth considering, I think, what might happen if one did this after the subjects had read the story through, or did it with the same story a second time.

There are other ways this device or variations of it can be used. One is to study individual readings through the process of a staged reading like this, in perhaps something like the ways David Bleich and Norman Holland have done, but with attention rather to the ongoing interaction between reader and text, and with more attention to what connects readings and urges them toward similarity than to what makes readers and readings individual. Another is to ex change the comments communally, and thus help the readers form what Stanley Fish calls an interpretive community. However one uses it, it seems to me it is one of the few ways we can get access to an important cognitive process. Even more important, it is a way to remind ourselves how differently people read texts, and that there really are incomplete and inadequate ways to read texts.

One of the important advantages of this technique as a teaching tool, it seems to me, is that it addresses what I think is a central problem of literature teaching. One of the notable differences between the kind of reading a fluent reader of literature performs and that of most of my introductory literature students is that the fluent reader is attending to his experience of the text -- his reading is overwhelmingly self-conscious. Indeed, it seems to me one might argue that the most useful way of discr iminating between literature and other kinds of discourse is that literature not only invites, but perhaps depends upon, being read in this schizophrenic, self-conscious way. What this technique does is (1) help students to be aware of their own reading as a process, (2) help them to see that it's valuable and enjoyable in itself, regardless of consequences or after effects, (3) perhaps help them to gain some measure of control over the way they read (characteristically, my students treat reading as somethi ng that happens to them, rather than something they do). Finally, it might sometimes help them see the point of the sort of text -- like, perhaps, "The Second Death" -- whose existence as an aesthetic object depends on the participation of an active, synthesizing reader.

[Author's Comment, written for publication inReading Empirical Research Studies, 1992]


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