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Reading Wide Awake: Politics, Pedagogies, and Possibilities

reviewed by Timothy Shanahan - December 15, 2011

coverTitle: Reading Wide Awake: Politics, Pedagogies, and Possibilities
Author(s): Patrick Shannon
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807752428, Pages: 144, Year: 2011
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Reading Wide Awake is a lively exploration of critical reading, or more accurately, politically-informed reading. Patrick Shannon does not so much explain the idea of “reading with agency” or “with sociological imagination” as much as he demonstrates it. This volume is mainly about how we read and how we could read, and only by distant implication is it about teaching students this species of reading.

The book is slim and highly readable. Shannon ‘s presentation is always engaging, and for those who agree with his slant on the world, it will be affirming to boot. I don’t always agree with his take on things so I found it occasionally exasperating, not so much because of his big ideas (many of which I agree with) or even his examples (which are no worse than what I tolerate regularly watching CNBC). What really bothered me was that often I found his “active readings” to be insufficiently active, relying on too little evidence and with too few grains of the salt of self-doubt. In fairness, Shannon is disarmingly candid in admitting that he is still developing the ability to read like this (aren’t we all?), so perhaps one should cut him some slack when he fails to follow his own dicta.

The presentation is divided into seven interrogatively-titled chapters:  Why do I read? What do I read? How do texts work on me? Do I control the meaning of texts? Will I still read in the 21st century? Are my readings dangerous? Who reads like this? Shannon’s basic premise is that competing social forces tell us who we should be and what we should value, and that to preserve democracy, he argues, it is essential that we adopt an approach to reading that ensures that those identities and values are acts of individual choice rather than default values imposed upon us by a tangle of social forces.

I never much cared for the use, by literary theorists, of the term text to mean any set of symbols that transmits a message. There are benefits of such metaphorical appropriation, but there is a cost, too, in the loss of precision. Nevertheless, in that scheme, text includes not only written language, but any human act or its outcome. Shannon adopts a version of this conceit and, thus, everything becomes grist for the old reading mill.  

One set of examples is timely, but, unfortunately, startling within the context of current events. Being a professor at Penn State University, Shannon describes how he tries to get education majors to “read” the underlying meaning of the Nittany Lions’ apparel and paraphernalia with which they adorn themselves and their dorm rooms. He relates that students see such garb as an expression of their alignment with the “values of Penn State”, and how he attempts to complicate these views by getting them to think about the labor practices used to produce such items. Given the horrible kerfuffle surrounding the Jerry Sandusky scandal, one suspects that, for a while, Professor Shannon might have an easier time getting his students to recognize the complex meaning of such symbols (what are “Penn State’s values” anyway?).

In the chapter on how texts operate on us, Shannon considers how texts exercise their influences — particularly those texts promulgated by his bête noirs, the corporations and their insidious sponsorships and commercialism. But as much as he is anxious about the stealthy impact of such texts, he is surprisingly cognizant that even readers who are not particularly active in their resistance may still avoid being unduly influenced by such texts. Those who claim that people will be harmed by what they read usually adopt strident behaviorist stances to explain the process by which texts overpower individual choice. Shannon avoids such inflated claims by recognizing that texts work more complexly through networks of social forces – it is not the texts alone that influence us – and the possibility that it is the continuous exposure to particular views and perspectives that creates norms of acceptability that position us socially.

Since everything is a text, and texts, especially those from institutional sources, situate us in norms of identity, Shannon argues that it is incumbent upon us to read actively in order to situate ourselves politically and socially. In other words, we must take power through our resistance to being situated and we do that through our reading. Thus, and here is the pedagogical message, teachers have to learn to teach their students how various symbol systems work and how to read them.

I buy many of Shannon’s premises. Texts can at least shape how we view ourselves and our world; they do have the tendency to situate us. I also think he is right that it helps to think about how the text might be foisting a perspective upon us that we would not accept if it were doing this more explicitly and that it makes sense to think hard about the texts that surround us. What I’m less comfortable with are the ideological readings that he evidences and his own seeming lack of self-awareness at times.

Awhile back Sandra Day O’Connor stepped down from the Supreme Court. The expert commentators agreed that Ms. O’Connor had a tendency to read cases singularly, looking hard at the specific facts and trying to ken the immediate implications any decision might have for the principals involved (rather than for the principles involved). Some observers liked that quality about her, while others thought it showed her to be intellectually flabby and lacking any useful ideological lens through which to interpret the law. I would categorize myself with the admirers. Perhaps trying to read each case individually is a kind of ideological stance, but it is an anti-ideological one. In my own reading, when I find myself coming down too often on the same side of things, I try to push back—not against the world, but against my own biases.

And there were times in this book that Shannon did push back, but not often enough for my tastes. When one is always steering to the left, one is ultimately going to go in circles. As a demonstration of how one might read thoughtfully, this book is at its best when Shannon recognizes his own reading limitations — or when those limitations are brought into sharp relief by the rational and mundane skepticism of his own grown-up children. He is correct that it is hard to read with resistance, but I would suggest that it is even harder to read with resistance against our own natural inclinations or the inclinations of the group, company, party, union, or sect with whom we align ourselves. By all means let’s read with agency—and let’s teach our students how texts work so that they can do so too. But bias not only comes from the text, it comes from within, and part of the reading regimen needs to be one in which all the boogey men are not from major corporations or the Republican party.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: December 15, 2011
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16626, Date Accessed: 11/27/2021 6:25:47 PM

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About the Author
  • Timothy Shanahan
    University of Illinois at Chicago
    E-mail Author
    TIMOTHY SHANAHAN is a professor of urban education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he is chair of the Department of Curriculum & Instruction, and director of the Center for Literacy. He is currently a principal investigator on the National Title I Study of Implementation and Outcomes: Early Childhood Language Development. His work focuses on the improvement of reading achievement, reading-writing connections, and disciplinary literacy.
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