Chapter 2: Reading in Writing Class

2.4 Responding to Texts

Charlotte Morgan and Kim Rush

Responding to texts in college is different from high school. Professors want you to engage in constructive reading whereby you process the complex ideas and meanings frequently found in scholarly texts.
We read, research, and write about what we have learned. Academic discourse is how we communicate those ideas, or findings. As you become accustomed to source-based writing and reading rhetorically which means that you consider the context of the source: the author’s bias, his audience, writing situation, and use of rhetorical appeals, doing so will become your habit of mind. To complete your assignments, often you will read the text(s) and use the skill sets of academic writing: annotating, summarizing, quoting and paraphrasing to either critique, argue, summarize or synthesize.
The constructive reader or the reflective reader is skeptical. You do not take the text at face value, nor do you believe the meaning can be found strictly in the words. The authors of academic texts are adept at using logos, ethos, and pathos to support their theses.
How do you respond while reading? You must consider the context, writer bias, etc., and that there exists a deeper meaning which you cannot find by reading the text once or even twice. You must reflect on what you have read and consider the broader questions raised by the author. Reading and writing are connected in a way that perhaps you were not taught in high school; in college, writing is thinking on paper.

So how do you, as a writer, do this? It’s easy to give a cookie-cutter, formulaic response when asked to respond to a text. But college-level writing asks that you dig deeper. It’s not enough to simply say whether you agree/disagree or like/dislike a text.

Detecting Bias

It’s always a good idea to read with an ear toward any bias the article might contain. As you read, think about:

  • who the author is,
  • what the author’s background is as it relates to the text you were asked to read. (For example, think about the author’s political leaning, previous works, where they tend to publish, etc.),
  • what information the title conveys,
  • where the text is published (newspaper, blog, academic journal, book),
  • and when the text was written and/or published.

As you read, you can then ask yourself the following questions:

  • Why was this written/what was the author’s intention?
  • Who is the intended audience? (An author will write about a topic such as neurosurgery much differently for doctors as opposed to the general population. Doctors know more about neurosurgery; therefore, the author’s writing could be more complex and detailed.)
  • Might there be some bias (either intended or unintended) in the reading? Does the author seem to be trying to convince you of something? And if so, what and why? Were they successful?

All of these things are contextual clues that will help you interact with the text on a deeper level. For example, when thinking about bias, you can even consider the historical events of the time period and how they might play a role in the opinions and perspectives an author might have. For example, consider same-sex marriage in the United States. In the early 2000s, polls revealed that the majority of the public disapproved of the idea of gay marriage, so articles from that time would most likely reflect that opinion. However, opinions would soon change, as the public became more accustomed to the idea of same-sex couples marrying. Therefore, articles on the topic today would differ in position, tone, etc.

Recall Kairos? Yes, this is even more evidence of how historical perspective and timing/relevance plays a part in potential bias in writing. This bias will give you clues into what the author was intending, and how you could respond to that intention in your college writing.

Challenge What You Read

As you read further, challenge the thoughts of the writer; don’t simply agree or disagree with the text. Ask questions. Collegiate writing is not black-and-white, so neither should your opinions and writing responses be. There is often a great amount of detail in the text. It’s up to you to read the text at least twice to fully garner the details, annotate the texts, and ask questions when necessary.

As you begin to write your response to the reading, be sure not to simply summarize the article’s content. College writing asks that you ask and explore questions, take risks, stretch your mind, and begin to think and read critically. {Link to section 2.2: How to Read Effectively}. Don’t just write what you think the teacher wants you to.

It’s ok to discuss why you like or dislike a text, but be specific and academic. You may criticize it but do so using principles (it shows bias against race, gender, class, age, etc.; it is factually incorrect; it has poor structure, typos, too many facts, too many opinions – you get the gist. In short, if you criticize (or, on the other hand, applaud) a text, give reasons why you are challenging the ideas as well as examples of what you are criticizing in the text. Note that you should not simply say, “I didn’t like the article by James Smith because it was boring.” That is not scholarly writing.

Important Tip

Always be sure to mention the title of the piece and the author. You may also want to include where the article was published and when. Usually, this information fits nicely in your introduction paragraph.

Finally, think about what is missing in the reading. The author may leave things out (consciously or subconsciously), such as issues, events, and ideas that don’t serve their main point. Be a sleuth and sniff these omissions out. Oftentimes, what is NOT written about is just as important as what IS.

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