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This essay examines the intersecting pedagogical and theological stakes of conflating our practices of reading and writing. With attention to ongoing “turf wars” within English departments, as well as to broader university trends toward prioritizing ROI, assessable artifacts, and marketable skills, it argues that we should de-couple reading and writing, recognizing them as distinctive practices that achieve different ends. Moreover, it argues that, as the balance has shifted toward prioritizing writing—which is primarily a mode of self- expression—we are at risk of losing the equally important skill of listening carefully to the stories of others. Bethany Williamson is Associate Professor of English at Biola University.

A “turf war between literature and composition” has been waged for decades now in English departments across the country, reflecting academe’s broader reprioritization of professional skills over the liberal arts.1 On one side, we typically see traditionally trained Ph.D.s in literature who continue to teach close reading and theoretical approaches to literary texts from neatly demarcated eras (such as the Middle Ages for British Lit folks, or modernism for Americanists), to a dwindling number of English majors.2 On the other side are scholars of Rhetoric and Composition (“rhet-comp”), along with a contingent of adjunct instructors, who teach primarily First-Year Writing and other so-called service courses that sharpen the writing and critical thinking skills of the university’s diverse population. Thanks to a declining interest in literary studies, along with rhet-comp’s embrace of new writing technologies and multi-modal pedagogy, the latter camp appears to be “winning,” while some in the former camp have dug in their heels, fearful or bitter about the evident trajectory of this battle. An English major is a harder sell, with more and more students choosing to major in business or STEM fields rather than risk a career as a Starbucks barista (a myth that refuses to go away).3 Those students who do major in English increasingly shun more traditional literature or “generalist” tracks, instead choosing to specialize in creative writing or become certified in secondary education. They aspire to be writers or teachers but have been taught to believe that reading does not pay.

Is this “turf war” a valid one? In many ways, the distinction between these camps is arbitrary and artificial. After all, careful reading and clear writing are ineluctably linked: one must listen carefully to a conversation before weighing in. And good writers begin as close readers, who learn to recognize and imitate (accidentally or deliberately) the stylistic tools that make good writing “flow.” The two skillsets thus complement and require each other. Yet in other ways, the distinction between writing and reading (and between the English sub-disciplines of rhet-comp and literary studies) is understandable and worthwhile. At a moment in higher education when students’ (and their parents’) “return-on-investment” (ROI) is of utmost importance—when they are paying a higher and higher price for degrees they hope and need to channel into professional success and financial stability4—English departments feel a weighty responsibility to teach the specific skills that employers demand: namely, critical thinking and written communication.5 Moreover, at a moment when “diversity” is rightly valued but often lacking or misunderstanding on our campuses, we increasingly work to foreground students’ perspectives by cultivating their abilities to tell their stories in their own voices. We see that there are ethical pitfalls to traditional approaches to literature, including questions of access and privilege, as well as accusations of sexism, racism, and other exclusions within the literary canon of “great books.” Recognizing the changing foci amongst our own majors, we also recognize the need to shift our curriculum away from subjects and topics that do not “sell” in order to give more weight to texts and courses that help students identify and articulate their perspectives on the world, using their words to weigh in on conversations about things that matter to them.

What we have lost in this shift, I argue, is a crucial recognition that writing and reading are not the same activity and do not achieve the same ends. My aim here is not to decry “progress” or to rehash the doom-and-gloom laments that have accompanied these trends in some quarters.6 Rather, I want to ask: what exactly is lost when the balance shifts toward prioritizing writing (in department culture, faculty hiring, course offerings, university funding, and so on)? I focus on how this question has shaped English departments like my own, while recognizing that it has broader relevance to humanities disciplines and liberal arts programs that are increasingly called upon to assess their methods and explain how they add value to students’ degrees.7 I propose that our “turf wars” not only respond to evolving technologies of writing and reading, but also reflect a cultural shift toward valuing self-expression and away from valuing listening to the stories (and, by extension, valuing the experiences and expertise) of others, with no expectation of our own response. In short, I argue for the value of reading, and of teaching reading-as-listening, apart from the expressive skill of writing. “Slow reading”—which I define as the act of reading for reading’s sake, without the expectation of providing a response—is a countercultural skill (or, perhaps more accurately, a space or even an ethic) that has been lost in our “selfie age.”8 Yet it is a crucial skill for Christian students who seek to develop habits of hospitality, humility, and empathy in a pursuit to become more like Christ.

Shifts toward self-expression and professionalization are taking place not just within English departments but also on the broader university level. For example, my own university recently revamped its core curriculum structure and requirements; in order to maintain the general education requirement that students take both writing courses and a literature course, the literature course was revised to focus on two learning objectives: written communication and intercultural competence. An immediate effect of these core revisions is that the type and number of literature courses that will “count” for non-English majors has been diminished (for example, British Literature did not make the cut). It was also recommended that we revise the title(s) of approved literature courses, so as to signal that the literary content will take a backseat role in service to the core learning objectives. Rather than emphasizing particular disciplinary content (such as “American Literature”), titles should emphasize the skillset a literature course promises to cultivate. One early but telling suggestion was that approved literature courses be retitled, “Writing About Literature.” This seemingly small but actually quite significant shift in rhetoric signals a broader shift in priorities across the university and, arguably, in American higher education on the whole.

This shift toward the self, I suggest, is at the heart of our English “turf wars,” at least as they play out on the pedagogical front. Writing and Rhetoric courses are primarily about self-expression: in them, students learn how to hone their own voices in order to reach diverse audiences. We can see this visualized in the schema of the rhetorical triangle: the writer (or speaker) is at the peak of the triangle, with context and audience forming its other two points. In such courses, we teach students that listening to others is the first and necessary step in speaking; we must hear and understand where our audience is coming from before we “put in [our] oar,” to borrow Kenneth Burke’s famous metaphor of the “unending [parlor] conversation.”9 We study the rhetorical strategies of Frederick Douglass, Adrienne Rich, or Paul the apostle in order to understand how these orators reached their respective audiences in ways that were not only extraordinarily effective in their own moments, but also remain powerful across the distance of time and space. And we treat these rhetorical strategies as tools that students can learn to recognize and then deploy in their own arguments. By reading the work of powerful, articulate writers and speakers, students learn what it looks like to craft a compelling sentence, paragraph, essay, or book. But ultimately, it is their voices that we are working to develop through the writing workshops and the office hours and draft after painstaking draft.

Traditionally, literature courses have had a different aim: to expose students to voices (and by extension, to times and places, cultures and worldviews) that are not their own. This distinction in aim encourages a different practice as well. The practice of close reading involves attending to the ways in which writers use the literary devices at their disposal to create meaning. The imagist poet’s metaphor distills a moment of time into a precise and vivid verbal picture. The Enlightenment writer’s heroic couplet disciplines an unruly world into something orderly, balanced, and discrete. The dialogue in a novel makes us gasp, giggle, or groan. There is always a reader response involved, of course, whether formally (in a class discussion or a literary analysis essay) or viscerally (in our like or dislike of the story or characters, and in the emotions and memories these evoke in us). But the response is a way of demonstrating our readerly attention—even, to some extent, insofar as writing is thinking, of enacting that attention—rather than the end of reading itself.

In fact, the danger of emphasizing “writing about literature” lies in the potential for misunderstanding the purpose of our response; the danger is that every story becomes a story about the self. One of the words I hear most frequently from my students—whether in their essays or in end-of-semester conversations about their favorite course text—is “relatable.” Calling a text “relatable” is, I have come to learn, the highest of compliments from my undergraduates. Understandably, for our students, who want to be relevant and to make their mark on the world, course materials must be relevant too, which seems to mean that texts must “speak” to students in some immediately useful and recognizably personal way. Texts do speak, of course. Beowulf, King Lear, Pride and Prejudice, Beloved, The Great Gatsby, and Maus are infinitely “relatable,” insofar as they deal with timeless queries about cultural identity, dysfunctional families, unreasonable social expectations, human suffering, cruelty, longing, and desire. At the crux of “the humanities,” literature reminds and teaches us what it means to be human. And so these texts certainly do invite our response insofar as they invite us to see ourselves in their protagonists’ struggles and triumphs. But that is not their ultimate purpose, for they bear witness to another’s vision and to others’ stories. And when the text becomes about our response, we lose something. We forget that these are time-stamped tales, written by other people with other perspectives who write in other places and about other times. A writer’s motivations and memories matter; a text’s publication and reception history matters; the historical events and traumas that are embedded in the form itself matter. And great texts resist our efforts to collapse that distance and turn to application too quickly. When we make the story about us, we miss out on the difficult but rewarding work of sitting with the story of another without expecting or anticipating our own response.

This labor of listening is what my students struggle with most of all. When asked and invited, they are able and often eager to connect texts from past times and other places to their own experiences—to push past the initial discomfort with strange typography or formal diction, and even to resist the temptation to think that we have evolved or “modernized” our way out of the dilemmas that brilliant writers have given voice and story to for centuries. They can see the truth behind Chaucer’s satire of hypocritical clergymen and church culture in The Canterbury Tales; or the relevance to today’s campuses of Mary Wollstonecraft’s arguments that men and women alike are better off when women are treated as human beings first, rather than as frivolous and sexualized objects. They can see the poignancy of Matthew Arnold’s recognition that the busyness of modern life has contributed to a troubling push for conformity and shallow conversation that contributes to a loss of self and lack of ability to engage in meaningful relationships with others. Many of them, especially our students of color, can relate to the pain, longing, and empowerment expressed by Derek Walcott in his poetic description of what it feels like to belong to two cultures at once. But these same students are less able to take themselves out of the picture, to engage with writers’ words on their own terms—to see how the words themselves open up intricacies of meanings beyond what their own experiences allow them to see. They admit, quite eagerly, that they have developed “empathy” over the course of the semester, meaning that they have grown in their “abilit[ies] to understand and appreciate another person’s feelings, experience, etc.”10 But they do not always realize that as long as we gloss over the gaps or differences between another’s experiences and our own, we cannot undergo the surrender of self that allows us to “understand and appreciate” the feelings or experience of another. For example, in reading Shūsaku Endo’s Silence, I must recognize that my experience of feeling “out of place” in “secular” settings is not the same as Sebastian Rodrigues’ spiritual turmoil and physical persecution as a missionary to sixteenth-century Japan. In reading Art Spiegelman’s Maus, I must recognize that my own inevitably complicated relationship with my parents is not the same as Spiegelman’s relationship with his father, who bears the physical and psychological scars of his time in a Nazi concentration camp. Only in recognizing and sitting with these differences—in suspending my judgment, surrendering my right to respond, and silencing my concern about how another’s story is relevant and relates to me—can I grow in my understanding and appreciation for the human experience, as it is born and articulated by others.

As a teacher, I feel the weight of my students’ expectation that to be relevant is to be “relatable.” I want the students to connect and feel connected, to see the vibrancy and vitality of these texts, to appreciate that the questions we are asking are in many ways the same. But I also want my students to develop empathy, and I know that “relatability” is neither the first step nor the end. To grow in empathy, one must first enter into the space of another—step into her shoes, inhabit his world. To do that requires relinquishing the self; it requires that one not think about “the next step,” the last word, the personal response—the “selfie” moment, so to speak. My most thoughtful and mature students understand this. When they speak, it is to marvel at the distance they have been forced to feel, at the insights they have gleaned from this distance itself. When these students speak, I always learn something new—about the text; about the character; about myself as a reader, a teacher, a woman, and a human. These moments are gifts to me. For these students—these readers—speak not because they have something to say, but because they want others to listen to and to hear, clearly and truly, the voices that they’ve heard.

I want to reiterate here that developing our students’ writing and critical thinking skills is absolutely important. We need articulate, logical thinkers who can write clearly and compellingly about things that matter. We need those who can and will speak out against injustice and give voice to truths that must be spoken. We need those who recognize the value of conversation, who can speak across aisles and build bridges with their words.

My point is simply this: writing and reading are not the same activity. In practice and policy, we sometimes do conflate or confuse the two. But while clear writing and clear thinking are inextricably linked, writing about reading is not the same thing as reading itself and for reading’s sake. Both activities are technologies, according to physicist Ursula Franklin’s definition of technology as systems or, more simply, “ways of doing something.”11 But they have different means and ends. Writing “has always been a technology for thinking and communicating,” explain contributors to a collection of recent work in the field of Rhetoric and Composition.12 “The profound impact of writing, as a technology,” writes Franklin, “lies in the fact that writing allows the physical separation of the message from the messenger or sender.”13 Writing-as-technology enables “the preservation of culture, custom, and thought” across time and space.14 Writers use the various tools at their disposal—from quill pens to iPhones—to communicate, and the writer’s message is helped or hindered by these tools. As Marshall McLuhan famously put it, “the medium is the message,” or at least the tool(s) can alter and shape the message in some way.15

Reading, too, is a technology, according to Franklin’s definition. Throughout history, various technological tools—most notably, the codex (an invention that allowed readers to move backwards and forwards within a text, rather than read continuously from a scroll16) and the printing press (which made more texts more available to more people)—encouraged readers to process texts in new ways. Readers have always approached texts with different motivations and for different reasons. For example, in her work on “Reading Strategies for Coping With Information Overload ca. 1550-1700,” historian Ann Blair surveys the ongoing evolution of reading practices in early modernity, noting that even such famous readers as Francis Bacon and Samuel Johnson distinguished between approaches to reading that included (in Johnson’s case) “hard study,” “perusal,” “curious reading,” and “mere reading” (or “browsing”).17 A question thus arises: if readers have always approached texts in different ways and for different reasons, is one way of reading inherently better than another? Scholars think differently on this issue, particularly as it pertains to young readers who are just forming their sense of identity. In her work on “Hyper and Deep Attention: The Generational Divide in Cognitive Modes,” literary critic N. Katherine Hayles notes that “reading is a powerful technology for reconfiguring activity patterns in the brain.”18 Different ways of reading affect the brain differently, and while Hayles admits that students’ increasing bent toward “hyper attention” poses challenges for educators, she suggests that it is a skillset more easily adapted and useful for navigating our “information-rich society.”19 Similarly, as Danah Boyd weighs in on the nature and use of social media by teens, she takes a nonjudgmental tone in explaining how “social media is situated within an attention economy” in which “capturing attention is important for financial and personal gain.”20 Both scholars to some extent conflate reading and writing, suggesting that methods of reading should be “useful” to readers in helping them express themselves within a network that both mirrors and mediates the demands and expectations of the real world.

I want to push back on such conflation, arguing that, if reading is a technology, it is one that transcends the writers’ tools. To suggest that the aim of reading is to be useful, in the sense of stimulating or producing a response, is to misunderstand the nature of reading. Again, the aim of the reader is not to speak back to but rather to listen across [distance]. There is thus a different kind of joy, beauty, and purpose in reading for reading’s sake. Recognizing the power of literature to shape us as well as to reflect who we are, to invite us into magical realms of imagination and challenge us to confront our deepest fears and desires, English professor Karen Swallow Prior goes so far as to confess that “books have formed the soul of me.”21 Yet books themselves live outside of our responses. “Books” themselves “are not … dead things,” writes John Milton in his 1644 defense of “promiscuous” reading, Areopagitica; rather, they “do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are.”22 The delights and “pleasures of reading,” as Alan Jacobs argues in a book by that title, exist apart from—and do not necessitate—our arguments about what we’ve read.23 And Flannery O’Connor argues that creating “art,” as she defines it, “is writing something that is valuable in itself and that works in itself”—something that is true, “both in matter and in mode,” regardless of the reader’s response; for “it is the nature of fiction not to be good for much unless it is good in itself.”24 As these well-read writers suggest, literature transcends the technological tools that both enable and delimit writers’ imaginative quests for truth; in other words, written works of art transcend the possibilities and boundaries of writing itself.

Not only does conflating reading and writing diminish the distinctive goods of each activity, but it also shifts the reader’s focus from other to self in distracting and potentially dangerous ways. Returning to Hayles’ and Boyd’s arguments about the nature of reading in an “attention economy,” I want to suggest that the language of “attention” matters a great deal for the Christian reader. To what are we attending, and to what should we attend? Shifting technologies of writing and reading have pushed the balance of attention toward the self. While the writerly quest for fame dates back long before Chaucer’s injunction to “Go, litel book” and make its name out in the world,25 the rise of the blog, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat (and so on) have celebrated and enabled the expression of self, the articulation of one’s own ideas and identity in ways that convince others of their value. Even when we are ostensibly encountering someone or something other than us, our expression of that encounter tends to focus on the self. Hence, we see the ubiquitous (or notorious) selfie in front of the Mona Lisa. We want to prove that we were there, that we saw, that we know what we saw. Again, such behavior is driven by an urge to make all things “relatable” or else dismiss them as lacking value.

And herein lies the problem with any form of reading in which we become users, rather than receivers, as C. S. Lewis puts it in his Experiment in Criticism26whether speed reading, a skill wherein we skim to glean the essential content of a text; or distant reading, an approach coined by Stanford’s Literary Lab, wherein we analyze patterns of data in order to raise and solve interpretive problems;27 or other forms of critical reading in which we read in order to have something—anything—to say, ourselves. Reflecting with his usual verve and wisdom on the practice and process of ethical reading, Lewis argues that “the first demand any work of any art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way.”28 Lewis points out that, lamentably, most readers neither desire nor accomplish such surrender. The majority of readers (or any consumers of art) “make a selection or précis, picking out the elements [of a text] they can use and neglecting the rest.”29 They “rush hastily forward to do things with the work of art instead of waiting for it to do something to them.”30 This kind of useful reading, this rush to do something with the words of another, or to say something about it, shows more about who we are as readers (namely, people who use others and the things of others) than about the author who set down the words or created the characters whose shoes we are being invited to step into. In other words, our reading, like most of our activity, is about ourselves.

Perhaps it is time to recognize, again, the value of older technologies that enable slow reading. Technology itself may be neutral, but we who invent it and use it for our ends are anything but. And our biases, oriented as they are toward self-interest and self-preservation, seem to have led us to turn technology, too, towards the furthering, rather than the sacrificing, of the self. Slowing down is not in and of itself a sacrificial move, of course. The rise of various “slow” movements—from “slow food” to “slow professors”31—make clear the physical and psychological benefits derived from rebelling against the frenetic pace of our society. Like any other activity, “slow(ly) reading” can still be focused on the self.32 But slowing down is also a prerequisite to listening. And only when we read with the aim to listen—without the expectation that we will be called upon to speak—can we truly appreciate and understand the perspective of another.

It matters whom we listen to, of course. For we read—we listen—to understand what it means to be human. My argument, in this regard, is not necessarily a defense of the Western literary canon, with its definitions of greatness and talent that can tend towards insularity. Rather, it is a celebration of the myriad of voices and expressions of the human experience that we have access to through literature, in a canon that is constantly changing and evolving across time and space. As T. S. Eliot puts it in his 1919 exploration of “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” “The past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past,” and in this way, there are always more stories and perspectives to hear, always new ways in which ancient truths can be told.33 If “the existing order is complete before the new work arrives,” he writes, “the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered” when the new comes.34 To twist Eliot’s observations into metaphor: we, too, become part of this order, as we listen—through literature—across time and space. And we cannot help but be altered, too, as a result, just as Shakespeare’s work is somehow altered by Woolf’s, and Conrad’s by Walcott’s, and Twain’s by Morrison’s, and Austen’s by Atwood’s. But our alteration is neither the purpose nor the point, for we cannot predict precisely in which ways we will change unless we somehow know in advance what we will hear before we listen.

The call to read for reading’s sake, and, in so doing, to resist elevating ROI above other, nobler pursuits and measures of value, is by no means new. In this regard, then, the distinction, however artificial, between writing versus reading (and rhetoric versus literature) is nonetheless a worthwhile one to make, not in terms of dividing departments and demarcating faculty interests and labor, but in order to remind ourselves of the distinct and valuable habits of mind each activity cultivates. If the distinction engenders contention, then conflation, too, has a cost. For writing is about self-expression, about thinking-with-technology.35 Reading, on the other hand, must begin with listening but can also stop there; and thus the practice of reading without the expectation of writing can transport us outside of and beyond ourselves in a way that writing itself cannot. Writing emphasizes our words and our voice, whereas reading demands our attention to another. Alan Jacobs writes in “Attending to Technology: Theses for Disputation” that “the chief danger of seeking to be attentive is the accompanying desire to be acknowledged as seeking to be attentive. But true attentiveness may not be compatible with displaying one’s attentiveness, for instance in the form of public writing.”36 By extension, the danger in conflating (or always conjoining) reading and writing is to assume that there is more value in finding and offering our own words than in seeking and attending to the words of others.

For Christian readers, both modes of being—speaking and listening—are vital responsibilities and callings. But Scripture does give us an ethical hierarchy, for James writes, “Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.”37 We often interpret this verse as a reminder to hear (or listen) first, and then to speak. We know, at least on a theoretical level, that we should avoid speaking before listening, speaking out of turn, speaking out of unrighteous anger, and so on. But if the verse tells us to be “quick to hear,” implying that we should listen whenever and wherever possible, it does not suggest that we should always speak, or that listening will always be accompanied or followed by speaking—just as listening is not always (or even usually) followed by anger. While we are elsewhere told to “always [be] prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you … with gentleness and respect”38 and to “preach the word … in season and out of season … with complete patience,”39 these situations are specific to evangelism and exhortation, not generalized as James’ instructions are. The lesson seems clear: we should not always be speaking; nor should we interpret each and every listening encounter as one that invites response, as if our words are most important.

Such an ethic for reading as a practice of surrendering our right to self-expression has theological roots as well as ethical ones. Scholars often point to Christ’s kenosis, or emptying of self, as expressed in Philippians 2, as the model for abdicating our own will for love of another.40 Christ met humanity through the incarnation—not through giving up his divinity but by emptying himself of its form and entering fully into the humble, broken world of humans. Alan Jacobs notes in A Theology of Reading that Simone Weil, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and others have interpreted this kenosis as a “death of self” or “self-annihilation,” an emptying that in turn allows a person—a reader!—to demonstrate “perfect attentiveness and perfect love” for another.41 The problem with such a model, Jacobs points out, following Mikhail Bakhtin, is that it leads to “the abdication of answerability and the refusal of self-activity,” encouraging passivity.42 Building on Bakhtin, Jacobs proposes a different model of kenosis as the basis for a hermeneutic of love, one that “does not eradicate the self but [rather] chastens it,” one that insists on seeing the other not through the abstract lens of “universal humanity” but as a unique and particular person who “makes a distinctive demand upon me” in each and every interaction.43 What is at stake is love itself; challenging readers to be faithful in practicing a hermeneutic of charity, Jacobs insists that if books are our “neighbors,” then this work is a “debt that we owe to all the books we read.”44 In this sense, the practice of close reading can be an exercise in spiritual formation, for through it we learn what it means to show charity and hospitality towards authors, characters, and fellow readers—not as disembodied, emptied selves, but as listeners-in-training who are attentive, alert, and alive.

I conclude with calls to caution and action that are not new but bear repeating in our world that is oversaturated with a focus on the self. My hope is that we may recognize how our culture of narcissism is enabled by our technological advances in ways that can create mission creep on individual and institutional levels. “Growth has become addictive,” writes Ivan Illich in Tools for Conviviality, and our tools increasingly threaten to overwhelm us who use them.45 The technologies we create to bring people together end up destroying the “conviviality” of society, he warns, and the tools we design to solve our problems often end up creating new dilemmas. As individuals and as institutions, then, we must keep in mind the value but also the limits and the particular dangers of the technologies that allow us to communicate with one another. The antidote to narcissism is not abstract abdication or passive forgetfulness of self but rather an active practice of disciplining, refocusing, and expanding our attention so that we can inhabit the world more compassionately and charitably. So, then—as individuals: may we listen more than we speak. May we engage in the practice of slow reading, delighting in the turns of phrase, sparkling syntax, broken characters, and beautiful imagery that stir our souls toward beauty, worship, and repentance as we learn first to see and then to empathize with the struggles, suffering, and stories of others. May we embrace, too, the mystery that is at the heart of the most powerful stories. May we rid ourselves not just of the desire to weigh in on every conversation but also, relatedly, of “the desire of being persuaded that all human experience may be presented in terms of a problem having a predictable, final, complete and sole possible solution,” as Dorothy Sayers puts it.46 As teachers and scholars: may we delight in inviting and helping others to do the same. Finally, as institutions and members of institutions: may we broaden our assessments and investments to include a longer, wider view of what is valuable, recognizing that these stories from other times and places not only inform our present but may indeed predict our future. Together: may we listen well, collectively, and may we listen carefully to each other, as we seek to use our tools to build community.47

Cite this article
Bethany Williamson, “Reading to Listen and Writing to Speak: A Pedagogical Challenge for the Selfie Age”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 49:2 , 147-159


  1. Edward M. White, Norbert Elliot, and Irvin Peckham, Very Like a Whale: The Assessment of Writing Programs (Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2015), np. For useful discussions of the history and stakes of this “turf war,” see Marc Bousquet, “The Figure of Writing and the Future of English Studies,” Pedagogy 10.1 (2009): 117-129; and Composition And/Or Literature: The End(s) of Education, eds. Linda S. Bergmann and Edith M. Baker (Urbana: NCTE, 2006). For a history of the nineteenth-century rise of literary studies in American English departments, see Gerald Graff, Professing Literature: An Institutional History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989); and Sharon Crowley, Composition in the University: Historical and Polemical Essays (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1998).
  2. The National Center for Education Statistics provides data on the declining number of English majors: See also Eric Hayot, “The Sky is Falling,” Profession (May 21, 2018),
  3. Robert Matz, “The Myth of the English Major Barista,” Inside Higher Ed (July 6, 2016), This trend has also affected other disciplines in the humanities.
  4. For a thoughtful analysis of the costs of higher education, see Sara Goldrick-Rabb, Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).
  5. NACE Staff, “Employers Identify Four ‘Must Have’ Career Readiness Competencies For College Graduates,” National Association of Colleges and Employers (April 16, 2016),
  6. Benjamin Winterhalter, “The Morbid Fascination With the Death of the Humanities,” The Atlantic (June 6, 2014),
  7. See, for example, the “Joint Statement on the Value of Liberal Education by AAC&U and AAUP,” 31 May 2018,
  8. Shankar Vedantam and Jean Twenge, “Me, Me, Me: The Rise of Narcissism In The Age of the Selfie,” The Hidden Brain, prod. Maggie Penham (July 12, 2016),
  9. Kenneth Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1941), 110-111.
  10. The Oxford English Dictionary, n. “empathy,” It is telling, perhaps, that the word “empathy,” which originated in the field of psychology, did not enter the English language until the turn of the 20th century, and did not take on its current meaning until the middle of the century.
  11. Ursula Franklin, The Real World of Technology, rev. ed. (Toronto: Anansi Press, 1999), 6.
  12. Collin Brooke and Jeffery T. Grabill, “Writing Is a Technology through Which Writers Create and Recreate Meaning,” in Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, eds. Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle (Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 2015), 34.
  13. Franklin, 135.
  14. Ibid., 136.
  15. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964), 1,
  16. Alan Jacobs, “Christianity and the Future of the Book,” The New Atlantis (Fall 2011): 19-36.
  17. Ann Blair, “Reading Strategies for Coping With Information Overload ca. 1550-1700,” Journal of the History of Ideas (2003): 11-28.
  18. N. Katherine Hayles, “Hyper and Deep Attention: The Generational Divide in Cognitive Modes,” Profession (2007): 187-199, 193.
  19. Ibid., 195.
  20. Danah Boyd, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014), 147.
  21. Karen Swallow Prior, Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me (New York: T.S. Poetry Press, 2012), 10.
  22. John Milton, Areopagitica, in Complete Poems and Major Prose, ed. Merritt Y. Hughes (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2003), 720.
  23. Alan Jacobs, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction (Oxford: Oxford University Press: 2011).
  24. Flannery O’Connor, “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” in Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, eds. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1969), 65 & 81.
  25. Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde, bk. V, line 1786, in The Riverside Chaucer, 3rd ed., ed. Larry D. Benson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987), 584.
  26. C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1961).
  27. Franco Moretti, Distant Reading (New York: Verso, 2013). On Moretti’s work, see also Kathryn Schulz, “What is Distant Reading?” The New York Times, June 24, 2011,
  28. Lewis, 19.
  29. Ibid., 24.
  30. Ibid., 25.
  31. Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber, The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016).
  32. Thomas Newkirk, “Reading is Not a Race: The Virtues of the ‘Slow Reading’ Movement,” The Washington Post, January 30, 2012, See also David Mikics, Slow Reading in a Hurried Age (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013); and John Miedema, Slow Reading (Duluth, MN: Litwin Books, 2009).
  33. T. S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” eds. Jahan Ramazani and Jon Stallworthy, vol. F of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 9th ed., ed. Stephen Greenblatt (New York: Norton, 2012): 2554-2559.
  34. Ibid., 2555.
  35. One might object that this claim about self-expression is much less obvious in certain situations—for example, within traditions of oral storytelling, or in instances of pseudonymity, or for commentators, whose writing is a way of identifying with and giving voice to another (author). Yet in each of these situations, the speaker or writer is still focused on producing an artifact; she or he listens in order to do something with words, which necessarily changes the nature of the listening itself. For purposes of my pedagogical argument, that focus is distinct from the act of reading-to-listen itself.
  36. Alan Jacobs, “Attending to Technology: Theses for Disputation,” The New Atlantis (Winter 2016): 22.
  37. James 1:19. All Scripture citations are from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  38. 1 Peter 3:15.
  39. 2 Timothy 4:2.
  40. “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death…” (Phil. 2:5-8).
  41. Alan Jacobs, A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love (Cambridge, MA: Westview Press, 2001), 104.
  42. Ibid., 105.
  43. Ibid., 108, 55, & 62.
  44. Ibid., 64.
  45. Ivan Illich, Tools for Conviviality (London: Marion Boyars, 2009), 82.
  46. Dorothy Sayers, The Mind of the Maker (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1941), 188.
  47. This essay was inspired by my participation in a Biola University faculty seminar on “Technology and Christian Faithfulness.” I am grateful to Alan Jacobs for facilitating the seminar, as well as to Matt Jensen and Rick Langer for their thoughtful feedback on an early draft of the essay.

Bethany Williamson

Biola University
Bethany Williamson is Associate Professor of English at Biola University.