Responses To Reading

A colleague of mine who teaches the History of Science asks his students questions about their reading that are to be answered in their journals. He enjoys it when students write entries such as the following:

#17 What did Darwin find on the Galapagos Islands? Lions & tigers & bears? Oh no. Turtles & lizards & seals! That's what he found. Different from species found anywhere else in the world. Tame and unafraid of humans. Adapted to a harsh isolated environment. The birds, such as the woodpecker thrush, had learned to use tools. No other species, except man and baboons, I think, had learned to use tools. Some birds had no more use for flight so their wings atrophied.

When I teach my literature classes, I tell students "Write about everything you read in here, even if just for five minutes. Whenever you complete a chapter, a poem, an essay, write something, anything, about it in your journal. Date your entry and try to identify something specific in what you are reacting to." If you write about what you read, you increase your chances of remembering it, understanding it, and asking intelligent, specific questions about it. A first-year literature student wrote the following entries while reading Moby-Dick.

11/30 The thought of running into that squid makes me sick. Don't these men get scared of these strange creatures? Nobody can be that strong all the time.

12/1 What I thought was funny is that Stubbs calls the ship they meet the Rosebud and it is giving off a gross odor because of all the sick and dying whales it carries. What's even more humorous is that the ambergris (yellow substance) is used in perfume—it comes from the bowels of dying whales!

The more personal Sarah's reaction, the more I believe that she is engaged in the book; the more she finds funny or notable, the more likely she could use that entry as a seed from which to start an analytic essay or research project.

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