What You Read Matters More Than You Might Think

Seton Hill is revamping its freshman writing program, previously implemented as a pair of courses, “Basic Composition” and “Seminar in Thinking and Writing” (STW), and now called “Composition and Culture” (which students can take in one semester or stretch over two).

The new design includes more focus on reading, and also seeks to erase what had been a sharp division between an emphasis on the personal essay (in the “Basic” course) and a sometimes shocking pivot to the conventions of a college research paper.

In the upper level course as we used to teach it, we asked the students to write three essays in STW. Even though we showed the students models and gave them careful guidance, we found increasingly that students who were asked to write their first research paper often fell back on the basic composition habits they had learned. That meant that in many cases the first paper was a wash — many students often simply submitted the kind of personal essay that would have earned them an A in Basic Comp. The faculty decided instead to spend more time asking students to read examples of and engaging with the kind of thinking that is only possible when authors cite and weigh evidence from experts whose values and viewpoints disagree over a complex subject.

The new course design is built on observations that college-level thinking requires students to develop the skill of deep reading — which differs drastically from “Googling for summaries” or “scanning for answers to the questions at the end of the chapter.”

Deep reading occurs when the language is rich in detail, allusion, and metaphor, and taps into the same brain regions that would activate if the reader were experiencing the event. Deep reading is great exercise for the brain and has been shown to increase empathy, as the reader dives deeper and adds reflection, analysis, and personal subtext to what is being read. It also offers writers a way to appreciate all the qualities that make novels fascinating and meaningful—and to tap into his ability to write on a deeper level…. Time spent watching television is almost always pointless (your brain powers down almost immediately), no matter how hard you try to justify it, and reading fluff magazines or lightweight fiction may be entertaining, but it doesn’t fire up your writing brain. — Susan Reynolds, Psychology Today