A great many students end up at college not knowing how to read. Sure, they can decipher words on the page, and make a cursory meaning of them, but the true work of college—of deep engagement, interrogation, and appreciation different texts—is a skill that needs to be taught again and again.
In the high stakes world of testing, students learn to quickly skim a passage and make an assessment about it in a matter of minutes. But in college, the work of reading requires more time, generosity, and receptivity. And approaching an author’s work with humility, and learning to first take the words on their own terms before challenging the material, is the true art of engaging a text.
In an 1818 letter to his brothers George and Tom, John Keats described the peerless talent he saw in the works of Shakespeare: “I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact; reason.”
To sit with a problem without making up one’s mind right away is to avoid the like it/hate it binaries to which we are all guilty of succumbing. Especially in an age where we are bombarded with a lifetime of distractions on the computers we carry in our pockets, reveling in uncertainty feels at odds with “likes” and retweets. Rather than throwing up our hands in frustration when we don’t immediately “get” a work, we should rather delight in the process of not knowing. Keats invites us to engage in a reading exercise that is recursive—in order to understand the whole text I must first understand the parts. Then, once I understand the parts, the whole work looks different. Parsing key words, examining formal elements, and tracing how an argument evolves on the page, my students have experienced the kaleidoscope of watching the components of a book exert their influence on the whole, and then back again.
Training our brains to embrace uncertainty is no easy task. But fortunately, the cultivating negative capability transcends just reading and filters in to all parts of academic learning. Learning how to think critically in a college setting means actually the opposite of what I’ve seen a lot of students do—to immediately question the author and identify so-called flaws. Criticism comes when you can first identify and articulate the originator’s project, intent, and method. Only then can you engage with a work in a meaningful and rigorous way. And the only way to get there is to become a more sympathetic and sensitive reader, and to sit in that thrilling darkness of negative capability only to emerge with fresh, exciting insight.
By Elizabeth Greenwood, Private Tutor