I’ve been mulling over Mark Sample’s post from last year “On Reading Aloud in the Classroom.” Mark calls it an “elementary technique” which is all too often “a right reserved for the professor” and “too easily tossed aside in the undergraduate classroom—and in the graduate student classroom for that matter.” For him, reading aloud gives students an opportunity to reread and to better understand the dramatic context of a specific narrative.
My own experiences with student reading are sparse, and usually failures. I remember attempting it a few times: pointing to a student, asking them to read, getting slightly annoyed because they chose to read it in a different tone than I would (or no tone at all), then saying “I guess I could just read this myself, couldn’t I?” The students heartily agree and I end up being the one who does the police in different voices.
I never really thought of reading aloud as a right, or as a skill, merely something that I did for my classes. It was a performance, like many of the performances I undertake daily in the classroom.
This semester, I’ve decided to look more closely at reading aloud as a valuable skill for undergraduates. I’m teaching a 19th Century British Novel course, in which we explore the various technologies of reading that impact the history of the novel during the period and our own reading of the novel during the present. I argue early in the class that the idea of reading alone, in private, is a historically-situated technology that emphasizes the emergent separation of the private and the public sphere. Reading aloud, on the other hand, was a common practice during the Romantic and Victorian periods. According to Maggie Lane, in Austen’s day “most people took it for granted that they must amuse one another during these last hours of the day. In Jane Austen’s own family there was often reading aloud” (50). Dickens, of course, was well known for his dramatic readings of his own novels during the latter days of his life. Charles Kent wrote an entire book on Charles Dickens as Reader, in which he describes the audiences for Dickens’s public readings as:
Densely packed from floor to ceiling, these audiences were habitually wont to hang in breathless expectation upon every inflection of the author-reader’s voice, upon every glance of his eye,—the words he was about to speak being so thoroughly well remembered by the majority before their utterance that, often, the rippling of a smile over a thousand faces simultaneously anticipated the laughter which an instant afterwards greeted the words themselves when they were articulated.
Dickens and Austen both represent two faces of reading aloud: the domestic and the public. For Austen, domestic reading is a form of making and preserving family and community. For Dickens, public reading bordered on the theatrical, preserved the popularity of his novel with his audiences, and gave him much needed income. When confronted with both cases, however, students are often surprised to see the tight relationship between novel-reading and performance – especially since many of them associate reading with sitting in the corner of the room and being silent.
In my own class, I decided to have my students listen to Austen’s Northanger Abbey and simultaneously investigate Brian Cox’s 1878 guide to public reading called The Arts of Writing, Reading, and Speaking. Cox gives powerful and specific advice about topics as various as getting over your shyness when reading in front of an audience, affecting different voices and practicing different lines before a performance, and the importance of reading aloud when preparing for public speaking. In a chapter called, appropriately enough, “Public Reading,” Cox shows how accoustics and inflection are more important than simply reading at a high volume.
Before you begin to read, if the room is strange to you, you should make a trial of your own voice, to be assured that the whole company can hear you distinctly. If they fail to do so, not only are the distant deprived of whatever pleasure you can give them, but there is sure to be restlessness among those who cannot hear which will disturb those of the audience within earshot and annoy you not a little. (183)
Cox’s discussion of reading a pitch higher than one normally speaks is particularly interesting:
You will best secure a hearing by speaking in a key slightly raised above the talking key, by slow utterance, by studiously distinct articulation, by raising the voice (the upward inflection) at the end of every sentence, and by employing more of emphasis than would be permissible in a smaller circle. Clearness is far more effective than loudness. (183)
I have yet to see how my students take (or do not take) Cox’s advice, but I’m planning on having them create readings of Austen’s novel as podcasts on audacity. Once they have completed their readings, they will be asked to write about 1000 words reflecting on their experiences and explaining their choices. Hopefully, they will come to see the theatrical and performative dimension of public reading as a cultural experience made more viable by the rise of podcasts and freely available audiobooks like those collaboratively created by the Librivox community. So, in addition to Mark’s argument that reading aloud empowers students to take a central and authoritative role in the classroom, I hope to instill the idea that reading (even if in new modalities) can help us reconnect with the families and publics outside the classroom.