Monday, August 26, 2013

On (Not) Reading Carefully, and Cauliflower Soup

Long ago, I learned to tune out the talk about the demise of the humanities.  As a former English major, I couldn't help but feel like that rhetoric was a personal attack on the thing I loved best.  And while I could take the jokes from Prairie Home Companion, it was too hard to watch departments close because someone deemed them irrelevant.

And that was pretty much how it went, until the other day, when I found myself reading Jjiraffe's post about internet hoaxes, which also cited Mel's post over at BlogHer about the behavior of readers in the face of suspicious information, or moving on after a hoax has gone viral.  Both posts pose important questions about our responsibilities as writers, and even about our responsibility to behave well as readers in an online community.  But they got me thinking about what happens even before then, how we learn to read, and about the act of reading itself, about what we expect from the printed word now, whether on paper or on the screen.

Though I had a solid high school education, it wasn't until I got to college that I was systematically asked to be skeptical about information.  As far as I knew, even in high school, history was still history: sure, there were some people who were left out, but that didn't make the details any less true.  In college, though, I started to appreciate, more deeply, exactly what it meant to read critically.  I remember feeling a little overwhelmed by the responsibility.

Now, well-indoctrinated in the process of peer review, I'm a more expert judge of information quality.  While I google as well as the next person, and I don't always use google Scholar, I tend to have excellent querying techniques that get me reliable results.  I know how to quickly identify the relevant information, and separate the wheat from the chaff.

I remember the first time I had to tell a student that not everything he found on the internet was true.  He blinked, eyes wide, deer in the headlights, in disbelief.  Really?  He had to sift through this information?  And go on ... gut feeling?

Not really, I assured him then; there are standards.  But in the blogging world, the standards are pretty unstandard.

And blogs are just about ground zero for the humanities now.  Because the humanities are the study of our humanity in the making, aren't they?  How we decide to tell the stories of ourselves, our communities, our histories?  How do we process and document the human experience?  If you think about sheer numbers, it seems to me that there are more people creating these kinds of texts about lived human experience--publicly, at any rate--now than at any moment in history.

Which is exactly why we need the humanities in the first place.

The humanities teach us to read.  They teach us to read first in the literal way: the words on the page become stories, and the stories become books, and the books become chapter books, and then they become academic treatises.  But they also teach us to read other people.  To ask questions about narrators, and writing intention.  To put ourselves in the shoes of other characters, and also to put ourselves in the shoes of authors and figure out what that means.  To know that memoir and history are lenses through which we come up with our truths.  To play with the tools of language, and recognize someone else at play.  To be analytical and critical, but also to develop deep empathy and understanding.

Yes, it's reprehensible that people--bloggers--prey upon less careful readers.  Yes, it's terrible that people are exploited so that someone else can make a quick buck, or a quick reputation (which, these days, might as well be a buck anyway).  Yes, we ought to know when to click away.  But in order to make that click, we--ALL of us--engineers, historians, doctors, teachers, lawyers, economists, parents, consumers--need to know how to be careful readers.  Of everything, and everyone.  Because you can't do much science--or anything else, for that matter--if you can't really read.  And if that's not worth my education tax dollars, I don't know what is.

Cauliflower Soup
Adapted slightly from Super Natural Every Day
Even cookbooks need reading.  Like anything else, the thoughtful, critical reading of a recipe, and its re-interpretation in your own kitchen, makes it partly yours, too.  Thanks, Heidi, for an eminently readable text.

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 large yellow onion, diced
1/2 t. salt
1 large potato, peeled and diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 1/2 cups vegetable broth
14 ounces cauliflower, cut into small florets
1/4 c. white cheddar cheese, preferably sharp, grated
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1/4 c. almonds, chopped and toasted

Heat the oil in a large soup pot over medium-high heat. Stir in the onion and salt. Saute until the onions soften and are starting to turn translucent, about 4 minutes.

Stir in the potato, cover, and cook for about another 4 minutes, or until potato begins to soften. Stir in the garlic, and after about 30 seconds or when it becomes fragrant, add in the broth. Bring to a boil, while allowing the potatoes to become tender, a few more minutes.

Once they are tender, add the cauliflower and continue to simmer, covered, for an additional 4 or 5 minutes, until the cauliflower is tender. Remove the pot from heat and puree the soup. If you have one of those fancy immersion blenders, this would be the time to use it. Return the soup to the saucepan and stir in about half the cheese, and the two teaspoons mustard. Add more broth if you want to thin the soup at all. Serve, sprinkling each bowl with a handful of toasted almonds.
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  1. Wonderful post. I wish it was required reading for everyone even peripherally involved in university education.

  2. Well thought out and written, J. It is way past my bedtime and thus I don't think I can form a coherent comment, more than that here. But wanted you to know I was here and read this. Thank you for pondering and sharing, as you do so well.

  3. As a fellow English major, I feel like I have this advantage of critical reading as well - and questioning everything that I read - especially on the internet. The "con" of technology is that information is often watered down and cheapened and requires us to be skeptical of our sources - in an age where everyone is an expert. I don't mean to sound negative. I'm a blogger and I love this world, but I rely on that inquisitive side of my brain to help me navigate this world safely. Love this post.

  4. Bravo! As a fellow English major and library science graduate, I heartily agree that we need to know how to vet sources and be skeptical of what we need. For what it's worth, for every article I see discussing the demise of humanities, I see another article discussing how STEM fields need them. I think my English background helped me immensely in web development.

  5. Hello friends, nice post and nice urging commented at this place, I am in fact enjoying by these.


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