Reflective Practice, Teach@CUNY

Resocializing Reading

A close up photograph of a group red mushrooms growing together in brown dirt next to a stone.

Photo by author.

by Jeff Voss

Last year, during my WAC Fellowship at Kingsborough Community College led by the inimitable Cheryl Hogue Smith and Elizabeth Dill, Hogue Smith would repeat a line so simple yet so brilliant it transformed my entire pedagogical language, it forced my tongue to contort itself in new shapes, filled my lungs with new breath, “You can’t out-write your reading skills.”

In the early fall of 2023, I ran a workshop through the Teaching and Learning Center, “Resocializing Reading.” The idea behind it felt so simple I was almost embarrassed to propose it: What might happen if we read together in class? The workshop was inspired by a jewel of an essay by Tonika Sealy Thompson and Stefano Harney called “Ground provisions,” named after a reading camp they founded together in Barbados. Swimming amongst tides of black study and anti-colonial commitments, Sealy Thompson and Harney consider the politics of reading together, inside and outside of the classroom:

…in the official university reading is outsourced. One could even say that reading becomes ‘piecework’ – that system of outsourcing work to individual workers in their homes…piecework is a persistent feature of capitalism, a way to avoid the true cost of workers and to keep them separated, as well as to take advantage of gender and racial hierarchies in society…We think of the classroom as a place of work for the students. It’s not the only place of work. Students work all over and around the campus, in the neighborhood and in the home too. But students also do the bulk of the academic work done inside the university. Yet in their work in the classroom, reading is absent or hidden. It has been outsourced to the privacy of their homes, studies or more typically bus seats and lunch breaks. This hidden production makes it easier to deny the fact that the students do the bulk of the academic work in the university. But it is more than that.

The classroom is a reading-free zone. Indeed anyone caught reading is thought somehow to have not done her or his work! Students are supposed to read at home, alone. Even study groups are supposed to discuss assignments, not spend time in each other’s company reading, much less reading to each other. It is almost as if reading is something about which we are embarrassed…Reading becomes a profound moment not of togetherness and entangled being, but of individuation. Maybe only the experience of reading with a child escapes this model, but unfortunately such reading is designed precisely to create the individuated child who no longer needs, or wants, to read with the elder.

Damn. I mean, damn. That is a damning indictment of the current state of the university. After spending more than six years in the CUNY system as both a student and instructor, Sealy Thompson’s and Harney’s words hit with the bitter and refreshing clarity of truth. The essay goes around the world and back again, corresponding with past and future worlds, reflecting and speculating on how reading’s role in the social reproduction of capital must be refused because, “For us, reading is a condition of making, and reading together is a condition of making together…Reading together, silently or aloud, belongs with dancing together, cooking together, drinking together, watching movies together, building and cultivating together—and making together.”

Reading “Ground provisions” questions mushroom: What does it mean to come to class “ready” to discuss a text? Do you ever finish reading a text? How does reading feel, as an embodied and social experience? What gendered and racialized hierarchies are intensified by outsourcing reading? What do we foreclose when we see reading only as a means to an end? Can there ever be a clean distinction between our thing and their machine? How does reading compress and expand (our experience of) time and space? Do we have time to “read slow” in the university?

For Sealy Thompson and Harney, reading is a tactic, small but vital, of black study. “Study,” they write here, “is what we do when we come together on our own terms, rather than theirs.” “Study” is a concept Harney has elaborated with the poet Fred Moten, most famously developed in their book, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study. Since I’ve first read The Undercommons, like so many of us who labor in universities, it has become something of a bible (or better yet, a little black book) for my own relationship with work, time, and sharing study and struggle. However, “study” does not and can not take place in the classroom, nor is The Undercommons “about” the university. I can see how “resocialzing reading” in the classroom might feed that gross but seductive fantasy of the individual “subversive intellectual,” the one who imagines himself as “in but not of” the university. But that’s not a possible position to take, nor, for me, is it a desirable one. However, this post isn’t about the widespread oversimplification and misinterpretation of The Undercommons as a way for academics to launder their ethics in pursuit of their own individual careers–I take this swerve as a way to say a large part of me is very hesitant to promote “resocializing reading” as a tactic that can simply be used in any classroom, though I do believe its strategy that can do wonders no matter where you might find yourself teaching, whether it’s an introductory composition course at a public university, an upper level biology course at a private liberal arts college, or simply at home or in the park with children, friends, or strangers.

Resocializing reading is a tactic that I’ve used in the classroom, but not without reservation and not without a significant amount of groundwork with students. One of my favorite teachers used to repeat the phrase, “Every class should be about the class.” — I know, I know, I’m going somewhat far afield here in a post that’s just supposed to be about reading together in the classroom, but bear with me — Every class should be about the class! I hear in this phrase an echo of Jorge Gonzalez’s enjoinment, “The way we organize ourselves to produce knowledge will determine the knowledge we produce.” What this means for me and the classes I teach is proceeding through the recursive and necessary task of co-organizing the classroom with students.

I often tell students that there might be days we don’t get to the material, and that’s okay. I ask them what their relationship to reading is like. I don’t grade or give them homework (but I give lots of feedback, and when they’re in class we work hard). I’ve found it incredibly productive to focus our classroom norms around the following set of questions: What do we want our classroom to look like? What kind of support can we give each other as we practice our reading and writing practices? How do we want to show up for each other in the midst of all this? In the midst of rising tuition and falling wages, in the midst of a genocide our university profits off of, in the midst of an ongoing pandemic? How might we read and write differently to turn all this into something else?

What I do in the classroom is far from exceptional or extra-ordinary. I know it’s not because I have so many friends, colleagues, and mentors who I’ve learned these techniques from. None of this means that the pre-existing hierarchies of roles and identities that precede us in the classroom goes away. As Paulo Freire warns, as teachers we must always be wary of fooling ourselves into offering the “false generosity of the oppressor.” Reading together is a small, if incomplete, attempt to address the material conditions of politically engaged teaching and learning in the university. What I hope we produce in the classroom is an “us,” however differentiated or imperfect. Ironically, something the students continue to teach me through this slow and recursive focus on “the class” is how there already was/is an “us” that precedes and exceeds our composition as a class, whether we wanted to acknowledge it or not. Time and time again I have to relearn this lesson; I’m a slow learner.

We’ve all read something and then totally forgot it the moment we get into class. There’s that pressure to come to class already knowing what you’re going to say about a text. The RUSH to get through material, especially in an introductory course. This then causes a tension, where getting “through” the material takes precedence over making space to sit with/in it. Reading together and reading slow can help students not be intimidated by feelings of confusions, boredom, or difficulty that might arise when they encounter a new text. Resocializing reading can allow space to feel awkward, confused, or uncomfortable. For instance, how you’re feeling in your fingers, neck, head, all the restlessness or comforts of the skin is extremely useful information to notice when you’re reading (“leaning in” or “pulling away” from a text aren’t mere metaphors).

The slowness of this post, the way I can’t just get to the point, is not me being cute or longwinded (I hope). I’m trying to describe—from the inside—what the perpetually unfinished, common effort that must surround resocializing reading in the classroom might look like. These are small ways I try to make the classroom more for us (the students and myself) and less for them (the university that is actively abandoning them).

While Sealy Thompson and Harney’s project of resocialization reading moves far beyond the classroom, I’m trying to learn what I can from them because like them, I know “discussions in the classroom can generate something special. We can feel each other’s energies, lose ourselves in the conversation, feel the presence of something in the room. In these moments, we begin to lose our individual status as producers and feel our common materials and our common and differentiated materiality.” “Study” doesn’t happen in the classroom, but I also can’t predict where what happens inside the classroom goes. Since we’re in the classroom, and since we must read, since we might even want to read, why not do it together?

Can — and this is really, truly a question! — reading together in class — taking ten, twenty, thirty minutes to read together in silence that’s not really silence — (I hear paper ruffling, pens scratching, throats clearing, chairs shifting, AC humming or radiators groaning, soft exhales of laughter or boredom as we sit, squirm, hunch, lean in or back on our chairs) — be one way to address what Lauren Berlant calls “the class determinations of personhood”? CUNY students come into our classrooms already possessing a rich source of knowledge about how past, present, and future run unevenly along the oblique axes of gender, race, and class. If the goal of a politically engaged pedagogy is dedicated toward the effort of making the classroom a space where we can experiment with thinking and feeling our way towards new and better worlds, then resocializing what we’ve come to believe is a private, solitary act, might just create enough of a wedge to open a student up toward their transformative potential.

I’d also just like to say, echoing Hortense Spillers, that the single most important way to open up students to their transformative potential is to “[wrest] their time farther and farther away from the necessity to concentrate on the needs of the biological creature and whether or not it is safe and secure.” What this means “practically” and politically is doing everything we can with each other and with our students to make CUNY free (again), to get cops off our campus, to take control of the governance structures of the university and run our schools with the students — all this is related to the problem of teaching reading and writing (or any subject, really).

Mary Louise Pratt says in her essay, “Linguistic Utopias,” that when we talk about pedagogy we almost always only hear the voice of the teacher. Keeping that in mind, here are some quotes from students – both graduate students who were participants in the fall workshop and are instructors throughout the CUNY system, and undergraduate students at Brooklyn College who I asked to read together many many times:

“This reminded me of why I love the public library. Being in the company of people who are reading. I read to my grandfather when he lost his vision. Reading in class can close an equity gap for busy/working students who can’t read outside of class.”

“This took me back in time to “reading time” in primary school. I’d sit next to my sister and we’d read together. Reading was social for me until college.”

“I get nervous about reading slow. All I could think is, ‘How are other people thinking about this?’”

“It was very visceral. Although reading alone was very important to me, not having to talk. But maybe reading together can be both — hanging out alone.”

“A common text is not necessarily a shared experience, but doing it together feels like we’re doing it together.”

“Reading together can kind of feel like you’re being surveilled, I can see people being squeamish. But it’s a great reminder to slow down.”

“In my art history class, we were talking about Cezanne. He draft-dodged the Franco-Prussian War and asked himself, how can I be revolutionary in form? I’m going to sit still.”

When we design workshops at the TLC we usually find our way back to some version of the question, “What do we want those who showed up to leave with?” Therefore, I wanted to offer some “practical” strategies I’ve used to resocialize reading in the classroom.

The following is not a formula, but an oblation. You and your students probably already do a lot of these things. You’re invited, but you’re already involved.

a) Print out and bring a text to class for the students. This part is important, for me. I’m all for having students bring phones and laptops to class, but the physical experience of reading and annotating on paper is unmatched.

b) Read together! For five, ten, twenty, thirty minutes — make sure the students know that it’s not about rushing through the text, but sitting with it. We’re not performing close reading so much as slow reading. As Sealy Thompson and Harney put it, “[Slow reading] is opposed to a ‘close reading’ that suggests very careful examination can yield a transcendent meaning from within the text. Our reading is slow because we read together not to master the reading but to unlearn each time what we know.” Encourage students to annotate, and to notice.

c) Ask students to freewrite on the reading. Ask them one or two questions about what they noticed about the content of the text, and ask them to reflect on their visceral and intellectual reactions to both the text and the experience of reading together. You could ask, Were there moments in the text when you felt confused, excited, upset, bored? Or, How did you come to the reading today (bored, tired, hungry, excited)?

d) It could be useful at this point to break students into small groups and have them discuss their freewriting and their reactions to the text. From there, you can jump into a larger classroom discussion. I’m a sucker for a classic Think (aka freewrite), Pair, Share.

Again, I know this process sounds simple, but I encourage you to try it. When I’ve used this strategy in class — and not just once but through many, many iterations — as we collectively stretched and tore and strengthened our reading muscles, an environment emerged that allowed students to share ineloquent, incoherent, messy thoughts. We’ve all felt the individuating hallowing-out pressure of feeling like we should come to class having something to say about a text. If reading is an act of knowledge-making—as I believe it is—and if the classroom can be a place dedicated not to the achievement of some fantasy of individual brilliance (whose shadow, shame, eats away at all of us), but to the project of collective knowledge production—as I believe it must—then we can’t know where we’re going.

Building out a classroom atmosphere that allows the incomplete thought to become breath and word is what I aspire to. Reading together is one small part of that ongoing project. For even if a thought is half-baked, tentative, experimental, or abandoned, thinking through it is the point. We can’t know where a question or thought is going to go; inviting the unanticipatable is the way the classroom can be a space where better worlds can begin to be felt, thought, and explored.

Before I couldn’t get to the point, while now perhaps I’m getting carried away – but isn’t that the whole reason we work so hard teaching and writing, so that we can get carried away?? Carried away by a thought, a question, a feeling, a student’s curiosity? I refuse to simply consign the classroom to the training of the workforce. Or…maybe I don’t. As I seem to always do, I return to Walter Benjamin, who writes, “Education is a function of class struggle, but it is not only this. In terms of the Communist creed, it represents the thoroughgoing exploitation of the social environment in the service of revolutionary goals. Since this environment is a matter not just of struggle but also of work, education is also a revolutionary education for work.” Sealy Thompson and Harney make it clear that outsourcing reading prepares us for all other kinds of individuation, division, and measurement. Maybe reading together, working together, can be a way of refusing to do their thing while making time and space for students to come together to do our thing.

Jeff Voss is a PhD candidate in English and a Fellow at the Teaching and Learning Center.

Works Cited:

Benjamin, Walter. “A Communist Pedagogy” in Walter Benjamin Selected Writings: Volume 2, Part 1. Ed. Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith. Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1999.

Berlant, Lauren. “Feminism and the Institutions of Intimacy” Available at their blog, Supervalent Thought

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York; Bloomsbury Academic, 2017.

Harney, Stefano and Moten, Fred. The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study. Minor Compositions, 2013.

Pratt, Mary Louise. “Linguistic Utopias.” The Linguistics of Writing: Arguments between Language and Literature. Ed. Nigel Fabb, Derek Attridge, Alan Durant, and Colin MacCabe. New York: Methuen, 1987.  48-66.

Spillers, Hortense. “‘All The Things You Could Be by Now if Sigmund Freud’s Wife Was Your Mother’: Psychoanalysis and Race” boundary 2, Vol. 23, No. 3 (Autumn, 1996), pp. 75-141.

Thompson, Tonika Sealy and Harney, Stefano. “Ground provisions” (2018). Afterall: A Journal of Art, Context and Enquiry. 120-125. Research Collection Lee Kong Chian School Of Business. Available at:

Leave a Reply