I write a lot about reading. I have not, however, written about what it means to read “generously,” at least not in those terms. I first heard the words “generous” and “reading” used together when I was in graduate school. I had a professor who challenged us to offer generous readings when all we wanted to do was critique—in the most negative sense of the word—the texts that had been placed before us. I recall being reminded as a teaching assistant to read students’ essays generously, keeping in mind that our first-year writing students were still transitioning to college-level writing.
I was taken with this way of describing reading. It seemed to me such a strange coupling of words. Generosity was a behavior I associated with gift-giving, particularly when that gift was money. In fact, the OED defines the word "generous" as “showing a readiness to give more of something, especially money, than is strictly necessary or expected.” If we apply the term to reading, to read generously is to give more during the process of reading than is necessary or expected. The OED defines "generosity" as “showing kindness towards others” as in “a generous assessment of his work.” In that sense, a generous reading is an offering of kindness from reader to writer.
I began thinking more about what it means to read generously when I came across educator, social activist, reformer, and philosopher Jane Addams’s concept of “affectionate interpretation.” Addams used the phrase to mark the importance of seeing things from others’ perspectives. In addition to describing interpretive practices, reading generously and affectionate interpretation describe ways of being, aligning them with the recent turn in rhetoric and composition toward dispositions and habits of mind. For example, the widely adopted Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing (CWPA 2011) lists eight habits of mind (curiosity, openness, engagement, creativity, persistence, responsibility, flexibility, and metacognition), which are described as “ways of approaching learning” that are “essential for success in college writing.” These and other habits of mind are also explored in Richard E. Miller and Ann Jurecic’s unorthodox textbook Habits of the Creative Mind (2015), as well as in recent research on the dispositions that are more likely to position students to transfer their learning from one context to the next.
Reading generously and affectionate interpretation are most closely aligned with “Openness,” defined by the Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing as “the willingness to consider new ways of being and thinking in the world.” But there are some differences worth noting. If we invoke the OED’s definition of generosity, reading generously not only involves remaining open to what one is reading but demands that the reader show kindness by doing more than is necessary and expected. Similarly, Addams’s concept of affectionate interpretation captures how she thought people should behave toward each other: “The cultivated person is the one who [uses] his social faculties, his interpretive power, the one who . . . put[s himself] into the minds and experiences of other people” (as cited in Knight 2010, 100–101, brackets in original).
I realize these terms may make some of my readers nervous or maybe even cringe. Generous? Affectionate? These words belong in greeting cards not in academic discourse, right? I would argue, though, that we should be open not only to what these interpretive practices represent (as I think many of us already are) but to their unapologetic use of the words “generous” and “affectionate,” particularly in our current divisive climate, which could use a dose of generosity and affection. Do we really think that committing to kindness or showing fondness and tenderness is going to undermine our work? Are we that easily threatened?
By privileging evidence and facts above all else, we too often ignore the emotional or affective aspect of our interpretive practices. We therefore don’t recognize that aspect of others’ interpretive practices, especially those with whom we disagree. If we could tap into others’ emotions perhaps we could engage in more productive dialogue across political and related divides. In Jess Zimmerman’s (2017) aptly titled article “It’s Time to Give Up on Facts,” she encourages liberals to “lay down their facts and pick up a more useful weapon—emotions.” She implores people to “tak[e] a break from trying to prove what’s factually accurate and talk . . . instead about what feels meaningful in the heart.” She explains further:
This doesn’t always need to mean letting egregious errors stand—it’s worth holding on to the fact that reality exists beyond opinions. But it might well mean breezing past the correction into whatever’s keeping the lie alive. Figuring out how to counter falsehoods is going to mean assessing how lies benefit the people telling them. Do the things they believe without evidence make them feel safe? Do they make them feel moral? Do these beliefs contribute to a sense of being superior and unassailable? At the one-on-one level, figuring that out is going to help you more than issuing a verbal correction.
The concepts of reading generously and affectionate interpretation can help us access the emotional aspect of interpretative practices. Why not “read” generously when we are faced with ideas we oppose? Why not practice affectionate interpretation as we engage with those who have different viewpoints? Why not incorporate these interpretative practices—and these specific names for them—into our classrooms? Why not talk to students directly about generosity and affection as foundations from which dialogue may spring? Might these particular interpretive practices—and the connotations that come with the words “generous” and “affectionate”— be especially useful in our current divisive climate? I think so.
Our own understandings and our teaching must better reflect the range of ways people construct meaning and the emotions to which these meanings are tied. Recognizing for ourselves and teaching our students more comprehensive ways of engaging in dialogue is essential in such a divisive climate. Teaching students about affectionate interpretation and how to generously read not just texts but the world around them can help us reach this goal. Addams believed that social progress depended upon citizens’ willingness to engage in affectionate interpretation. Might the same be true today?
Council of Writing Program Administrators (CWPA). 2011. Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing. http://wpacouncil.org/framework.
Knight, Louise W. 2010. Jane Addams: Spirit in Action. New York: Norton.
Miller, Richard E., and Ann Jurecic. 2015. Habits of the Creative Mind. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s.
Zimmerman, Jess. 2017. “It’s Time to Give Up on Facts.” Slate. http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2017/02/counter_lies_with_emotions_not_facts.html.
Ellen C. Carillo is associate professor of English at the University of Connecticut and the writing program coordinator at its Waterbury campus. She teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in composition and literature, and her scholarship has been published in Rhetoric Review; The Writing Lab Newsletter; Reader: Essays in Reader-Oriented Theory, Criticism, and Pedagogy; Feminist Teacher; Currents in Teaching and Learning; and several edited collections. She is the author of Securing a Place for Reading in Composition, A Writer’s Guide to Mindful Reading, and Teaching Readers in Post-Truth America.