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Professor Uses High-Tech Tools to Make Case for Importance of Reading

Austin, Tex.—In the midst of a conference dominated by social-media entrepreneurs and tech-company employees, an English professor made an unusual case for why old-fashioned reading still matters.

The professor is Laurence Musgrove, head of the English department at Angelo State University, and he began his talk here at the South by Southwest Interactive conference by handing out blank sheets of paper and asking audience members to draw a picture of what reading means to them.

Mr. Musgrove had an educated guess about what the audience’s pictures would look like. He has collected similar images from more than 1,500 K-12 and college students as part of his research on metaphors of reading. Not all of the student-drawn pictures are positive (some figure reading a book as the ultimate sleeping pill), but most present reading as a relationship, and many involve the idea of freedom. “I want public education to be understood as a democracy project,” he said.

One goal of his talk was to do something he said he would never do at an academic conference—leave his listeners with a call to action. He complained that K-12 schools and colleges are increasingly using technology to try to develop more codified assessments to measure whether teachers are doing their jobs and students are learning required material. That, he argued, threatens to unintentionally dumb down education, and he asked the audience to support teachers and oppose such moves for increased testing.

Mr. Musgrove expressed his objection with a picture, showing a square peg of assessment in a round hole of education. “We can really never capture what’s going on in the classroom with technology,” he concluded. He asked the audience to support what he sees as academic freedom for both college and secondary teaching.

“It’s the deprofessionalization of teaching,” he argued in an interview after his talk. “You’re taking away the creative control that faculty have on the courses they develop.”

Some education leaders disagree, arguing that—especially in a time of tight budgets—tests and other assessment tools can help improve the quality of education while cutting costs. And it’s a debate that is sure to continue.

The novel aspect of Mr. Musgrove’s argument, though, is his emphasis on drawing as a way to understand reading.

In a writing composition course that he is teaching at Angelo State, for instance, he requires students to draw pictures that analyze popular novels on the reading list. (For other assignments, he does ask for traditional written papers.) To help get them started, he provides students with 21 approaches they can use to put their ideas into pictures.

He said he has been surprised by the complexity of thought revealed in the images, some of which depict symbols for concepts in the texts, diagrams of key themes, or maps of plotlines. And, he suggested, that’s the kind of assignment that a computer would not be able to grade.

In the spirit of social-networking trends touted at this conference, Mr. Musgrove also is using some new, high-tech methods to spread his ideas about using drawing as a teaching tool in English classes, and about the power of reading.

Last month he self-published a quirky book—which is essentially a long Powerpoint presentation packed with drawings, saved as PDF’s— using a feature on Amazon.com. The book, called Handmade Thinking, has only been purchased “7 or 8 times,” he said, but he considers it an experiment. He likes that he was able to go from idea to publication in just six months. And if it goes well, he plans to self-publish another book on the system soon, on the themes of his South By Southwest talk, tentatively called Freedom and Faith in Reading.

Meanwhile, he has built a Web site with examples of student drawings and his ideas on education.

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