Review – Mind Readings: An Anthology for Writers by Laura Kijak
Mind Readings An Anthology for Writers by Gary Colombo is a new composition text for first-year college students. Mind Readings explores cognition, the thinking process, composition and the writing process through various readings and writing activities. Gary Colombo has written two other composition textbooks: Rereading America: Cultural Contexts for Critical Thinking and Writing and Framework: Culture, Storytelling, and College Writing. Mind Readings was formed out of Colombo’s fascination with cognitive theory and his extensive study of cultural issues.
Mind Readings is intended for first-year college composition students. Since many students tend to be interested in talking about psychology and discussing the concept of self, Mind Readings allows for extended discussions on both. The introduction to Mind Readings “invites students to explore irresistible issues like the many ‘selves’ that make up personal identity, the boundary between human and animal intelligence, the difference between male and female thinking, and the impact of electronic communication and computers on human nature, while introducing them (students) to interdisciplinary inquiry and academic writing” (inside cover). The objective of Mind Readings is to expose students to a variety of disciplines and encourage them to find their inner voice as a writer. Mind Readings is best used as a model of academic writing, but it could be used as a model for argument. This review will provide a brief summary of Mind Readings, examine the methodology of the textbook through the reading selections and writing assignments, examine Mind Readings assumptions about writing and new writers to the academic discipline, and evaluate its strengths and weaknesses.
Summary of Mind Readings
Mind Readings includes 61 reading selections from a wide range of disciplines that students will encounter in college. Readings are from leading specialists in fields like, biology, animal ethology, zoology, genetics, neurology, psychology, computer science, artificial intelligence, primatology, paleontology, philosophy, anthropology, sociology, and history. From the humanities, there are 16 personal essays, 4 scholarly essays, and 7 classic works of short fiction. From the sciences and social sciences, there are 24 essays. Some of the readings include: “Take the F” by Ian Frazier, “Memory and Imagination” by Patricia Hampl, “Why Look at Animals” by John Berger, “No-Name Woman” by Maxine Hong Kingston, “Columbus: Gone But Not Forgotten” by bell hooks, “ Daniel C. Dennett, “Heart to Heart: Sex Differences in Emotion” by Deborah Blum, “ The Turning Test: A Coffeehouse Conversation” by Douglas R. Hofstadter, and “Redefining the Measure of Mankind” by Maureen Caudill.
Mind Readings is broken into six chapters: Reading the Senses, Reading Memory, Reading the Self, Reading Other Minds, Reading Animal Minds, and Reading Cyberminds. Each chapter examines one specific aspect of the mind. Each chapter has between eight and ten readings, which range from short fiction to academic journal essays. This variety provides students with experience reading personal narratives, short fiction, and argument-driven essays. The different chapters begin with a brief introduction to the concepts that will be discussed in the readings. Each reading begins with biographical information about the author and “Before Reading” activities. These activities can include free writes, brainstorming, and group work. At the end of the readings, there are three sections: Exploring the Text, Further Exploration, and Essay Options. “Exploring the Text,” offers students’ questions about the content and concepts discussed in the reading. These can be used as journal prompts, class discussions, or homework. “Further Explorations” are more complex questions, which frequently asks students to draw connections to other readings and look at specific passages within the text. “Essay Options,” offers the teacher and student possible essays for each reading. The essay options range from personal opinion, academic essay with no research, and academic essays with research. Many of the essay options are perfect for longer journal writing assignments and could be combined with other readings for a more comprehensive essay.
Chapter 1: Reading the Senses examines the senses of taste, touch, smell, sight, and sound, and how descriptive language is used to describe these ideas. Colombo says, “The English language is a wonderfully flexible instrument for communicating ideas and describing events, but in general, English like most languages, struggles with the direct communication of sense experience” (14). This chapter encourages students to look at language and see how it is used to describe, manipulate, and explain ideas.
Chapter 2: Reading Memory discusses how we remember things and the problems with writer’s block. Colombo cites Peter Elbow in the introduction to Chapter 2 and Elbow’s concept of “cooking” ideas and the writing process: prewriting, drafting, and revising. Colombo says, “Good writers are, first and foremost, good ‘readers’ of their own memories. They have learned how to exploit the muse’s mysterious power of creative recollection” (141). This chapter establishes the connection between memory and the writing process.
Chapter 3: Reading the Self studies the concept of self and how we have defined it and the connection to style and voice, the writer’s self. Colombo explains the “choice of topic tells us a great deal about a writer, but the most personal part of a writer’s self is best expressed in his or her own style. Style is that combination of verbal habits and preferences that adds up to a sense of voice” (251). This chapter introduces the idea of style and voice to new writers and builds on the concept of language introduced in Chapter 1.
Chapter 4: Reading Other Minds inspires observations about the “theory of mind” and the idea that for a writer, the ultimate “other” mind is a reader. Colombo says, “Good writers constantly ask themselves if the reader will understand key concepts, if the reader will understand key concepts, if the readers need more illustrations and examples, if two bits of evidence is enough to be convincing, or if the reader needs the extra support of a transitional word or phrase to follow the logical flow of the argument” (372). This idea of audience analysis is extremely important for first-year college students to learn.
Chapter 5: Reading Animal Minds asks students to look at the natural behavior of animals and ask themselves of animals are humanity’s equal. Colombo explains that what has been used to define the difference between human and animal minds is the ability to reason. “To reason about a problem or argument means to engage in discourse—to take part in an active ‘exchange of ideas’ involving competing points of view” (508). This concept of reason and the idea of engaging in discourse is the beginning of teaching students how to develop arguments.
Chapter 6: Reading Cyberminds extends the study of what it means to be human and examine how electronic information technology is reshaping human identities. Colombo explains, “how, instead of the page and paragraph, our measure of meaning is the screen; instead of the isolated word or footnote, we have the ‘link’—the electronic board-wax we use to surf from Web site to Web site” (644). This chapter combines all the knowledge students have learned about the mind and the writing process and ask them to debate about the future of writing and electronic technologies.
Methodology of the Mind Readings and its writing assignments
Mind Readings is organized into six chapters. Chapters 1-3 discuss looking inward. Their topics allow for connections with personal experience, which makes it easy for students to engage in the reading and make comparisons. Chapters 4-6 discuss looking outward. These chapters ask students to analyze, research, and argue about a variety of subjects. By beginning with looking inward, students enter slowly into the concepts presented in Mind Readings, so that when they read the last three chapters, they are ready to read and understand the more difficult concepts. All six chapters ask students to take positions on the ideas being presented and support their opinions with personal experience or examples from the text.
Mind Readings can be a textbook in itself, or it can be used with other sources. However, Mind Readings encourages teachers to use outside sources to enhance the student learning. Showing movies, examining how the media represents the topics, and analyze ads and images in popular magazines can reinforce the concepts discussed in Mind Readings. Many of the readings can be used as a model or lens in which to view or analyze an aspect of culture or mind.
Mind Readings also provides a solid base for student entrance into the readings through the “Before Reading,” “Exploring the Text,” “ Further Explorations,” and “Essay Options.” They support Mind Readings objective of exposing students to a variety of disciplines and encourage them to find their inner voice as a writer. The reading can also make connections with popular films, TV shows, and other forms of popular culture. The “Before Reading” is the first exposure to the reading for the student. The “Before Readings” ask students to think about cross-cultural beliefs, values, assumptions, and ideas people have about various subjects. These before reading activities get the students thinking about the types of concepts they will encounter in the following reading. This is important because it helps students focus on specific issues, find discrepancies in how people view issues, and analyze why there are discrepancies.
Once students have read the text, there are two sections that help students deconstruct the text: Exploring the Text and Further Explorations. “Exploring the Text” highlights the important ideas by asking students to refer to specific passages and discuss what they think the author means. These questions ask students to interpret what the author is saying, what their views or opinions are, and what they believe, argue, or suggest about a specific idea. These questions help students to analyze and interpret what they have read; important skills needed in the academic universe. “Further Exploration” is just that, more questions discussing what the author was doing within the text. “Further Explorations” make connections between the readings and the concepts being discusses in the chapter and across the entire textbook. These questions ask students to make connections between the readings by comparing and contrasting two or more author’s opinions on a similar topic, or to take the voice of an author and explain how they would respond to another author’s views. Again, this idea of thinking as another and how they would respond or argue an issue is an important skill for surviving in the academic universe.
The final section that helps students understand the text is “Essay Options.” The teacher can use these as actual essays, or longer journal assignments. “Essay Options” appear at the end of each reading and ask two to three questions. At least one questions draws on a personal experience, and at least one question requires an academic essay. The personal responses ask students to usually address one reading and establish a personal connection to a claim the author makes or an opinion the author has. The academic essay requires students to respond to the ideas raised my multiple readings and explain how they come together or diverge, where we can see these ideas in society, or the role the ideas play in society. The academic essays ask students to take a stand and create an argument using the texts they have read. This is one of the most important skills to master as a college student.
An important feature of Mind Readings is the “Resources for Teaching” for instructors. This helpful guide provides instructors with sample syllabi, suggested parings of readings, and a summary of each reading and extra information for each question in the “Exploring the Text,” “ Further Explorations,” and “Essay Options” sections. This extra information includes in-depth discussions on how to show more connections between readings, current research, and connections to popular culture and media. While these suggestions are only a beginning point, they can help guide a teacher for a more comprehensive discussion in-class.
Assumptions Mind Readings makes about writing
Many of the composition textbooks available approach the writing process through readings about popular culture and mass media. Mind Readingsapproaches the writing process through the students’ view of how their mind works and how they view themselves. This is a unique approach and it is successful. Colombo believes, “The development of critical thinking, reading, and writing depends on the expectations, values, and intentions of others, just as it depends on our ability to read, evaluate, and interpret our own values and intentions” (v). Mind Readings supports the writing process by having each chapter focus on a different aspect of writing. Chapter 1 looks at how details, images, and figures of speech convey sensory experiences through words. Chapter 2 examines the multistage writing process and the concept of “cooking” ideas. Chapter 3 discusses the creation of a linguistic sense of self through the development of voice. Chapter 4 invites reader analysis of the structure and organization of paragraphs and ideas. Chapter 5 also invites reader analysis, but of the development of arguments. Finally, Chapter 6 explores cyberwriting and problems involved in Internet research.
Mind Readings views the writing process in stages and attempts to break down that process for students. Since the chapters are organized successively, the easier in the beginning and more challenging at the end, this allows students to build up their self confidence in their comprehension and writing abilities. Colombo explains that Mind Readings is situated in the middle of a discussion about cognitive theory. The introduction to Mind Readings invites students to “take part in this revolution (cognitive revolution) as (they) develop the intellectual habits (they’ll) need to become an accomplished reader and writer of college-level academic prose. After all, what better topic could there be for honing (their) own mental abilities than the mind?” (2). The introduction to Mind Readings discusses how to take notes, ask questions about the reading, and the importance of keeping a reading-response journal. Colombo shows the importance of these by providing examples of each and suggestions of how to practice them with the readings in Mind Readings.
The “Before Reading,” “Exploring the Text,” “ Further Explorations,” and “Essay Options,” help students learn important skills in interpretation, analysis, summary, argument, and finding their own voice. The topics inMind Readings are current and sometimes controversial, but Colombo views that controversy as a way for students to enter into the debate.
Strengths and Weaknesses of Mind Readings
Mind Readings is a new and refreshing composition textbook. It offers a wide range of readings and exposes students to the different genres of writing they will encounter throughout college. The subject matters vary and provide students with different styles of writing and a range of voices. The variety of readings also lends to combing them for interesting themes. A few possibilities include: gendered minds, the social construction of mind, minds of difference, the ethical mind, minds of media, and the mind and technology. From these possible themes, it is easy to see that the general subject matter of Mind Readings is exciting and more importantly engaging for students.
The “Before Reading,” “Exploring the Text,” “ Further Explorations,” and “Essay Options,” activities and questions are extremely useful. They provide tips to students and teachers on how to prepare for the coming reading, and then deconstruct the text and find the main arguments of each reading. The short biographical information provides students with background information on the author, but also a glimpse into their motivation for their writing. The ”Teacher Resource” section is practical and extremely helpful for teachers. It provides new teachers and teachers unfamiliar with the subject matter with further explanations on the readings and helpful hints for making connections to other readings and more ways to combine the readings.
While Mind Readings includes a wide variety of readings, the number of readings can be overwhelming to students and teachers. Many of the readings are packed with technical jargon and theoretical concepts, which are difficult for first-year college students. Mind Readings also covers a lot of ideas. Trying to get to every chapter in a semester would be a challenge, unless a teacher has a very specific theme in mind. In the Introduction to the “Teacher Resource” section, Colombo even says that Mind Readings is better suited to a year long composition course. He suggested teaching the first three chapters during the first semester and the last three chapters during the second semester. However, the reality is that most composition courses are only one semester, so teachers need to be very selective in how they choose what readings to read. Barnes and Noble listed Mind Readings as $42.00 for a new textbook. This is rather expensive when a student will most likely read only half of the textbook.
The one glaring problem with Mind Readings is that while it addresses the writing process, it does not state explicitly for students to plan and write multiple drafts. Only Chapter 2 addresses the many stages of the writing process, and that is in relation to Elbow’s “cooking” idea, the idea that writers prewrite, draft, and revise. Nowhere does Colombo encourage students to continually write and rewrite. It could be that Colombo is leaving this aspect of the writing process to the individual instructor, but I find it problematic.
Mind Readings is a powerful new composition textbook. It offers teachers a new way to teach composition. By examining the mind and the thinking process, students learn about the writing process and their own writing process. Mind Readings offers a refreshingly new topic for which to teach first-year composition. Mind Readings is well thought out and addresses a multitude of issues concerning the writing process, such as language, voice and style, audience analysis, structure and organization, and forming an argument. Mind Readings would make a great addition to any first-year college composition course.