Sunday, 5 February 2012

The Reader

As teachers, we sometimes assume that students will just absorb whatever we write for them and that reading is "essentially passive in nature" (Conole  2007, p 84). IT unfortunately encourages us in this assumption, by turning everything into a problem of information transfer, so that the reader of a text is just a recipient of information.

I've already written about assimilative learning being an active process, and here - in a painting of c1665 - is a picture of it. The painter is the Dutch artist Eglon van der Neer, a contemporary of Vermeer, and it comes from that genre of domestic interior scenes showing people intensely absorbed in some private activity. In the Protestant Low Countries , the devotional intensity which might elsewhere have been expressed in overtly religious art was being brought into the sphere of the personal and the internal.

The reader is clearly a well-educated woman: the writing set on the table shows that she lives through her literacy. The book she's reading is probably what was called an "emblem book": the picture visible on the left-hand page would have been an allegorical image, accompanied by a short and memorable motto, with a longer explanation and exegesis in the supporting text.

But the most remarkable thing about the painting is that she's not looking at the book. Her gaze is straight ahead of her, into empty space: she is looking inwards. It "suggests a life of the mind that remains impenetrable, inaccessible to even the most persistent viewer" (Wieseman, 2011, p 194).

Of course she is. For reading - meaningful reading, not just sounding out the words on the page, aloud or silently - involves thinking. And reading which is challenging - which is presenting something not only new but different, as is inevitably the case in education - involves a lot of thinking. So she is re-making her understanding, re-making her thought processes, perhaps re-making her very soul and identity; and for all this the words on the page are merely the start.


Conole, G. (2007), “Describing learning practices: tools and resources to guide practice”, and Appendix 7 “Taxonomy of learning activities”, in Helen Beetham and Rhona Sharpe (eds), Rethinking Pedagogy for a Digital Age: Designing and Delivering E-learning (Routledge), pp 81-91, pp 235-237.

Marjorie E. Wieseman (Curator of Dutch Paintings a the National Gallery), Vermeer's Women: Secrets and Silence (Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge, 2011).

The van der Neer painting was included in a Fitzwilliam Museum exhibition of that name between October 2011 and January 2012. It is owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Emblem books could be both sacred and secular. For an interesting tour of some 17th century Dutch love emblem books, see on the Emblem Project Utrecht website.

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