Bringing together the challenges posed to reading by the new literacies, the important questions raised by recent reports on the state of literary reading, and the internal displacement of the structuring content of our discipline, we have conducted a broad-scale, multi-campus examination of undergraduate reading and readers in the context of general literacy, seen from both contemporary and historical perspectives. The “What is a Reader?” project convened a set of scholars and teachers from four university English and literature departments to consider what is happening to our students’ reading in the twenty-first century, to ask if we should be concerned about what might be happening to our students’ reading, and to explore how we might adapt our practices in English and Literature departments and larger university settings to take account of these changes. Finally, our long discussion has challenged us to consider how we may take advantage of the opportunities opened by our new technological and social context to deepen and diversify our understanding of what we do as scholars and educators at work in literary studies.
Given that literature departments are now less likely to define themselves around content, this is an ideal time, we assert, for literary scholars to reclaim our discipline’s historical commitment to reading as a practice worthy of scrutiny and analysis. Our students’ changing reading practices prompted us to ask the question that animates our study: “what is a reader?” Embedded in this question is an intention to probe the current status of reading, particularly among young adults, and particularly of literary reading and the reading of literature, given the changing forms, modes, and media of literacy today. A further intention is to reconsider the way we teach reading in our classrooms, and to make those processes self-conscious, visible, and alive to their practitioners in our classrooms and beyond.