Close Reading

It is perhaps best that I wasn’t told close reading is difficult to teach before I taught it.  As is, I don’t recall it being particularly difficult to teach (but maybe I’ve blocked out a traumatic event and am now blissfully unaware of my own frustrations).  A friend and fellow GTA shared her close reading assignment with me and I used it with little alteration.  This was the assignment description (minus the rubric) I used and presented to my students:

For this paper, you will choose one passage to close read. This means, you will take one particular passage of 1-3 paragraphs in the novel or short story and close read it carefully, analyzing the text on a word, sentence, and paragraph level. You will look closely at such features as style of the sentences (long? Short? One-word? Stream of consciousness?), tone, and language use. You will also explain how the close reading tells the reader something about the story as a whole. How does this passage illuminate the author’s purpose or overall message in the novel or story? The answer to this question will be your thesis statement.

You are allowed to use any of the novels or short stories from the course to do your close reading. Choose your text and the passage carefully—you’ll want enough material to do an extended close reading of 3-4 pages.

Close reading is a very important skill when doing a literary analysis, so see this paper as a stepping-stone to our next project. Attend closely to every word and phrase, paying particular attention as well to the way the language is used and the tone the author is using to convey this message.

I modeled close reading for my class during a round-table class discussion of Lady Audley’s Secret and the significant “portrait scene” in which Lady Audley’s portrait is described in detail by the narrator and her character is first revealed to be less innocent than previously described.  While we worked together on this passage, the class seemed to be understanding the idea of close reading, but became confused after we moved away from that passage. I then had the class select a passage from the novel and then create their own close reading in small groups, after which another class voted on the best/favorite and that group received a small number of extra credit points.  While even at this point a number of students were stuck on the concept of symbolism as the only “thing” to search for and analyze, repeated instructions and examples, as well as a review of previously-learned literary analysis terms (like narrative frame, setting, and point of view) and trusty handout of more terms printed for free from the internet and handed out to the class, my students were overall able to become adequately skilled in closely analyzing a passage of a text.

In fact, once the hurdle of “symbolism being the only type of figurative language” was overcome, the part of the close reading that the students most struggled with was the concept of connecting their analysis with a message conveyed by the text. I provided cliches as examples (for instance, appearances are deceiving), but was pleased with my students ability to move beyond such cliche messages.  Such a focus on the message did a lot to help students transition to a literary analysis (the next assignment) and made their close reading papers much more cohesive.

I’ll end this post with some quotations I found valuable from Kelemen’s “Critical Editing and Close Reading” and Tinker et al’s “Teaching Close Reading Skills in a Large Lecture Course.” Of the two, I must admit that the latter was more useful for me in terms of application to my own (future) classes.  Their use of quizzes, small group work/discussion, and two longer writing assignments seems to be a good approach to teaching literature in a course that is perhaps less writing-intensive as Intro to Fiction and Writing.  I also enjoyed their discussion on transference of skills for non-English majors, a topic I found to be a nice bridge from teaching composition to teaching literature.  Tinker et al write,

Few of these students will pursue careers in which a familiarity with the specialist content of our course will be a valuable asset. By concentrating on close reading, we invite students to learn transferable skills: the critical analysis of texts, the presentation of evidence, the correct use of disciplinary terms, and the ability to frame questions for research and analysis. (527)

Their focus on the time needed to grade the explained assignments was also helpful in my opinion, as grading so easily becomes a daunting experience.  Their limited responses to student work and proposal that “the quantity of the individual written feedback students receive is less important to their skills development than the practice they gain from repeatedly writing analyses” is food for thought for me (528).  My own tendency is to provide a lot of specific feedback, but this means grading 25 papers is often a 25 hour experience.  Finally, their discussion of the importance of providing a rubric for the students prior to their writing is one that validates my own decisions with rubrics and has me considering trying out their rubric in the future; they explain,

Clearly, the students used the specific and intelligible rubric to shape their approach to online long-answer quizzes. The rubric made lucid to them what does and does not qualify as a compelling, nuanced, detailed close reading. The rubric appears therefore to have considerable pedagogical value, if only because it presents students with what exactly we mean when we ask them to develop a close reading. It is clearly helpful for students to receive explicit details about our expectations, for us to explain to them precisely what we mean when we say “close reading.” (529)

While I found Kelemen’s essay to be less relevant, two of his closing remarks struck a cord for me.  First, he writes,

We tend to require our students to write in the genres that we write, to value the kinds of production that we value. If we wish to change the way we value scholarship, we must do more than pay lip service to other forms of scholarship in faculty handbooks and committee rooms; we would do well to begin by changing the genres of writing we require. (135)

I concur with his assertion here, although I had never thought of it that way.  But I do, in a way, force my students to value both the genres and even writing conventions that I value, as I assume most instructors do.  For instance, it drives me insane when I read an essay without a clear thesis statement stated somewhere toward the beginning and/or without clear topic sentences; I therefore weight these conventions heavily and discuss them at length with my students.  I also, if given the choice, teach texts that I enjoy personally.  I’m not sure, however, if this is a bad thing, as long as the stated objectives of the course are met by each instructor’s individual take and preference on the subject. (I’m not saying Kelemen is suggesting it is a bad thing; he is, I think, advocating that instructors do so.)

Kelemen’s closing sentence was also thought-provoking: “If we pose these editing assignments where the process is more important than the product (that old favorite of writing pedagogy theorists), students in turn will begin to understand the process evidenced not only in their textbooks but in all that they read” (136). On this stance I’m not sure I do agree with Kelemen.  While I think the process is important, the end product is also important.  While I want my students to learn the process of close reading, I also want them to be able to write a “good” close reading paper that demonstrates their ability to communicate their close reading effectively.  I understand that Kelemen says this in regard to his specific assignment concerning having undergraduate students perform textual editing, yet I’m not yet convinced that asking students to do some activity that you know is too advanced for them is valuable.  As a student myself, I would find it incredibly frustrating and (silently) question why it is being assigned to me. But I will think on this some more…

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One thought on “Close Reading

  1. Pingback: Response to “How E-Reading Threatens Learning in the Humanities” (with Class Activity) | shandi lynne wagner

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