I want to talk about teaching close reading, the fundamental skill involved in analyzing a literary text, to students who are not sure about what matters or what is possible. First, some background: I am not teaching R&C this semester. (My dissertation chair and I decided that I should take some time off from teaching if I ever want to stop being a graduate student.) I nonetheless remain connected to questions of writing pedagogy and the teaching of literature through the Art of Writing Tutoring Program. I lead a team of four undergraduates who are majors in the departments English and Comparative Literature; each member of the team offers one-on-one writing help to students enrolled in Comp Lit’s R&C sections. (Ryan and Jonathan are running similar programs in Rhetoric/Film & Media and English.)
This week I met with each of the tutors individually to discuss challenges they were experiencing in their tutoring sessions. Many of these conversations had to do with reframing tutees’ approaches to close reading –– specifically, how to get students to “slow down” their thoughts while analyzing passages of literary texts and to use writing to artificially reconstruct their process for making language make sense. These conversations gave me an opportunity to revisit the way I teach close reading with tutors, and in doing so I was reminded of the limits to the way we, as Graduate Student Instructors in Comp Lit, are trained to communicate the skill of close reading. In general, close reading is difficult to talk about in the abstract because so much depends on the kind of text being read. That’s why instructors tend to rely on heuristic techniques like the following from David Rosenwasser and Jill Stephens’s Writing Analytically, which give students some basic questions to ask themselves when they don’t know what to write.
- Notice and Focus + Ranking (pg. 25)
Step 1: List details. These should include formal elements of the text such as tone, mood, pace, genre, syntax, grammar, texture, rhythm, narrative structure, punctuation, ambiguity. Also consider diction (word choice), temporality, the relationship between the narrator and the characters, imagery, and literary/rhetorical devices like simile and metaphor.
Step 2: Choose the most important details. (This is already analytical.)
Step 3: Say why you think these details are most important.
- “The Method” – Patterns of Repetition and Contrast (pg. 27)
Step 1: List the words or details that are repeated exactly, and include how many times they’re repeated. See the details above in “Notice and Focus + Ranking”
Step 2: List words or details that are similar (called strands).
Step 3: List the binary oppositions or organizing contrasts that you notice.
Step 4: Choose, one repetition, strand, or binary as the most important.
Step 5: Account for any anomalies (exceptions).
- Asking “So what?” (pg. 33)
Step 1: Describe the significant details you find, paraphrase key language, look for patterns of repetition or contrast.
Step 2: Make what is implicit explicit (pg. 62).
Step 3: Ask “So what?” to push towards interpretive conclusions.
Step 1: Select a short passage.
Step 2: Find synonyms for all of the key terms.
Step 3: Rephrase the passage three times.
Step 4: Contemplate the versions and prioritize them. Which seem most relevant?
Step 5: What do you now recognize about the passage? What does it appear to mean? What else might it mean?
As a somewhat mechanical way of producing analysis, these kinds of heuristics start to break down whenever they ask students to make some kind of judgment of what is “most important” or “surprising” or “anomalous.” They assume that a student’s way of prioritizing details in a specific passage of text will be commensurable with the values of the text as a whole. Prior to this, they assume that the students comes to the task of writing with a facility for naming priorities. In a way this is funny because the heuristics pretend to make the task of writing easier by frontloading the most difficult things that come out of the writing process: questions of value and what matters. I think this irony becomes especially pointed if we consider that many of our R&C students are in their first years of college and are already receiving mixed messages about the value of their educations.
But let’s assume that heuristic approaches like these can useful and even necessary. How would you go about supplementing a list like this with specific attention to these questions of significance, importance, interestingness, or surprise? Would you look at this list with students and ask them a series of follow-up questions? What would they be? If you set them to work on a particular example, how do you address the problem of constructing a context in which things like “importance” can be debated? Our group has had discussion about how to bring students’ own experiences into classroom discussions. How would you address students’ questions that are specifically directed at whether they can bring the circumstances of their lives to bear on what is important at this level of textual detail? Any other thoughts about how you use or would use this kind of list?
I am also preparing to lead a workshop with tutors specifically on how they give feedback to tutees. This has led me to think about the kinds of conversations that I have with R&C students in office hours. We have talked about how to structure written feedback to students in ways that are helpful to students while not proving too great a burden for instructors. I have a separate set of questions about feedback in office hours:
What form do your conversations in office hours tend to take? I think it helps to frame this in terms of specific activities. Do you lecture in office hours? Do you ask a lot of questions about the student’s writing or about the student’s understanding of the text? What other kinds of questions do you ask? Do you refer to lists like the one above? Do else do you do that doesn’t fit within these categories? How do you balance the contrary impulses of, on the one hand, not wanting to dictate the questions and aims of the student’s paper and, on the other hand, wanting to be a good reader with specific interests who also happens to be in charge of assessing the student’s writing?
I’m grateful for any thoughts you have about teaching close reading and discussing student work in office hours.