Monday, February 19, 2007

In Which Grading Makes Me Interesting: A Post on Close Reading

Jane Gallop gave a paper on what was, arguably, the It Panel at this year's MLA. The panel was called "Academic Fashions," and another paper on the panel was (it turned out, erroneously) titled, "Is the Rectum a Text?" and so obviously, the panel was going to garner some attention. Perhaps what was most interesting about Gallop's talk was that it emphasized the necessity of the dreadfully unfashionable "close reading." Now, I went to the panel, and I remember thinking, as I listened to Gallop's paper, a combination of "right on, sister!" and "uhh... maybe in some places people don't emphasize teaching students how to do close reading, but I don't live in one of those places...." Because Gallop's argument was that we needed to resurrect the skill of close reading, to bring it back from the oblivion to which it was exiled during the Rule of New Historicism. Now, again, I'm totally in favor of teaching close reading. I insist that my students learn how to do it. I suppose I couldn't quite get my mind around the notion of bringing something back that I never abandoned. And did anybody really abandon it outside the hallowed halls of elite research institutions?

That said, though, maybe "close reading" isn't a skill that one can depend on students to have, even at an institution like mine where the curriculum remains locked in place at around 1973. Maybe it needs to make a comeback, even at places such as my current place. Or at least this is my feeling after reading the first batch of papers from the students in my upper-level course this semester.

That's right, I'm talking about the juniors and seniors, the English majors. I accept that first and second-year students, or students who are further along in their degrees but who are non-majors, may not have gotten the memo about the necessity of performing close readings of passages of the texts that they read, about grounding one's claims in actual, I don't know, literature. But how on God's green earth is it possible that my bright, engaged, English majors who are on their way to graduation have not gotten the memo? For many of them have not.

This is not a case of what Gallop lamented in her paper. This is not a case of students supplanting dime-store historicism and theoretical mumbo-jumbo with careful textual analysis. Rather, it's the opposite of that: my students, when they fail to do close reading, lapse instead into talking about how "they feel" a novel works and how "they feel" about some "aspect" of the text. "Aspects" are very important to this kind of analysis. So, too, is the passive voice, as is the invention of words that do not exist in the English language to make things sound better or more academic. But at the end of the day, what I read from a lot of my students (though not all) was pretty undeveloped first-draft initial reaction type stuff. I wasn't reading careful, close, deep analysis of a passage of text. And so yes, I'm bringing close reading back. (You can sing that to the tune of Justin Timberlake's "I'm Bringing Sexy Back" if you want.... sure, the rhythm's a bit off, but it's pretty fun, I think.)

But then reading their papers got me thinking about why I'm so invested in this project of forcing them to do careful close reading of passages of text - in all of my classes and not just the upper-level ones. Why do I think that this is important? Is it important? And if it is, I should really have a reason for why it is, right?

If I'm going to be honest, I think that probably the primary reason that it's important to me (not important generally) is because it is the thing that I'm best at in my own work. I'm no theoretical mastermind. Sure, I engage with theory, and I use theory, but theory is always a means to an end for me and not the main event. The main event for me is close reading. Maybe this is because I was educated as an undergrad at a university where the curriculum was locked in at about 1950. Maybe this is because theory makes me feel a bit insecure (which also may relate to the fact that I showed up to the party in grad school with approximately zero background in theory). Whatever the cause, though, I feel like my own work is strongest when I am performing close readings of passages from the literary texts that I study. I feel like that's where I'm making the biggest contribution to Thought and where I am most successful at persuading an audience to agree with my arguments. Theory helps me do that - it's a tool - but theory is not my bread and butter.

And I don't think it is for most literary critics. I remember when I was working on my MA my literary theory professor noting that neither he nor anyone he knew was ever going to be a brilliant theorist - that one had to know how to do close readings because only a select few would get to be true theory specialists. I remember deciding at that point that I needed to accept the reality that I, too, would never be a theory specialist - an expert who got to write theoretical tracts - and it was comforting to have a model for that being ok. It also freed me from having to identify as a "Foucauldian" or a "Lacanian" or a "Derridean" or whatever. No, I'm just a critic, thanks very much, and I'll use whatever theories get me where I'm trying to go. But I digress.

I suppose my point, though, is that some of my emphasis on careful, close reading may have everything to do with my own proclivities, criticism-wise. And so I may just be training up a bunch of acolytes, which is an exercise in narcissism more than it's an exercise in thoughtful pedagogy.

But let's put that dirty little secret to the side for a moment. Why is close reading important, objectively. Gallop argued that it's important because it is the specialized skill of our discipline, and I agree with that. But I also want to go deeper. Why is it, in itself, important?
  • It's important because if we abandon the text for our own responses - whether informed by theory or informed by our life experiences - we're not really analyzing literature. We're not really reading. We're talking about ourselves and not about art.
  • It's important because staying wed to the text is what forces us to question our own preconceived notions about what is true and what is real.
  • It's important because in looking closely at a passage of text we discover new portals through which we can enter into culture, and those new portals allow for us to see our culture or the cultures of those who precede us from different perspectives, perspectives which would be unavailable if we didn't find the portals through which to reach them.
  • It's important because careful, close reading reveals to us that there is no one true meaning but that meaning is contingent upon circumstance and context. (And so what I'm talking about here is clearly not a New Critic's version of close reading.)
  • It's important because it challenges us to justify our initial impressions rather than to accept them at face value.
  • It's important because it's fun. That's right. It's pleasurable to immerse oneself in a passage of text and to tease out its various meanings.
  • It's important because it allows us to have a conversation, with the author, with critics who've come before us, with people who are reading that same passage of text simultaneously with us but whom we've never met.
  • And finally, it's an important life skill. It's that ephemeral thing that we talk about when we use those impenetrable words "critical thinking." When I use the words "critical thinking," what I mean is careful analysis of something that aims to take it apart and figure out how it fits into a broader frame of reference. That is what close reading is.
Close reading also gives one the tools to "read" one's real life in ways that are entirely unhealthy, that cause non-specialists to complain that one "thinks too much" or "reads too much into things," but so far as I can tell this is the only drawback.

My ability to "close read" also makes me better able to respond to all students' work - even the best and the brightest of them - critically. It means that no student of mine gets a paper on it with a random "good" in the margin as the only comment. It means that when my students receive their papers back tomorrow that they will initially be horrified at the ink that bleeds all over them.

But so yeah. Who knew that grading would inspire me? That grading, of all things, would make me have something to post about - something real, that wasn't just a complaint about grading? That my blogging mojo would come back with such a vengeance after days and days of having not a single idea for a decent post? So thank you, my students, who wrote papers that were less than stellar though not altogether horrifying. Dr. Crazy is in your debt.


Sisyphus said...

Hurrah for close reading! Another reason it's important to teach close reading to our students is that it's something we're good at that is specific to literary criticism. It's something we do that sociologists, say, or philosophers do not, and therefore if there is something valuable to be learned by doing close reading, it is not found in these other departments.

That said, do you ever hand your students a model close reading, or a model paper, to show them a good example of what you want?

Oh, and what was the "is the rectum a text" paper about anyway? Dish some details!

gwinne said...

My students' first assignment--in a 300 level course--was to do a close reading of a single paragraph from a novel. They chose the paragraph. How you can do a close reading without looking at the words is beyond me...apparently all that's needed is a block quote. All about how they "feel" about that block quote. I'm with you, Dr. Crazy.

Second Line said...

My gripe, in addition to reading everyting in terms of how it relates to them and their values and experience etc., is that students seem to think they've written an "A" paper when they prove the plot via "close reading." So I get essays that say something like Ahab is maniacal, and then I'm treated to 4 pages of 'here is another instance in which Ahab appears maniacal. And another example is when he ...'

I've now taken to banning the phrases 'an instance of' and 'another example is'. I include the ban in the instructions.

What are they doing with those kids in high school?

Kristen said...

I'm a historian, so this may be a stupid question, but when you talk about close reading are you referring to a specific technique or simply to the fact that students just skim literature texts? If it's the latter, history professors struggle with that too. My students are currently working on a paper about the transatlantic slave trade where they have to use the narrative of Olaudah Equiano as a source. A lot of them, judging by last week's discussion, simply read it through once and think they've hit the main points. Today I will be trying to demonstrate how historical documents can have say so much more than just the words on the page...we'll see how it goes. Anyway, I was just wondering about your terminology.

AcadeMama said...

Your reasons for practicing/teaching may imply this, but I think it's useful to state directly that close reading - the trained practice of seriously studying every single word in a particular passage, verse, etc. - is a technique that underscores the inherent shifting nature of language as a sign system. To look at words on a page as connected to each other like links in a chain, the strength of each one dependent upon the strength of others, seems to be one of the primary reasons that this skill is so valued in our discipline. This is also a reason to teach it to students as early as possible, because the sooner they can apply the technique to literature, the sooner they can apply it to other texts - written and non-written (the political ad they read, the news report they hear, the latest op ed piece in their campus rag, etc.). In an ideal situation, this is when they realize that close reading = critical thinking.

Jill said...

But HOW do you teach it? I'm in a weird situation, I guess, since I try to teach close reading to students who have never studied literature and who never intend to study literature (sigh) - they sign up for "digital media aesthetics" thinking they'll be webdesigners or something and there we are trying to teach them to close read electronic literature.

My students are entirely baffled at what I'm trying to get them to do and I really haven't figured out how to teach it. I mean, it's easy teaching the ones who get it, but what do you do with the ones who think that "close reading" a text means "evaluating it for usability"?

Maybe I should just get a job in a literature department.

Lisa b said...

Hey Crazy
I just popped in from Gingajoy.
interesting post. I too showed up to the MA party w no theory background. My undergrad is in biology.
I did my MA in education as I am a teacher and I was totally shocked that people seemed to not actutally read what was presented in articles, and if they had read them did not actually care about what was being said but rather how they felt about what was being said.
The profs did nothing to discourage this and I was really baffled for a while about how discussions were to be structured if we were not going to discuss what we had read.
Your take on this phenomena makes me feel a little better about myself though I must admit after two years of the above I am wondering if I understood what you meant here.

Kristen said...

I'd love for someone to blog about how to teach close reading...I'm interested in this concept, and since I never took any lit crit classes in college it is new to me.

gary said...

Even more old school than some (but also someone long invested in High Theory), I wonder if the puzzlement about teaching close reading does not largely reflect the continuing eclipse of poetry, especially lyric poetry, in literature teaching. Even the old New Critics were hard pressed dealing with prose fiction.