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.
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.