Ok, so first things first. What is "close reading"?
You can't teach it if you don't tell them exactly what you mean by the term. But telling them isn't enough, because it's too abstract. You've got to tell them, and then also trick them into doing it. So, as a basic definition, I usually explain that it's really dealing with the words in a passage of text. That it's not using a passage to speak for you, but rather looking deeply at the passage and explaining what it says. I tell them to use the prompt of "in other words" to start the process. So, let's say you're dealing with this passage from Patricia Duncker's BRILLIANT novel Hallucinating Foucault:
"You ask me what I fear most. You know already or you would not ask. It is the loss of my reader, the man for whom I write. My greatest fear is that one day, unexpectedly, suddenly, I will lose you. We never see one another and we never speak directly, yet through the writing our intimacy is complete. My relationship with you is intense because it is addressed every day, through all my working hours" (72).
In other words, what? You can't just go from this to "In today's society, people pay more attention to the reader than the writer. Patricia Duncker's novel considers this, and blah blah blah." You also can't go from that to, "I totally agree with this because when I met my boyfriend, I realized blah blah blah." There's got to be more.
You've got actually to deal with the language. You've got to:
- Provide context for the passage. Who's speaking? Who's the addressee? Is there another assumed "reader" than the one to whom the passage is addressed? What is the situation in the book at this moment?
- Actually look at the language. What makes this particular passage significant? Why should anybody care about it more than about any other passage that might be chosen?
- You've got to relate what you have to say about language and context to your broader claim about the text at hand. You can't just assume the reader will "get it." The reader, rarely, "gets it" without some instruction from the writer.
The problem, as far as I can tell, is one of focus. My students don't necessarily focus intently on what they read. They don't necessarily read with pen in hand. Or if the pen is in hand, it's just underlining cool stuff, and not really entering into a conversation with the texts that they read. When I was an undergraduate, I was a talented writer, but I was also the sort of reader who read for "cool passages." Now, of course I still read for "cool passages," but now I actually ask myself why they are illuminating and cool. THIS is what missing from the NCLB testing world. There is no need to focus because there is no need for a why. You don't need to engage deeply because there is no evaluation of deep engagement. And with no evaluation comes no reward.
So how do you force students to develop this focus? This deep engagement with the text? This ability to take apart something that is complex and to deal with it?
My strategy includes the following:
1) Regular (4-5 in a 15 week semester) formal writing in short (1-2 page), relatively low-risk (no more than 5% of the grade per paper) assignments that I grade with (some of my students might say) too-high expectations. They would have the exact same assignment for each of the papers. The point is not to change up the assignment, but to let them develop as writers through doing the assignment over and over again with different texts/arguments. What such assignments do is they force the writer to be concise (not enough room in a short assignment to pad), they force a writer to get to the point, and they force a writer to have a tight and logical organization. These assignments are NOT easy. How do I know? Because I had a similar kind of series of assignments in a class as an undergraduate. I learned more from writing those 1-page papers than I learned in graduate school. That's not hyperbole.
2) In-class activities that break down the process of close reading without saying "this is close reading." Example: Break students into groups. Assign each group a poem or a stanza of a longer poem. Then have each group do the same thing: 1) Look at the technical stuff - scan the peom, figure out the rhyme scheme, identify poetic devices like metaphor, etc.; 2) summarize what happens in whatever they're looking at; 3) talk about how looking at the form illuminates the content of the passage; 4) relate the passage to some bigger thing (the whole poem if it's a stanza, the unit of the course, etc.); 5) come up with three questions or comments related to the poem or stanza. This sort of activity teaches them how to read. It teaches them how not just to look at words and to react. And you can do similar things with asking students to evaluate characters in novels or plays, or to evaluate scenes or chapters of novels. The point is to take what experienced readers do and to articulate it to them in steps. And to use these kinds of activities regularly, so they get into the habit of looking at texts through these kinds of focal points.
3) Model for them what you are looking for them to do. This is one that I'm weakest on, but I've been working hard on it this year. One strategy I use for this in writing classes is to come up with an introduction for a paper on the board as a class. Another strategy I've used in upper-level classes is to give them a handout in which I mark up a piece of academic writing to show them where the analysis is, to show how much quoted material is there and how it is integrated, to show how the writer integrates quoted material into his/her own argument.
4) And I'm going to try something new in my upper-level class this week - a kind of hybrid in-class thing that comes from wanting to show them how to close-read while at the same time I want to discuss the end of a novel. The plan is this: I'm going to find a bunch of passages in the novel and type them up. Each student will get a unique passage. I'll give them five minutes to read the passage and to provide a "close reading" of it (with instructions about general things to address). They will not put their names on the sheets. When fifteen minutes is up, we will form a circle, and we will do this thing I've done in writing classes, sometimes called a "round-robin" activity, that's kind of like musical chairs. I'll have students pass the papers around until I say "stop!" (or yell, as often ends up happening, because this is kind of fun and crazy) When I yell stop, I call on somebody to read the passage and then the response to it. (Nobody is embarassed or called out on what they wrote because it's anonymous). Then, we discuss the response, both in terms of discussing the novel and in terms of critiquing the "reading" of the passage that the writer provided. I've never done this before, so it may be a disaster, but I think that it could do exactly what I need it to do. I'll report back when I've got results.
So, to sum up: define in plain terms, give opportunities (multiple, formal and informal) to practice, model. Yep, those I think are the keys to teaching close reading.
But a final thought, and one I've expressed in various situations to my students: developing one's ability to close read is a good thing but it's also a dangerous thing. It means that you will "read too much into things" and it means that you will make mistakes in life that less careful people would avoid. It will mean that you'll end up in whirlwinds of drama that any rational person would avoid or just would never even think of experiencing. Because once you learn how to do this, you can't not do it. You can't just take things at face value anymore. Everything has more than a superficial meaning. It's enough to make a person Crazy (even if she does get a PhD in the process).