Thursday, March 15, 2007

Close Reading (By Request)

So what seems like an eternity ago, I did a post in which I talked about why I think close reading is so important a skill to teach to students. And somebody in comments asked me to post about how to teach close reading, and I never got around to responding. Tonight, another reader, who teaches physics, sent me an email asking me to talk more about it because apparently these kids today can't do story problems. And then today, in handing back papers in my upper-level class, it struck me that I need to do more in class to demonstrate how to do close reading in a more explicit way. So, in a little break from the lunacy of today, I've decided it's the perfect moment for a post about close reading. (Let's put to the side for the moment the fact that my "close reading" abilities may in fact end up being the end of me.)

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:
  1. 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?
  2. 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?
  3. 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.
So, this is great, right? A key to close reading. Just do #1 #2 and #3, and you've got it down. Except no. Because this is a skill that needs to be developed. It's not enough to be a talented writer (although that will help a great deal) and to know the rules. You've got to work to develop the skill to communicate your reading of a text to others. It's not just about getting it in your own head - in part because what you think in your own head doesn't necessarily mean you get it. This is why the whole "I think for a long time and then I just sit down and dash something off" thing doesn't work. Except, of course, that this is what students many times are trained to do. When they are asked to demonstrate engagement with a text, they are often asked to react to the text. Close reading is not reaction. I don't particularly care how you "feel" about a text. Nor does anybody else. Nor do I care that it reminds me of when your grandmother had alzheimers. That has nothing to do with what is in the actual text. Nor do I care what you "got from it." I care about what is there. (This, incidentally, is why I think Dr. Pion's students may be failing to comprehend the story problems - because they're used to reacting and not to reading.)

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).


Nels said...

Can I say how much I love Hallucinating Foucault? That's one of the rare novels I'll read over and over.

Also, you might want to take a look at Graff and Birkenstein's I Say, They Say. They make some of the same points you do about context and language and such. I use it in my argumentation course.

History Geek said...

I'm printing this off, for my own reference. My close-reading skills are not up to snuff, or at least my skill of translating my close reading to paper isn't very good.

Nik said...

Dear Dr. C,
I love this post and concur 100%. As a writing prof, I have students who write poems of their own without knowing how to read anyone else's. If they can't read published poems, how will they learn to workshop other people's poems? So we spend the first third of the semester going line by line through difficult poems. The best part is, especially for poetry, is that the collective mind always finds more in the text than the individual does and my students make associations and connections that I would miss. Yeah for close reading!

Doctor Pion said...

Thanks! I can't believe you wrote that entire essay in the short time (an hour?) after I sent you that e-mail.

Your response is what I wanted to see. Although what you do has nothing to do with what I actually do, I see how I can apply your methods in my class. I mainly do your item 3 (model it) with good results, but the active learning approaches you outline have given me several ideas. "Come up with three questions" actually does apply to how one solves a physics problem!

Back when a great HS teacher got me to read books that way, I was not paying attention to how he did it. Your comments reminded me of some of the things we did, which is a big help. (BTW, he had high expectations as well. From each according to his ability ...)

Hilaire said...

Oh my god, thanks so much for this. *Just this week*, I was thinking, can I model some close reading for students?...This is so helpful!!

Inside the Philosophy Factory said...

Thanks for the insight!

Second Line said...

I like all of your strategies, and use variations of them in my classes. I try to model a lot of close reading and furtehr make sure they know I'm modeling it for them -- so there's a high degree of meta-commentary when I'm doing this.

There's one thing I do, though, that you didn't mention: I point out to them that they in fact already know how to do close reading, and that they do it on a regular basis in their daily lives. It's a cheesey example, I realize, but it starts the ball rolling. "What are you doing when you meet a new person at a party, " I ask, "or begin a new part-time job and are being trained by either a co-worker or a manager?" The answer I propose is that they are closely "reading" both the individual and the situation. And I point out that at the individual level, they are likely listening closely to the words being spoken as well as watching various forms of extra-linguistic communication -- body language, gesture, etc. In both cases, they are looking for tells, to use the language of poker, indicators that will provide them with some guidance or insight (or both) about the individual, the circumstance, and whatever else they may be curious about.

The trick, obviously, is figuring out what it is that the students are curious about -- usually it has to do with issues of trust, or 'is this a fun person', or 'are they cool, someone I want to hang out with, get to know, or not'.

Something interesting happens right around this point: a gender difference shows itself. The girls start to nod their heads and are clearly getting it. I think the reasons are obvious. It takes a little longer for the guys -- and I usually try to make a joke of it and say 'that's right guys, you are being scrutinized that closely.

From here I point out that they can and should apply the same tactics to a text. The difference is they have to now revise or shift their contexts of reading. And thus begins the race, class, gender discussion, and off we go.

Woops ... this is a long post, sorry. Dr. C.

Dr. Crazy said...

Don't apologize, SL! I'd forgotten about doing what you describe - usually that comes up in the very early part of the semester for me and then it's gone after that. So I'm glad you went on and on because that means I don't have to, and I think people will appreciate the idea :)

Second Line said...

Dr. C., do you find the issue of context to be the most difficult to get them to see or grasp? I mean, we're used to doing this, and we have our context(s) pretty much worked out, so we can spot a passage that reflects the context(s) we're interested in a mile away. They don't, or they don't know it yet. That's why I tell them that in the pinch, if all else fails, they can never go wrong with r,c, or g. Anything and everything they read can usually be read in relation to one or several of the big three.

Hmm ... I guess I'm a big proponent of a kind of crude Aritotelian model of learning via imitation. Oh well.

gwinne said...

Very helpful. Thanks for the reminder that I need to do some more carefully calculated close reading exercises in class pronto!

I do wonder why you prefer *not* to take the step of saying "this is modeling close reading" to your students. I find that my students need to hear explictly why we're doing what we're doing and, frankly, it translates to evaluations of the course (whether or not I feel my students learn, they sometimes need to be told what they're learning).

Clare said...

(delurking to say:) This is incredibly helpful me, especially since I struggle to balance and transition between the "teaching to write" mission of a writing course with the "teaching to read" mission.

I have tried something similar to the round robin exercise though. After the first go around, I ask the "stop" students to respond to the passage AND to the argument made by the previous students. After a second go around, we discuss the passages and arguments as a class. I think this version worked pretty well to get the students to see each other as critical thinkers (separate from their classroom embodiment/ authority), and it asks them to begin to evaluate the assumptions and bases of their peers' arguments.

(apologies for the longish comment)
-not that Clare

What Now? said...

I love your round-robin idea, and I'm totally going to borrow it.

Also, I was going to make a similar comment to Gwinne's. I think it's actually quite helpful, after the explication exercise, to say, "What we just did is close reading. This is what I'll be asking you to do for your next assignment, and we'll be practicing it more between now and then."

Doctor Pion said...

A followup: I used a couple of those ideas in one of my physics classes on Friday, with positive results. I think part of it is getting them to actually read each word in the process of putting it in their own words. Their HS training seems to emphasize skimming for one word that is needed to pass the state competency exams.

My observation is that there is more common ground than you might expect between what you are teaching and what future scientists and engineers need to be able to do. Whether it is instructions for a lab or the details in a story problem, the skills you teach are relevant to their future. Perhaps knowing that will help you motivate students to work on this skill in your freshman classes.

kermitthefrog said...

Thanks a lot - I'm trying the explication-in-groups in class tomorrow. We've done something similar, but not with such explicit and helpful questions!