A Five-Minute Talk on Teaching Close Reading

A Five Minute Talk on How to Teach Close Reading: The Written Version

by Alyssa Harad

Be prepared for what students know and don't know. I have found that some of my brightest, most insightful students -- you know, the ones who say such promising things in class -- are surprisingly mystified by close reading. If they haven't taken a literature class recently (and sometimes even if they have) they are still relying on dim memories of high school and a set of vocabulary that they only understood poorly in the first place. This vocabulary includes terms like mood, tone, climax, metaphor, and my two least favorite, symbol and foreshadowing. Unless you give students an alternative vocabulary or help them to redefine the words that are in their heads they will continue to overuse and misuse this vocabulary at the expense of the reading experience.

Close reading asks students to do the opposite of what they spend most of their time doing in UT's large lecture classes. That is, in their large classes they are often asked to boil down large amounts of information to thoroughly understood/memorized chunks that are possible to reproduce on exams. You, on the other hand, are asking them to begin with a very small amount of information and extrapolate from it, meditate on it, weave back and forth between it and the rest of the text. (For you math/science types it might be useful to think of this as deductive vs. inductive reasoning.) This makes it a totally foreign, and often frustrating process, especially for good students who have learned to read quickly, looking for only the most important information. That's why the first concrete direction you should give to students is...

Tell students they will have to SLOW DOWN. A frustrated 316K student, baffled by where I was "getting all this stuff" once accused me of "reading between the lines." "Nope," I replied. "I'm just reading all of the lines." The biggest hurdle students face when learning how to engage with the text through close analysis is deciding that things like long descriptive passages "don't count." It's highly likely you will have to repeat this instruction several times as students are often deeply surprised by just how slowly it is possible to read. One thing that can help this process along is to...

Assign something dense and/or relatively plotless. I taught my 314 students to close read with Melville's "Benito Cereno," a story about a marooned ship where something mysterious is happening that's not revealed to the confused, obtuse, protagonist (he's a very bad reader) until the last few pages. Almost all the action is communicated through description. The students hated it until they started to get the hang of close reading -- then they loved it, because it rewarded their efforts so beautifully. In my 309K I began with Nabokov's Lolita-- hardly plotless, but often dense to the point of (deliberate) obscurity, as in the passage where Humbert Humbert describes his first round of sexual intercourse with Lolita. This was the passage I assigned them to close read in class, in small groups, in answer to one student's question -- "Why isn't there any actual sex in the book?" The groans and giggles and exclamations ("Ewww, that's gross!") that filled the room as students "got it" assured me that they would remember the reading process as well as the text.

Have students choose a scene or "moment" no smaller than a paragraph, no longer than a page. This is often a difficult part of the process for students and its best to model several in class, first. It's also useful to have students nominate passages to work with in class so they can see which work and which don't and why.

Break down the reading process into three steps: Information, Analysis, Interpretation. This is my answer to getting around that high school critical vocabulary and taking the mystery out literary interpretation. It's schematic, and the steps overlap, but I've found it very useful in showing students where they've taken a wrong turn in their reading and how they can get back on track.

This level of reading is literal, and involves straightening out difficult syntax, establishing context, looking up unknown vocabulary and so on. It's also usually where students go wrong. They want to rush ahead and get to Interpretation (that's where the symbols are!). Unfortunately, if the reader doesn't know the name of the character in the passage, the time of day, where the characters are etc. any interpretative move they make is likely to take them off on a wild goose chase. Informational reading is also very important in establishing the larger context of the passage, and it’s context that helps prevent students from “overreading,” trying to make the passage more important to the whole simply because they have chosen it. Finally, informational reading is a way to raise contextual questions about the text: the literary, political, and social history that has become so important to contemporary critics. All of this information sharpens students eyes for the next step…

This is the often very concrete work of noticing that prepares the reader for interpretation. Analysis, obviously, can take place on the level of story structure, but I tend to teach my students to begin with the very small. "Wow, that sentence is 14 lines long!" is an analytical comment. "Why does he keep repeating the word white?" is an analytical question. So is, "Why does the verb come at the end of the sentence?" My favorite story about the power of this kind of very simple analysis involves the famous pear tree scene from Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, where the main character, Janie, has her sexual awakening alone, lying underneath a pear tree in full bloom, watching the bees buzz in and out of the flowers. A student had noted on our on-line discussion forum that there was "something funny about the pear tree." In class, I suggested we simply make a list of all the gerunds in the passage. By the time we got to "panting," "creaming," and "sighing" at the end of an increasingly long and sensuous list the students were laughing with delight. Then we got to talk about metaphor, and why the pear tree was still a pear tree and not just a "symbol." It takes a lot of work to get students to employ this tool. One thing I tell them over and over again is that the more concrete and specific their analysis is, the more likely they are to say something fresh and compelling in their interpretation.

Now, finally, students can get to that mysterious stage that they thought they were just supposed to leap to with nothing but faith to guide them. What is the significance of the information they've gathered? What new light does it shed on the passage? How does it reveal the importance of the passage they've chosen to the rest of the text? “One character does all the talking” is an analytical comment. “Why does one character do all the talking? How does it affect our perception of that character?” are interpretive questions. To build on our analysis of Janie under the pear tree, we began to talk not only about the fact of the sexual metaphor, but why Hurston might have chosen this particular metaphor and then, going further, how the image of the tree resonated throughout the novel. For more info on this stage, if you've found this advice helpful so far, you might want to check out my 12 Step Guide to Overcoming Our Addiction to Plot.

Since the only way to get better at close reading is to keep on doing it, I give lots and lots of short close reading assignments. In my 314L my students were required to do several informal close readings for forum postings per week on top of writing a 1-2 page close reading for each text we read and combining close reading with the other methodologies we learned (engaging with criticism and historical/contextual research) for their long final paper. I’ve included examples of these, and their results, in this packet.

Close reading is a conversion experience. I throw my students in the deep end of the pool and make them learn by doing (after some initial modeling) in the opening weeks of class}-- I haven't found any better way to do it. Students who are sure they already know how to read well will often have the hardest time with close reading, even when they're actually writing good literary analysis. Once they know it's hard, it stays hard for a good long while until they gain some confidence and have the great and truly empowering pleasure of having their very own insights into the text, and knowing with certainty how they got there and how to communicate those insights to another person. While close reading is still hard for them, it's important to tell your students you know that its hard, and that it's still often hard for you, which should depress them, but instead reassures them in some perverse way. You might also tell them that once they've learned how to pay attention this way it will serve them very well in many of their other classes. They might not believe you, but its true. The one thing my former students thank me for with any consistency is teaching them how to close read.

Good luck!