The first step students take towards participating in scholarly conversations (in both spoken and written forms) is reading scholarly, including literary, texts. Each of these sections is underwritten by the assumption that texts do not simply inform students but that students also inform the texts, that is, they bring their own experiences, assumptions, fears and resistances to the texts. Acts of interpretation are always two-way (at least) streets. These sections, thus, offer suggestions that you can adapt to encourage students in the creative as well as intellectual activity of reading as, indeed, a first step toward writing and speaking.
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Negotiating Scholarly Texts
Approaching a scholarly text can often feel, to students, like wandering into a swamp. They may get lost simply in the language itself and pursuing one jargon word can lead them into quicksand wherein they lose any kind of foothold on the general purpose of the article. They come into class angry with the scholar who wrote the text, angry with scholars in general who engage in this kind of self-enclosed and self-perpetuating discourse, and angry with you for assigning, and thus, participating in it yourself or forcing them to participate in something that feels exclusionary. Giving students clear guidelines for identifying the main claim that the text is making and for assessing the strength of the argument can provide a way in for students whereby they can enter into the conversation and eventually use these texts to strengthen their own arguments.
Adapt and distribute the following sets of questions before the class period in which you will be discussing a difficult scholarly text. It is also a good idea, prior to sending them off on their own with a scholarly text, to guide students as a class through a close-reading of a more accessible text to demonstrate how the subtle nuances of argument often materialize in word choice and metaphor. For more information, see Close-Reading. Once they have located the main claim of the text and come to some understanding of how the argument is set up, they should go back and attend to the specific rhetorical moves the writers makes to get a more complex sense of the argument. Eventually, they will take these sets of questions as well as their practice in close-reading into their own research projects and analytical essays.
I. Find the claim:
One of the keys to finding your way through the specialized and often dense texts produced by scholars is remembering that somewhere early in the text the writer needs to tell the reader how his or her study contributes something original to the scholarship on the subject. It may be a correction of some past misunderstanding; it may be the inclusion of some consideration or variable that previous researchers have missed; it may be applying a theory or concept in a new way or in a place it has not previously been used. Make it your first goal to find that claim. Once you know that claim, you will be better able to understand the author's choices, and better able to evaluate the effectiveness of the argument.
Another key is that academic language is subtle, understated. Scholars rarely exhort readers adamantly to reject the lousy scholarship of those who came before and see the brilliance of their fresh new positions. You therefore need to be very attentive to small rhetorical signs like "but" and "although."
While close reading for these subtle rhetorical roadmaps, use the following questions to guide you in locating the claim:
- What question does the author pose?
- What is the primary argument made by the author?
- Where do you first find the argument?
- What language indicates to you that this is the primary argument?
- Why is the argument significant?
- What other positions does the author indicate are debated regarding the topic?
- When was the article written? Where was it published? Who was the intended audience?
II. Assess the strength/validity of the argument:
Again, you will need to use close reading skills to uncover the nuances of the argument and to evaluate its effectiveness in making its claims and engaging with other positions. For example, notice how the writer introduces evidence in support of his or her claim. Does the writer simply say, "Many literary scholars have argued unconvincingly that Hester Prynne's return to Salem in the end of The Scarlet Letter attests to Hawthorne's anti-feminist attitude toward women artists"? Or does the writer engage the theses of specific literary scholars who, no doubt, have their own nuanced readings? In some cases, the argument that gives attention to the complexity of a few other arguments (rather than generically referencing "many scholars" or "studies that show") can produce the more complex and subtle claims. Then again, sometimes writers must generalize in order to distinguish themselves more broadly from others. If they get too hung up on subtle points of differentiation between their arguments and those of others, the significance of their claims may get lost in the trees. Be aware of the relative effectiveness or ineffectiveness of either approach, depending upon the scope of the argument.
While continuing to close read for the subtle rhetorical ways in which the writer builds his or her case, use the following questions to help you sort out the building blocks of the writer's argument:
- What evidence does the author offer in support of the position put forth? (Identify all pieces of evidence you find.)
- What is the nature of each piece of supporting evidence? For example, is it based on empirical research, ethical consideration, common knowledge, anecdote?
- How convincing is the evidence? For example, does the research design adequately address the question posed (#1 above)? Are the ethical considerations adequately explored and assessed? Have you read/heard anything on this subject that confirms or challenges the evidence?
- Counter arguments
- What arguments made in opposition to the author's views were described?
- Were these arguments persuasively refuted?
- What evidence was used in the refutation?
- What were the strengths of the article?
- Was it difficult to read and understand? If so, why? If not, why not?
- Were you able to follow the moves of the article from thesis to evidence, for example?
- Did the structure of sentences and paragraphs and the overall organization guide you and help you follow the author's intent?
- Did all the material seem relevant to the points made?
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Because interpreting a literary or scholarly text can often seem to students like a mysterious (even irrelevant) activity of literary critics who are overly fascinated by "symbols," discussing close reading as a constant everyday activity in which students themselves engage helps to demystify the process.
A good way to make students visible to themselves as already adept close readers is to ask them to describe a part of a conversation that they overheard, perhaps in the library or in the Commons. You may even want to stage a brief conversation between yourself and a colleague somewhere in the classroom (near the door, in the front of the room as he or she is leaving class and you are entering) just as students are getting settled at their desks but class has not started yet. Make the conversation cryptic—not meant to attract attention, but compelling enough to pique your students' interest. Do not explain what you are up to.
Whether you stage it or they draw from a different conversation, ask students to describe what they heard and what they saw—in general, what they noticed. Ask them to freewrite for five minutes or so, providing as many details as possible about body language and gestures, as well as words from the verbal exchange to support their understanding of what the conversation was about.
The advantage of staging the conversation for them is that everyone will be writing on the same event and this will make for an interesting conversation after they have finished their freewriting. They will, in effect, be talking about a shared text—adding to and deepening each other's "readings" of what happened. Some students may say that they saw or heard nothing; it is important for them to participate in the freewrite as well since, often, they have seen more than they thought initially.
The following is a discussion, aimed at students, of what it means to close read, followed by a set of guidelines for close-reading a passage in a literary text. You may want to use this as a handout/exercise after you have completed the previous exercise:
What is Close-Reading?
We close-read situations and people every moment of our lives; we have become so adept at observing tone of voice, word choice, body language, sentence structure, metaphor, etc. and coming to a reasoned interpretation of a situation or event that close-reading becomes an almost unconscious activity.
In interpreting fictional and non-fictional texts, close-reading should become a conscious and constant activity. You will need to close-read particular passages: to mine the passage for cues and clues that can lead you to a reasoned and well-supported analysis of the passage and of the relationship of the passage to the rest of the work. A close-reading is NEITHER PLOT SUMMARY NOR PARAPHRASE. Therefore, avoid simply repeating, rephrasing, summarizing, or vaguely generalizing about the passage. Instead look at how the language used to describe the event, character, scene, etc. creates and manipulates our understanding. One of the ways to begin a close-reading is to ask questions of the passage from the general to the specific. For example, why is this passage included in the novel/essay? How do the diction, sentence structure, tone, imagery, and metaphors shape your reading of this passage and contribute to your interpretation of the novel/essay as a whole?
Another approach to close-reading is to look not only at what is there but also at what is left out of the passage. Since the gaps can be just as significant as the passage itself it is crucial that you "read" these gaps and not try to fill them with your own assumptions and narratives.
Support your analyses with evidence from the text. So, again, make sure that you can point to particular details to support your readings.
General guidelines for doing close-readings:
- Briefly identify some of the major issues, conflicts, ideas, and ideologies reflected in the passage.
- Identify the context in which the passage appears and analyze its significance. In other words, where exactly does the passage appear in the piece (in the beginning, after an important scene, at the end, etc.) and why is its placement important? Also, who is doing the speaking in the passage (or about whom is the passage) and why is that significant?
- Analyze the implications of the language in the passage. Without worrying about authorial intention, ask yourself why the writer might have chosen those particular words or that style in that particular excerpt. Explore the subtler connotations of the words, allusions, expressions used. What kinds of metaphors and other figures of speech does the passage employ? Is that passage similar to or different from others, if so, how? How does the style and words choice tie into larger issues in the novel, story, or essay? This is a very key step in close-reading.
- Draw some comparisons and conclusions about the passage in terms of its relevance to the rest of the piece: how is it specifically related to other parts? What does it reveal about a character or an issue that you see earlier or later in the piece? Offer a brief example. Why is that particular passage (as compared to others) important?
- Finally, link this passage to another work you have read in the course.
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Keeping Reading Journals
The reading journal asks that students express in writing their own personal interests and insights and build on the skills they already intuitively possess: the ability to observe, to listen, to take notes, to reflect on their notes, and to ask questions that are borne out of a sense of genuine curiosity.
Liken the reading journal to a fieldwork journal. Moving from the assumption that, for the anthropologist, wherever you are is a potential site for fieldwork, you can encourage students to use texts as fieldwork sites by keeping journal and pen handy whenever they read from their texts, copying down interesting passages, freewriting responses to particular sections, and raising questions. These notes will be invaluable when students move on to writing analytical, research, or literary interpretation essays.
Giving students space and encouragement to record their personal thoughts and reactions to the reading can also free students up to locate their own specific points of engagement with the text—even, or especially, if they initially react to the text negatively.
These suggestions are directed toward reading literary texts in particular, but you can apply them to other kinds of texts. You might ask students to include the following kinds of notes in their journals, adapted, of course, to the particular text they are reading or to the particular kinds of assignments surrounding the reading of the text:
Personal thoughts and reactions
Try not to censure your reactions to the text but to include more than "I liked (or hated)" type of statements. Be reflective; think about why you may be responding the way you are. Leave room for recording later reflections on the same topic/event/character. One way to do this is to take notes on the left hand page of notebook and reserve the right-hand page for later additions, comments, questions, and so on.
Comments and questions on plot, narrative structure, point of view, characterization, or setting
Many of these questions about elements of fiction come from Griffith, Kelley.
Writing Essays about Literature: A Guide and Style Sheet, 5th edition. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1998.
Refer to the following kinds of questions to help guide your responses:
What is the main conflict? What are the minor conflicts? How are all the conflicts related? What causes the conflicts? Where does the climax occur, if there is one? Why? How is the main conflict resolved? Which conflicts go unresolved?
How does the story move? What kind of narrative device is employed to move the plot? That is, are the characters on a journal through geographic space? Does the narrative move chronologically? etc. How does this structure seem to reflect or comment on others elements (i.e. characters and themes) in the text?
POINT OF VIEW:
Who tells the story? Can you trust the narrator to tell you the truth about events, characters, and settings of the story? Why has the author chosen this point of view? What effects does it have on other elements of the story?
How are the characters portrayed? Are they flat, round, dynamic, static? Do they change? How and why do they change? What do they learn? What problems do they have? Do they have traits that contradict one another and therefore cause internal conflicts? Do they experience epiphanies? How or what? How do they relate to each other? Etc.
Where does the action take place? (Think not only about geographic location but also physical space: indoors, outdoors, small rooms, palatial homes, etc.) What does it look like, sound like, feel like? What relationship does place have to characterization, the plot, themes, and the narrative structure? At what period in history does the action take place?
Observations on context
Record your observations and questions about the locations or the historical period depicted in this text. As you read pay attention to and take notes on what you "observe" about such things as:
- gender relations
- interior and exterior space (architecture, the city/countryside)
- the family
- social class and social mobility
- consumer culture
- social control, discipline and ideology
In your note-taking, when jotting down short quotations and paraphrases remember to cite page numbers. You will undoubtedly use some of these later when writing essays. (Indeed, your notes can even help you to choose a topic or a research question.)
Library research notes
You may have many questions about the text (and a specific research topic that will come out of the text) that the text, as a primary source, will not answer. Thus, you may be researching primary and secondary historical materials to help deepen your understanding about the context within which the work takes place. You may compile your notes and bibliography in your reading journal throughout your reading/researching process.
Putting Reading Journals to Use in Class
You may allot time prior to each class discussion for freewriting on a particular passage, character, scene, question for analysis, etc. This is often a good way to stimulate class discussion and gives students practice in writing short analyses and reflections to which they can refer back.
This can be an alternative to class discussion that gets all students participating and that gives them practice in sharing their writing, on a relatively informal basis, with their peers. Ask students to draw a line down the center of a page in their journals and to freewrite a response to a particular passage, scene, character, etc. on the left side of the line. (They may do this either during, or prior to, class.) Next, have students pass their journals to the person next to them. Each person should then respond to his or her peer's freewrite with his or her own freewrite. There are many variations on this exercise. For example, you may ask students to pose a question in their own journals. They will pass them on to receive a partner's written engagement with their question. You may want students to pass their journals on several times in order to have many different voices participating in their journals.
I notice, I wonder statements:
Use these two phrases to prompt students to articulate their unique interests, questions, speculations that often lead to paper topics. You might ask students to write two sentences in their journal at various points in reading a text: the first, beginning with "I notice," the second, with "I wonder." This can work well in combination with the journal swap wherein peers can respond with their own speculations. "I noticed this too, but I wondered if . . ." Or "I didn't notice that, but I did notice this related thing. Like you, I wonder if . . ."
Because students, like all readers, will inevitably have their immediate personal and emotional responses to a text, you can put them to productive use rather than avoiding or trying to silence them in the service of more "serious" or "analytical" responses. In fact, their initial emotional responses can often provide them with valuable insights if they can apply them critically. Again, ask students to draw a line down the center of a page in their journals. On the left side, ask them to record their immediate emotional response to the text, being as specific as they can. That is, they cannot just say, "I hated this." Encourage them to describe their reaction as vividly as possible (i.e. "This novel really made me feel uncomfortable, like I was wandering around someplace I where I didn't want to be.") When they are finished recording their reactions (give them about five to seven minutes), ask them to exchange journals with a partner. Next, ask them to read their partners' responses to the text and in the right hand column write their own responses. They should not simply agree or disagree with their partner; instead ask them to think about what specifically from the text may have evoked such a response. They should, thus, refer to specific passages prefacing their comments only with "I notice . . ." and "I wonder . . ." (For example, "I noticed that the first thing the narrator does is 'take a leak' in the bushes.' I wonder if this is why you felt uncomfortable.")
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Creating Conversations Across Texts
After students have been given ample opportunity to work with close-reading and interpreting texts, they can situate their interpretations within larger conversations and contexts surrounding the text—ongoing conversations into which they enter, or conversations that they initiate by making connections. The conversations may engage, for example, different literary texts of the same period or literary texts of different periods. Or you may want students to cross disciplines by placing a literary text in conversation both with another kind of text from the same period, and a historian's writing about the period in which the text was published. Or you may adapt this to different historians' texts about the same time period, or different sociologists perspectives on a similar phenomenon. The possibilities are endless.
The following guidelines/exercise can apply to other kinds projects besides the literary interpretation, however, for the sake of clarity and illustration, this specific exercise places a literary text (Edith Wharton's 1901 novel House of Mirth), in conversation with another primary source (Frederick Law Olmsted's 1870 treatise "Public Parks and the Enlargement of Towns") and one secondary source (Alan Trachtenberg's The Incorporation of America). This exercise assumes that students will have completed House of Mirth and, ideally, have written one interpretation essay or have done plenty of close-readings in class so they are sufficiently familiar with the text. This exercise can feed directly into research projects in which they find additional or different sources or final interpretation essays that ask students to deal with the different texts from the course.
- After students are familiar with the novel, assign a primary text from the same period in which the novel was written. In this case, assign Frederick Law Olmsted's "Public Parks and the Enlargement of Towns." Ask students to write down a list of quotations from the essay that they find of interest and that resonate with specific moments from
The House of Mirth. Ask them to write down page numbers from the novel where they find relevant passages.
- Ask them to repeat this process with Trachtenberg's chapter, "Mysteries of the Great City." (You may want to assign this chapter after you have discussed the connections between the first two primary texts in class). In this case, they should write down quotations that resonate with the connections they have already made between the first two texts.
- In class, draw three columns on the board for each of the three texts. Ask students to volunteer and brainstorm connections they made among the different texts, providing page numbers and reading from specific quotations from each text. As students offer their ideas, jot down notes under each column. For now, do not worry about the depth of the discussion or analysis, just let students experiment. For example:
"The Gilded Age:" Conversations Across Three Texts
House of Mirth
Talks about how realist writers attempt to make the city visible—cleanse the city of mystery. This is a reflection of the fear and anxiety related to the growing and industrialized city.
The characters of Mrs. Peniston, Gerty, and Seiden are fearful and vigilant in some way (ex. p. 126). Wharton is displaying characters that want to cleanse the city of mystery, but for them it is fruitless.
Writes about the fear of sidewalks as public spaces, relatively unstructured and non-segregated (p.338).
- After you have generated a list of four or five possible sets of connections, ask students to choose one of these topics and write a paragraph that asserts the relationship, by describing the conversation, among the texts. For example, they may want to address the question: Do the two primary texts refute, reflect, and/or somehow deepen Trachtenberg's historical analysis? Tell them to practice proper methods for quoting from texts in their paragraph.
- If time permits, ask a couple students to share their paragraphs in class. Collect them.
Instead of, or in addition to, doing this exercise in class and on the board, you might have students do the exercise in their reading journals. They may write down a quotation from one of the sources that they found compelling, pass their journal to another student who would then make a connection to a passage from another source, pass to a second student, etc.
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There is perhaps no other kind of text that can create such feelings of anxiety, confusion, and also satisfaction as a poem. Many students assume that there is some sort of key to reading poetry to which they do not yet have access—and that you, the instructor, possesses the key and are testing students before you will grant them access. One of the best ways to disabuse them of this notion is to muddle through the poem with them, to come at it from all different angles, and to let them try out different readings.
You can adapt the following sets of questions to your own poetry assignments. The first are simply meant to be guidelines for determining some of the things your students can be looking for when reading a poem. It is a good idea to hand out these questions as a roadmap for your students as they are reading the poem for the first time. Following the questions are some suggested classroom activities that can help students get beyond their fear of poetry by actively engaging it. They also provide different angles from which together you can creatively and collaboratively approach the poem.
Guidelines for reading poetry
- Recognize the "narrative" of the poem: Close-read the poem as you would a prose text. Look for the subject and verb of each sentence; this will be easier with some poems than with others. Note where you find yourself having to insert words in order for the sentences to "make sense." Remember that whatever you insert is an assumption on your part and may necessitate reconsidering. Indeed, sometimes noticing the ambiguity and letting it remain is more important than resolving it. Who is speaking in this poem? To whom is he or she speaking? What is the speaker's tone? What situation is the speaker describing? What are the conflicts? What is the setting? How is this setting important to the narrative? What are some of the major themes or ideas of the poem?
- Note the diction or word choice of the poem: Circle all the words you do not know and look them up in the dictionary. Underline words that seem particularly meaningful or that contain double-meanings and puns. Explain the connotations of each of these. How do these shades of meaning contribute to the overall effect of the poem? Underline unusual words (slang, made-up words, foreign language words, etc.). Explain how the poem would be different without them. How does all this word choice contribute to the tone of the poem?
- Experience the imagery of the poem: Locate all the descriptive images and consider which sense each image appeals to (i.e. visual, aural, tactile). Describe how these images help create atmosphere and mood. Now do the same with all the figurative language in the poem (i.e. metaphor, simile, personification).
- Listen to the sound of the poem: Note which sound devices the poem uses, for example:
- Onomatopoeia: the use of words that sound like what they mean.
- Alliteration: the repetition of consonant sounds at the beginning of words or at the beginning of accented syllables.
- Assonance: the repetition of vowel sounds followed by different consonant sounds.
- Consonance: the repetition of final consonant sounds that are preceded by different vowel sounds.
- Rhyme: the repetition of accented vowels and the sounds that follow.
- After noting the sounds devices, ask how they contribute to the poem's tone, atmosphere, etc.
- Look at the structure of the poem: How does the poem use rhyme schemes, stanzas, line breaks, spacing to structure the poem? What is the relationship among the structure of the poem, how it actually looks on the page, to its tone and its content?
These guidelines were adapted from Griffith, Kelley. Writing Essays about Literature:
A Guide and Style Sheet, 5th edition. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1998.
Reading poems in the classroom
- Translate the poem into prose: Ask students to attempt to rewrite the poem as a paragraph of prose without losing any of the details of the implicit "narrative" in the poem. Ask several students to write their paragraphs on the board (alternatively, ask them to write their paragraphs on clear overhead projector sheets). As a class read the paragraphs one at a time discussing what is lost in translation.
- Change the line breaks: Ask students to rewrite the poem changing the line breaks. Ask several students to write their paragraphs on the board (alternatively, ask them to write their paragraphs on clear overhead projector sheets). As a class, read the poems and talk about how the line break revisions alter the sense of the poem.
- Assign each stanza of the poem to a small group: This is particularly effective when looking at long multi-stanza poems such as Countee Cullen's "Heritage." When students can focus on one stanza, they tend to feel less daunted as when they feel they must take on the poem as a whole. Ask groups to address all or a portion of the questions under Guidelines for Reading Poetry. Each group must then report back to the class in order to make a segue from the previous group's analysis.
- Turn a passage of prose into poetry: Find a paragraph-length passage from a novel or a short story that is narrative in style. Ask students to convert the prose passage into a poem. (Ask them to write their poems on clear overhead projector sheets so you can look at a few as examples.) Reflect on what gets lost in translation and what gets added. How did they convert the narrative of prose to the narrative of poetry? Look at the effects of line breaks, omitted words, repeated words, and added words? Does the poem "work" (that is, convey the sense of the narrative and the tone of the prose piece)? Why or why not? Does it, in some ways, work better? Why or why not?
- Turn a passage of any kind of text into poetry: Ask students to bring in an everyday text: a page from a newspaper, a magazine, a flyer they received in the mail, etc.—the only criteria being that it must have a substantial amount of written text on it. Ask them to create a poem out of snippets of sentences from the text. They do not need to attend to the meaning, just to the sound and the look of the lines as they select words and phrases at random, skipping around to different parts of the text. Ask students to share their poems with the class. Notice the sound and shape of the lines. Ask students to talk about their stylistic choices in creating these poems.
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