How to Teach Close Reading: Demystifying Literary Analysis for Undergraduates

Jarrell D. Wright, University of Pittsburgh

Close reading is a challenging skill to teach precisely because we are already adept at it.  As initiates into the discipline of literary criticism, we can analyze texts without having to think about what specific intellectual processes are taking place inside our heads.  But that kind of self-reflectiveness is absolutely necessary for effective teaching.  To our students, close reading can seem like a mysterious and arcane set of practices.  Until we can understand for ourselves what we do when we engage in literary analysis, we cannot expect to be able to teach them that skill.

This essay is the product of that kind of reflection about the act of literary criticism, and the resulting methods have served me well in the classroom.  I offer them especially for newly minted instructors of literature to adopt (or adapt), and I encourage more senior instructors to undertake the same sort of reflective process while considering these suggestions in order to improve upon their existing teaching approaches.

My method of teaching close reading is one of demystification that attempts to make the practice as transparent as possible.  In brief terms, it boils literary analysis down into three simple, discrete steps: (0) Understanding, (1) Noticing, and (2) Explaining.  An introductory session on close reading proceeds through four phases: (I) an explicit effort to correct common misconceptions about literary criticism, (II) an explanation of each of the three close reading steps, (III) a class discussion of a sample poem through which the three steps are reinforced and put into practice, and (IV) an examination of potential close reading mistakes that our collective analysis avoided.

(Note: To view the close reading presentation that I share with my students, download and unzip the file and then open player.html.)

A preliminary note: The approach outlined here is grounded in a New Critical orientation to texts.  In my experience, students find this brand of close reading easier to grasp than other, more contemporary approaches, at least in their earliest efforts.  Just as newer modes of critique built upon and reacted to the New Criticism, students can benefit from learning a formalist method of approaching texts before moving on to work grounded in theories of deconstruction, New Historicism, or reader-response criticism.

(I)

We first address some common misconceptions about literary criticism.  The goal here is to confront directly and explicitly the erroneous ideas about close reading that many students bring to the classroom with them from high school.

There is nothing mystical about what critics do when they analyze texts—rather than being issued magic goggles that enable them to see things in a text that are invisible to others, critics actually engage in a process that anyone can learn.  This is an important point to convey because students often approach close reading as if it were a kind of hocus-pocus, leading them into other common mistakes, like making things up that merely sound good rather than actually observing and explaining textual details.

Close reading is not speculation.  Students can make two mistakes when they attempt to perform close readings without sufficient preliminary guidance.  First, they may try to discern characters’ motives: for example, asking why Caroline Compson is such an inadequate mother in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury.  Short of some expertise in psychoanalytical criticism, which of course our beginning students lack, this type of question is not one that a text can answer for us.  Second, students may try to discern an author’s intentions.  As we know, authorial intent is forever hidden from us (or can be unreliable when it is available), and therefore such questions lead in an unproductive direction.  By addressing these potential mistakes very explicitly, we can encourage students to avoid them and to instead focus on tangible textual details to analyze and explain.

Close reading is not BSing or fancy, pretentious, abstract theorizing.  Under the rubric of “making things up,” all too many of our students were rewarded in high school for producing deep-sounding but virtually empty or contentless accounts of the texts that they studied.  Students will duplicate this error in their early college-level work unless they are explicitly instructed that the object of literary analysis is not merely to sound smart but rather to generate coherent arguments, based on objective textual facts, that any reasonably sensitive reader of a text can understand.

(II)

Having talked about what close reading is not, I proceed to reveal what close reading is: (0) Understanding, (1) Noticing, and (2) Explaining.  The value of breaking close reading down into these three basic steps is that it demystifies the process and makes it more accessible to students; it also gives students a very practical and readily understandable guide for how to start a task that can seem daunting and perplexing.  Most of the information that follows is material that I also share with my students—in order to make the process of close reading as transparent as possible, it makes sense not merely to instruct but also to comment on the rationale behind the instruction at the same time.

(0) Understanding

The act of understanding a text’s surface meaning is listed as “step zero” in the process in order to emphasize that summary and paraphrase are not adequate substitutes for close reading.  The most common error that students commit in their early efforts at textual engagement is undoubtedly to summarize or paraphrase rather than to analyze.  This simple numbering trick will immediately and successfully convey to your students that they should not waste valuable time and space in their papers engaged in the mode of summary and paraphrase.

Conversely, to list (rather than simply to omit) understanding a text’s surface meaning as an important albeit preliminary step in the process of close reading is to deliver another key lesson to your students: They must be able to summarize or paraphrase accurately before they can go on to the more penetrating work of close reading and analysis.  Students sometimes want to run before they can walk, reading between the lines before bothering to read and understand the lines themselves, often leading to blatant misinterpretations.  Listing this phase of the process as “step zero” communicates this important lesson very clearly and helps students avoid a common pitfall.

(1) Noticing

            Because many students come to us with significant deficits in terms of their sensitivity to textual nuances, noticing details of language can be the hardest part of close reading for them.  Introducing this step calls for great sensitivity and sympathy, and it works best when it is reinforced with a discussion of details noticed in a sample text.

A common mistake that students may make at this phase, and about which they should be explicitly warned, is an error of focus: encourage students to examine small-scale details in a text (like word choice and punctuation) rather than large-scale features (like plot points and character profiles).  Attention to large-scale features, particularly by students who are new to close reading, is likely to lead to summary and paraphrase rather than analysis.

Students are often reluctant to examine micro-level textual features out of a fear that such details are mere minutia about which there can be little to say or write.  In order to allay this concern—and to show that precisely the opposite is true—I sometimes use an analogy from Doctor Who and describe a text as being like a TARDIS, bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.  There is actually a great deal of analytical work to be done with seemingly minor authorial choices, whereas (beyond summary and paraphrase) there is relatively little to say about broader issues.

The issue of authorial choice is also an important topic to mention at this juncture.  Students might wonder why such minor details could possibly matter.  The proper response is to note that all writers make choices, and that especially good writers make especially good and careful choices, choices that are worth examining.  Be careful, however, not to frame the issue of authorial decision-making in terms of trying to discern an author’s subjective intent, a trap into which many beginning close readers can fall.

Finally, for students who are unsure about what kinds of details count as things that are worth noticing, I emphasize that there are no wrong answers: any feature of a text that they find to be unusual, strange, surprising, or interesting can be a good place to focus their attention.  Other beginning close readers also find comfort in the notion that questions and problems can be good places to start a textual analysis—a very good close reading can emerge from an attempt to understand a troubling or confusing portion of the text.

(2) Explaining

            The final close reading step is for your students to explain the effects of the textual details that they have noticed.  Explaining is about moving beyond what is interesting and on to what is significant.  Your students’ goal here is to construct an argument about how particular authorial choices affect the text as a whole.  You might even want to consider imposing a playful ban on the term “interesting,” encouraging students instead to use the word “significant”; this shift in terminology can help prompt your students to begin building arguments rather than just listing random observations about a text.

This is another occasion on which you can stress the importance of avoiding issues of authorial intent.  Make the underlying concern transparent to students by noting that the goal is not to read the author’s mind or to discover the purely subjective reasons behind why he or she might have made particular choices; instead, the aim is to reveal the objective effects of those choices.

Discussing the differences between subjectivity and objectivity can also help your students to avoid the common misconception that literary analysis is about explaining what a text means “to me.”  You will often see idiosyncratic and even fanciful interpretations in your students’ early close reading efforts unless you communicate very clearly to them that their purpose in writing is to present an argument that any careful reader of the text can understand.

On the subject of argumentation, introducing this final step is also an opportunity to explain to your students that their arguments should be controversial.  An interpretation that is obviously true is very likely to resemble a summary or paraphrase.  Instead, your students should aspire to the kinds of theses about which reasonable readers could either agree or disagree.

 (III)

            After introducing and commenting on each of the three close reading steps, we put those steps into practice by analyzing a sample poem.  Poetry, because of its density, richness, and brevity, tends to work best for this purpose.  I use Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias” because I have found it to be especially accessible and teachable, but in principle any sample text could be used to the same effect.

The accompanying video shows more clearly than I can communicate here what exactly I strive to accomplish with “Ozymandias” as a sample text, but a few points bear emphasis.  First, it is important to approach your work with a sample text with a theory or account of the text already in mind; you have to know where you want your students to arrive in order to be able to guide them to that point, and knowing your intellectual destination will also help you to channel a wider range of student comments into the right direction.  Second, be prepared to correct students who stray from the path that you want them to follow or who make common close reading mistakes; your corrections should be gentle, of course, but you should not be afraid to use errors as teachable moments.  Finally, strive to show that steps one and two of close reading are recursive: after we explain a few textual details, those explanations ideally will begin to coalesce around a particular theory of the text—show students to use such developing theories to explain other details that they have noticed.

 

(IV)

            Take a moment to praise and celebrate your students’ first close reading efforts; you might be genuinely surprised at what a good job they are able to do after receiving your early guidance, and it is vital that you show them where their efforts have been particularly successful.  This moment or two to pause and reflect will segue nicely into the final phase of your session: explaining what mistakes their collective close reading work avoided.  This is a final opportunity to get your students to buy into this approach to textual analysis, and as such it makes good sense to sell these methods while your students’ success with them is still fresh.

Ÿ Your students avoided a search for so-called “hidden meanings.”  New close readers can mistakenly believe that authors plant secret Easter eggs into their texts for later readers to discover, leading students to believe that close reading is an obscure process of decipherment.  Instead, explain that your students simply noticed the choices that the author made through a keener attention to textual details.

Ÿ Your students avoided a moralistic approach of searching for “life lessons” in the text.  Didactic theories of texts are commonly propounded in high schools, but they are less appropriate for college-level work—encourage your students to focus on how texts work rather than the more rudimentary question of what texts can teach us.

Ÿ Your students avoided the mistake of “relating” to a text.  “Relateability” is a common notion that students may import from their high school work with literature, and the odious word itself is the bane of many a literature instructor’s existence.  A student who tells you that he or she can “relate” to a piece is really telling you more about himself or herself than about the text.  Emphasize that the goal of close reading is to provide insights about the text rather than insights about its reader.

Ÿ Your students did not pretend that the text was easy.  Students often believe that the objective of working with a text is to render it unproblematic or easily digestible, resulting in essays or papers that tend to oversimplify the text.  Stress that students should be shedding light on textual complexities and nuances rather than trying to get to a single “right” answer.

Ÿ Finally, your students avoided fanciful and idiosyncratic claims—claims about what the text means “to me.”  Because your students are probably used to being praised for such interpretations, it is worth repeating the point that a reading should articulate a credible argument that other careful readers can comprehend.

I wish you the best of luck in introducing your students to the art of close reading.  This essay and the techniques that it outlines are works in progress, and I welcome your feedback and ideas—please feel free to e-mail me at jdw14@pitt.edu.

 

 

 

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