29 Feb 2008 [ Prev | Next ]

Ex 1-3: Close Reading

Choose a passage from any literary reading we have done. It can be a whole short poem, a few paragraphs in a story or a few lines of dialog or a speech in a play.

Note: If you get an A or a B on this exercise, you do not need to revise your close reading workbook. I will just drop the zero from my gradebook. (You'll have proved you can do it!)

Demonstrate your ability to read the text closely

  • not by pharaphrasing it line by line
  • not by posting wild ideas about what the text "could" mean
  • not by jotting down the thoughts that popped into your head as you read
  • not by writing about something else (a song or movie) on a similar theme
  • demonstrate (by quoting significant lines) how the passage you chose is part of a web of meanings embedded into the text (that is, if a poem mentions a bird, quote several other passages in the poem that refer to freedom, or power, or nervousness, or rudeness, or stupidity, or some other meaning that the word "bird" might have)
  • demonstrate (by making claims supported by textual evidence) that the passage you chose offers a consistent, coherent, plausible way of interpreting the whole text. (It's not possible to prove that yours is the only way or the best of all possible ways.)

Begin with a thesis.

Weak thesis: Birds symbolize many things in "Imaganary Poem #1" by Inky Wordsmith.  (That's like saying "There are a lot of colors in this rainbow." Of course a rainbow has colors. Too obvious!)

Stronger thesis: In "Imaginary Poem #1," Inky Wordsworth uses two different kinds of bird imagery in an interesting way. (Better, but still vague.)

Improved thesis: In "Imaginary Poem #1," Inky Wordsworth works two different sets of images against each other in order to illustrate the frustration the poet feels when a poem fails to resolve a tension. Wordsworth uses birds as symbols of powerful predators, but also images of birds as foolish prey, as metaphors for the complex relationship between the poet who pursues words, and the poet as victim of words.

Thesis Paragraph
  • Optional: One or two sentences introducing the central idea.
    • Avoid a cosmic "Throughout the ages, mankind has always..."  (Keep it real.)
    • Avoid a distracting "There are some ways of looking at a thing.  Some people do X, and some people do Y.  In this paper, I will do Z." (If you don't plan to talk about X or Y, don't even mention them.)
  • Introduce your text.
    Mention the name of your text and the author, and identify what passage you plan to study.
    • Avoid writing "In this paper, I will do a close reading of..."
    • Avoid the formula, "In The Play I'm Studying by John Playwright, it says in Act II, Scene iii that..."
  • Supply details.
    Your introduction should include a brief list of all the points you plan to cover. You may not know what points you plan to cover before you start writing. That's okay -- just start out writing SOMETHING. Then go back and see what your best points are, and write a new introduction that illustrates the connection between your points.

  • Example:
    In Act II, Scene iii of John Playwright's The Play I'm Studying, Lord Cheeseball delivers an ironic assessment of his recent failures, relying heavily on unintentionally humorous puns and convoluted sentences.  The distorted language and twisted grammar both illustrate Cheeseball's confused state of mind.

    After this introduction, I would expect:
    • a paragraph or so on puns
    • a paragraph or so on grammar
    • a concluding paragraph or so on the character's confused state of mind

Suggested Pre-writing Exercises
Don't turn any of this in with your exercise -- this is all for you. If you get stuck and you want to talk to me, it will help if you bring me whatever you have accomplished in this area.
  1. Identify the work you plan to write about. (It can be any work of literature we have studied this term.)
  2. For yourself, if you need to, rephrase it in your own words so that you are sure you understand the meaning. (Don't turn that paraphrasing in to me. I don't want to read it.)
  3. Circle words and phrases that seem important. Look up words that you don't know. Read any footnotes.
  4. If your selection is part of a longer work, read (or at least skim) the entire work, looking for related words and concepts in other parts of the work.
  5. Give yourself 10 uninterrupted minutes, and just start writing. Don't worry about grammar, or stopping to look up the spelling of a character's name. Just write something.
  6. Now circle your best ideas, and try to do another 10-minute session focusing on each of your best ideas.
  7. Identify your topic. "Urban decay in Eliot's 'Prufrock.'"  "Male stereotypes in Glaspell's 'Trifles.'"
  8. With that topic firmly in mind, read through your text again, and pick the passage on which you want to focus your close reading. (It is possible to do a close reading of a particular theme that appears in many places in a long work, but for this assignment I'm asking you to focus on a brief passage.)
  9. Read and re-read your chosen passage. Consider writing it out by hand word for word, or reciting it aloud, or having someone else read it to you, so that you pay attention to every word.
  10. Choose your thesis (a non-obvious claim) about your chosen work
    • not about an issue, such as the pressures of city life or women's rights
    • not about your personal reaction to the work
    • not about events in the author's life or your life that relate somehow to the poem
  11. Focus on how the author uses words to create meaning, not on the meaning itself.

Required Components
Put all these elements into a single file, formatted according to MLA style.Upload to Turnitin.com.

A. Your topic ("Animals in Flannery O'Connor's 'A Good Man is Hard to Find'")
B. The claim you want to make about your topic.  (All I want for this section is one good claim, but here are three weak versions and one good version of the same claim, so you can see what I'm hoping to get.)
  1. Not a claim: "Why does O'Connor use animals in this story?"
  2. Weak claim -- nobody would bother to argue against it: "O'Connor uses animals as symbols in this story."
  3. Weak claim -- too vague: "O'Connor uses animals in several important ways in her story."
  4. Good claim: "O'Connor uses animals to give the audience cues to how they should respond to the characters."
C. A list of your supporting points (one sentence each, phrased as a claim.)
  1. The children frighten the chained monkey, which prepares the audience to accept June Star's rudeness in the restaurant.
  2. The grandmother tells herself that she is saving the cat from burning the house down, but she imprisons it in the bag, showing that she is afraid of her son's wrath but she will also deceive him by manipulating the cat, which prepares us to question the grandmother's motives when she invokes Jesus in order to manipulate The Misfit
  3. Bailey hurls the cat against a tree, an act of violence that prepares us to accept the harsh words he uses against his mother, as well as setting up an important contrast between Bailey's rudeness and The Misfit's surprising gentleness towards the cat.
D. A three-page paper, structured just like the essays you were asked to write in basic comp. You do not need to do any outside research, but if you do, you should cite your sources according to MLA style. Your submission should have the following components.
  1. An MLA-style title block -- with a meaningful title and properly-formatted page numbering. (Check your Basic Comp or STW handbook, or this MLA style handout.  Since you will start sections A through C on page 1 of your submission, your actual paper will probably start on page 2 or 3.  That's fine with me for this exercise.)
  2. A thesis paragraph that introduces the topic, makes your claim, and introduces each of the supporting points (in the same order as you listed them in part C, above.)
  3. For each supporting point (you don't need to have exactly three) a well-structured paragraph -- just like the ones you wrote for Basic Comp -- with a topic sentence, supporting points (with quotations from the text), and a conclusion for this supporting argument. (Note -- a conclusion should not simply restate your argument. See below.)
  4. An overall conclusion, which does not mechanically restate your outline. (That's fine for speeches, where you are supposed to tell 'em what you're gonna tell 'em, tell 'em, and then tell 'em what you told 'em, but that formula is wasteful in an essay). 

How will I evaluate the paper?

I won't give you a line-by-line critique, but I will make representative comments so you will know what to look for when you revise your paper. I won't give you a separate grade on each of these items, but I'll look at all of them when I calculate your grade.

MLA style.  Is the paper formatted correctly?
Title: Does it state the name of the work, the author, the general topic, and at least some hint of your argument? ("Animal imagery" is incomplete. "Life is a Zoo!" is silly. "O'Connor's use of Animals in Character Development in 'A Good Man is Hard to Find'" is good.)
Planning: Do the title, thesis statement and conclusion all match up? (Often students end up in a slightly different place from where they thought they were headed. If that ever happens, go back and change your title and thesis so it looks like where you ended up is where you wanted to go all along.)
Organization: If your thesis paragraph mentions three supporting ideas, does your paper treat each of those supporting ideas in the same order?  (Good!)  Do I have to read through everything you've got on supporting point 1 before I get the slightest hint about what supporting point 2 is? (Ouch!)
Flow: Does your paper waste time by restating the assignment, summarizing the plot, or refer explicitly to the mechanics of quoting sources and supporting arguments? ("My first point is that the monkey is chained to the tree, which is supported by this quote from page 45..."   Ouch!  Just say, "The monkey is literally chained to its tree (45), just as The Misfit recognizes he cannot escape evil, expressed in the Christian tradition through the fruit from a forbidden tree.")
Tangent: Note that I didn't even quote a line to "prove" the monkey is chained... O'Connor isn't using any unusual or significant words in that passage, she's just telling a detail that will become important later.

Tangent: Trees don't always represent the Christian concept of sin; but since "A Good Man is Hard to Find" includes an explicitly theological discussion between The Misfit and the grandmother, and because O'Connor regularly writes about spiritual matters, we can also see the monkey chained to the tree as a metaphor for how both the grandmother and The Misfit see Jesus; they focus on suffering, rather than the promise of resurrection that gives meaning to that suffering.

Mechanics: The occasional proofreading miss steak is forgivable on a rough draft, but if the errors affect my ability to follow your argument, I will note it. Check the MLA style section of your composition handbook for how to cite poetry (by line number), prose and most drama (by page number) and Shakespeare's drama (by act and scene).  Do you know when to underline the title of a work, and when to put it in quotation marks? Do you now when to use 'single' and when to use "double" quotation marks? Do you know when to indent a quotation and when to make it a normal part of the paragraph? (The writing center, a reference librarian, or I can help, too.)
Ideas: Have you made a non-obvious claim? Are you trying to "prove" that water is wet, or that it's wrong to oppress women? Are you making an unsupportable claim, such as arguing that one particular play is Shakespeare's "best" (without actually taking time to compare it to every other play Shaksepare has written)? Are you referring vaguely to what "some people might say" or what "this symbol could mean" instead of keeping your focus specifically on your own textually-supported close reading of your chosen work? Are you defending an observation simply by saying that you "feel strongly" that it means such-and-such?
Your paper may have strengths in areas I haven't mentioned above. I may also suggest ways to improve it in areas that aren't listed above. But not the complete absence of "whether your claim matches up with The Big Book of Correct Answers. If you make a reasonable case that the text supports your interpretation, you're doing what I've asked you to do.  (I will certainly draw your attention to ways that you might improve your argument, and I might do that indirectly, by asking questions designed to help you see weaknesses in your argument. Your job will be to decide whether you can patch up your argument by handling my individual questions, or whether you need to rethink your approach to cut off a whole class of objections in advance.)


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Stephanie Wytovich said:

Dr. Jerz, do you just mean that the redo of the assignment is due on friday, or is this a completely different assignment that we are starting?

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