Stop Close Reading

Students almost universally hate close reading, and they rarely wind up understanding it anyway. Forced to pick out meaning in passages they don’t fully grasp to begin with, they begin to get the idea that English class is about simply making things up (Ah yes–the tree mentioned once on page 89 and then never again stands for weakness and loss!) and constructing increasingly circuitous arguments by way of support. (It’s because it’s an elm, and when you think elm, you think Dutch elm disease, and elms are dying out–sort of like their relationship, see?)

So what would happen if we ditched this sacred teaching technique? —Heather Horn, The Atlantic

Legitimate close readings are supported by the text, not by whatever pops into the reader’s head, so the example Horn gives is hardly a fair example of the technique she intends to critique. The discussion generated by this essay is also interesting… click through and see whether you agree with the person who called me both pedantic and ignorant in the same comment.

3 thoughts on “Stop Close Reading

  1. Your first post was hilarious. In the good way, of course.
    There is a certain anti-intellectual thread running through that discussion, where a critique of overanalysis threatens to become a critique of any analysis, and there is a emphasis on, well, experiencing reading rather than thinking about it. I can’t say I think that is enough; at the college level, at least, it is not enough to just experience reading. That is assumed; the next step is to start thinking about that experience, to start questioning it, and to return to the text to improve understanding – to learn hermeneutics, in other words. And hermeneutics do not in of themselves prevent anyone from enjoying a book, though if they are presented as the only way to read – or if they are used and demonstrated poorly – then I can see how they could become frustrating.

  2. I strongly disagree with Horn’s argument, and do not think that encouraging students to read more should take priority over teaching them to read well. Isn’t the value in reading to be had in the close attention to wording, the expansion of the imagination, and the enhancement of one’s ability to gather meaning where it isn’t explicitly stated?
    My full response to her article is here:

  3. Extremely interesting, and I see that you pushed some buttons that brought out some defensive modes. Likely from teachers who don’t want to push their students anywhere except out the door at the end of the semester/school year.
    What bothers me most about this post is not just about close reading–which I am a firm advocate of doing with every book read (and students can be informed that it comes natural after a while, just as recognizing letters and words)–but the fact that when students as a whole are failing to achieve, according to someone’s statistics, then the answer lately seems to be “the work’s too hard.” Over the years I’ve seen D level work pass as Cs, and average standards of understanding and accomplishment lowered to bring about higher grades. It really shows up not just in a classroom, but at the register at Walmart’s, the engineering of a jet’s turbine, well, you see where I’m going.

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