Close Reading: Introduction to a College English Skill

I’ve been meaning to create a screencast like this for a long time. Teaching an online lit course is great motivation for churning out these things.

1. What is Literary Close Reading? (0:30)
Why a literary close reading doesn’t mean “anything goes” (1:00)

2. Why Do We Read Closely? (1:35)

3. Let’s Read a Text Closely — intro to Phyllis Wheatley (4:25)
3a. Read her poem aloud, walk through it phrase by phrase (5:48)
3b. Looking up some unfamiliar words (8:12) (This is where most of the literary close reading happens in the lecture.)
3c. Assessing the credibility of the edition we’re studying (17:48)
3d. Consulting the Poetry Foundation edition (18:26)
3e. Exploring the complex, controversial relationship between race and religion (19:20)

4. Close Reading is a thing to do (not correct answers to memorize) (22:25)
4a. Close Reading vs. Emotional Engagement (25:52)
4b. Close Reading vs. Summarizing the Content (27:47)
4c. Close Reading vs. Character Analysis (30:17)
4d. Close Reading vs. Author Biography (33:41)
4e. Close Reading vs. Creative Speculation (36:50)

These are all legitimate ways to respond to texts, but they can distract you from doing an evidence-supported literary analysis — (37:50)

5. Conclusion — what it all means (39:04) (You might not get it right the first time. Growth comes with practice.)

See also: Responding to Literature at the College Level

Your high school teachers probably praised you for summarizing what you read and perhaps relating it to your own life in an engaging way. But your college professors will likely ask you to do a very different kind of work.

On a high school sports team, you earn points by playing according to high school rules, and in a high school class, your writing earns points for meeting high school standards. In sports and writing, the rules change from high school to college.

When I ask my students to give advice to future students, the most common responses include the importance of time management, not being afraid to ask for help, and recognizing that the writing strategies that got them through high school (relying on summary, personal opinion, and flowery filler to churn out the minimum required words the night before it’s due) will not cut it in college.