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.

See also:  [ Argument | Titles | Thesis  | Blueprint | Quoting | Citing | MLA Format ]

You might be very comfortable with a style of learning in which you are exposed to the “correct answers” and you’re rewarded for recalling them accurately.

As it often was in high school, sometimes your college writing task will be to spit back facts in some coherent order. But one important goal of a college education — especially at a liberal arts institution — is to go beyond absorbing and regurgitating details that other people tell you are important.

While biologists agree on the single “correct” way to describe the process of cell division, and special education teachers do need to know the best practices for constructing an IEP, there is no single “correct” way to make sense of the tension between religious faith and modernist cynicism in a Flannery O’Connor short story.

A literary work that’s worth studying is open to many valid interpretations; however, an English class is not a free-for-all. If you use the word “novel” to describe a poem, a play, or a short story, that would be an error. A sonnet is one thing, and a limerick is something else. There’s a specific correct way to format inline citations in MLA style.  If you excuse Hamlet’s actions as those of a rash youth, you’re contradicting a speech by the gravedigger who says Hamlet is 30.

While a good literary work invites many interpretations, the most useful interpretations are the ones that are best supported by the text. When a claim is unsupportable, it’s not even a wrong answer, it’s no answer at all — it’s just not worth making.

In a high school English class, you might have been rewarded for

  • summarizing the plot of a literary work (accurately restating what happened, or listing details about the characters or the setting)
  • listing your own personal encounter with the text (“First I wondered… Then I noticed… Finally I realized…”) or describing your emotional reactions (“I could really relate to the part where…” “I lost interest when…”)
  • praising/criticizing the values and actions of the characters and/or the author
  • matching up biographical and historical events in the author’s life with fictional details in the author’s work (as in, “the hard-to-please boss could represent the author’s demanding father”)
  • reflecting on imagining your own updated/expanded versions of or reactions to the work you read (“How would this story have been different if it took place today?” “What happened next, after the story ended?”)

All these are perfectly appropriate assignments for a high school English class. Your high school teachers didn’t do anything wrong by teaching you what you needed to know to succeed in high school.

Your college professors will expect that you can already absorb and repeat facts. They’re more interested in your ability to make original connections between ideas that you encounter in diverse contexts — including ideas you encounter outside of your major.

At the college level, you will of course sometimes need to memorize the right answers; however, you’ll also learn that the usefulness of the answers you receive depends on the usefulness of the questions you ask.

If there’s already a universally accepted “correct” answer to a question, then that question probably isn’t worth debating in a term paper. (There’s a big difference between remembering someone else’s ideas, and defending your own original ideas. See “Writing that demonstrates thinking ability — Bloom’s Taxonomy.“)

For example, I don’t recommend that anyone start writing a college literature paper by collecting lists of symbols.

Yes, we know the scarlet A that Hester wears and the scarlet dress that Pearl wears are related to the scarlet rose by the prison door and the scarlet wound on Dimmesdale’s heart.

We get it.

That’s a middle-school level analysis task, asking you to remember a list of red things and deduce that the author made them all red because he wanted us to notice they were related.

On a similar note, very few college English professors will be very interested in your paper on why you think the curtains were blue. There’s so much else to discuss in a literature class other than lists of what various symbols “could mean.” English professors don’t go to conferences to deliver talks about about what the color blue symbolizes, any more than your biology professors go to conferences to admire each other’s identical sketches of frog anatomy. If we haven’t already seen the insides of a frog, we can Google it really quick. The same goes for the symbolic uses of colors.

As a college professor, I have the luxury of expecting that all my students have already mastered these kinds of high school English assignments.

What do I want my students to do instead?

Literary Close Reading

Literary close reading, as it is practiced in college literature classes, is a skill to do, not a bunch of facts to memorize or a means of sharing your opinions.

A close reading uses short quotations (a few words or perhaps only one word) inside sentences that make an argument about the work itself (rather than a description of your personal reactions, facts about the author’s life and times, or comments on how things depicted in the literary work are different from or similar to today).

In a close reading, a literary work is not so much a window you look through to describe what’s on the other side, nor is it a mirror that lets you look at yourself. I’m asking you to look at the glass itself. How was it made? How do its sections fit together to fulfill their purpose? How do the imperfections affect our perceptions of what we see when we look at or through the glass?

Close reading is always re-reading.

  1. You will probably want to read your text once through fairly quickly, highlighting unfamiliar words or puzzling details (or marking them with sticky notes, if you’re reading a library book).
  2. Go back and look more carefully at the places you marked. Did the ending explain some of the things you initially found puzzling? Do you see any recurring patterns?
  3. Once you have a sense of what you think is important, go through the text again, this time searching specifically for more of whatever caught your eye.
  4. Once you have identified the details that you find interesting, you should come up with a thesis — a non-obvious claim, supported with direct quotations from the material you are studying. (It is not enough merely to write down a list of isolated observations, in the order they popped into your head.)

When you write a close reading, you should assume that your reader is not only familiar with the text you are examining, but has a copy of it within reach. (Some professors might be okay with you typing a quote you plan to examine at the top of your paper, but if you’ve been given a word count to meet, repeating a long passage will look like filler.)

A close reading does not retell the plot. Neither should a close reading profile the characters, give advice to the author, speculate on which people in the author’s life inspired the literary characters, list reactions that popped into your head while you were reading, or describe how the society depicted in the story resembles or differs from your own society.

A close reading does not use a literary work as a handy example to support general claims about the outside world.

  • Nobody needs to look at a poem to prove a claim like “racism is bad” or “grief is painful.”
  • You aren’t really looking at what makes a literary work worth reading and re-reading if you’re using quotes from the literary work to prove a general claim about the outside world, such as “Women have come a long way since then but they still have a long way to go.”
  • You could support that general claim about the status of women by quoting almost any literary work with female characters in it, or news articles, court records, diaries, etc. It’s like making a claim in science that heat makes things expand, or in sports that the team with the most points wins the game.

In a literature class, you’re supposed to be making an argument about a work of literature, not using quotes from a literary work to prove a point about real women, or the economic plight of the working class, or how someone in the profession you’re training for would address the protagonist’s problems.

The author chose to represent what happened to a fictional character who did NOT get the kind of cutting-edge professional help your psych textbook describes; we can’t quote from a version of Death of a Salesman where Willy Loman visits a therapist, or a version of “Daddy” where the suicidal poet Sylvia Plath calls a mental health hotline.

So, what does a literary close reading do?

A literary close reading might look closely at a monologue or brief exchange of lines (such as Hamlet’s encounter with his father’s ghost) in order to analyze the explicit plot points and the subtle foreshadowing contained in that scene. It might examine the representation of concentric rings of social power in the opening of “Bernice Bobs Her Hair,” or it might make a specific claim about how and why the author uses references to other books.

What words did the author choose, what do they mean, and what function do they serve? In what ways are word order and grammatical structure significant? (One character might speak only a few words at a time, but grunt a lot; another may ramble.)


The imagery in this passage helps turn the tone of the poem from victimization to anger. In addition to fire images, the overall language is completely stripped down to bare ugliness. In previous lines, the sordidness has been intermixed with cheerful euphemisms: the agonizing work is an “exquisite dance” (24); the trembling hands are “white gulls” (22); the cough is “gay” (25). But in these later lines, all aesthetically pleasing terms vanish, leaving “sweet and …blood” (85), “naked… [and] …bony children” (89), and a “skeleton body” (95). (An excerpt from a close reading of Tillie Olsen’s “I Want You Women Up North to Know”

Note the use of the punctuation “…” in the above passage.

The “…” stands for a word or words omitted in the middle of a quote. In MLA style, we don’t use “…” to indicate that we are leaving out words at the beginning or ends of sentences.

Demonstration of a Literary Close Reading

The following video lecture uses a poem as its example, but the process of literary close reading is basically the same for a play script, a short story, a nonfiction essay, a spoken word performance, or any other composition that relies heavily on words.

The video also mentions common pitfalls (listing your personal reactions, summarizing the plot, etc.) that can distract students from doing literary close reading, and how to get around those distractions.

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.)

By Dennis Jerz
13 Dec 2020 — first published
30 Mar 2021 — minor edits