CLOSE READING: THE PROBLEM OF THE LONG TEXT

In my Department, we use a pedagogy based on close reading combined with contextual comment to teach Literature, as happens in all English Departments in the world influenced by Anglo-American styles of teaching Literature. Yet, I’m growing anxious this academic year about the limits of this methodology and how it actually works in our context, both for teachers and students.

Close reading, let’s recall, is a teaching methodology based on exploring the actual texts by paying minute attention to detail; ideally, it should lead to interactive classroom discussion between teacher and students. This formalistic approach was developed in the USA in the early 20th century to replace an older European philology-oriented methodology, in which the texts were described without actually reading from any in class. Thus, as an underground student I took a year-long ‘traditional’ course on 18th and 19th century Spanish Literature, consisting exclusively of lectures about approximately twenty set texts. We were expected to read them all but we never carried any books to class, nor discussed them in any way with the teacher. This kind of ‘lección magistral’ aimed at very large classes is the equivalent of the Anglo-American lecture, which is then combined with the seminar, a type of undergrad teaching we don’t have a tradition for in Spain. In most English Studies Departments in Spain we do use, then, the seminar format but applied to large groups, ranging from 20 students in the elective courses to 90 in some compulsory core courses. Yes, absurd!

Since we have not really managed to convince students to read the books in advance and contribute their own passages for comment, I believe that what we do in class fails on both counts: it is never as informative as a lecture, nor as effective as seminar in-depth analysis. My own classes have become a very strange product: I read a passage, comment on it and students make notes of what I say, as in a lecture, instead of contributing their own comments. Only a handful talk with me, which does not necessarily mean that they have read the text, they may just elaborating on the specific passage. The bigger the class, the less productive close reading is, even though common sense suggests that class discussion should be livelier with many participants. I need to add that I’m no longer sure about how close reading must combine with introductory lecturing, as it seems a waste of classroom time to transmit what can be easily found on the internet, especially when this is what we use for our own introductions. I won’t even mention the nightmare of producing a nice-looking PowerPoint in as few hours as possible…

I realize that I have never discussed with any of my colleagues how a text is prepared for class; actually, I have never been trained as a teacher on that central aspect of my profession. So what do we actually do?

Basically, I do as I did as a student: read the text once to get an overall impression, then again pencil in hand to locate what I call the ‘hot spots’. During this second reading, I make very brief notes of the plot in each chapter, which is an extremely tedious business. I hate it so much that often I can’t decipher my own handwriting. Then, whether this is legitimate or not I don’t care, I borrow another summary (from Wikipedia, or study aids such as Gradesaver), and produce–only for my eyes–a kind of composite creature, merging my plot notes with these other notes as briefly as I can manage. Next, I add to the summary thus produced the page number of the main passages from the ‘hot spots’ and, obviously, I place small pieces of paper marking the most relevant pages in the book. It is very important that the notes I take to class are visually very clear so that I see at one glance the ‘hot spots’ I want to discuss and the quotations. Funnily, although I usually select around ten, I never have time for more than six, yet I never manage to select only those six. Discussion inevitably leads to passages not marked and that are impossible to find in a hurry.

How long does it take to work on a novel using close reading? Well, it’s funny how a novel can be dealt with in a couple of sentences in a wider-ranging lecture–“Anne Brontë’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall denounces that women married to abusive husbands in the 19th century lacked the protection of the law and were reduced to trusting the gentlemanly inclinations of good men”–but ‘covered’ only very partially even in ten sessions of frantic close reading. For, here is something else: what dictates the number of sessions are the needs of the syllabus and not the intensity of the text, which might require a year-long monographic course to really get to its core. Or surface.

On the other hand, perhaps we’re overdoing it. Because of a series of external accidents affecting my program, I have been forced to compress my teaching into fewer sessions. Novels that should have been taught in seven sessions have been reduced to four. Hence, I’ve had to talk ‘about’ the text rather than read from it as extensively as I wanted to do. Strangely, this change is not so negative as I would have assumed because attention to textual detail often results in not having the chance to discuss larger issues in the text, from characters’ narrative arcs to plot architecture. And it’s great to be able to do that.

What is it like for a Literature teacher to prepare a novel for a series of close reading sessions, then? A time-consuming chore. Let’s say, for the sake of argumentation, that a 300-page contemporary novel to be taught in 5 sessions takes 5 hours to read the first time, and 8 the second (pencil in hand, marking text, making notes). Add 3 hours to produce a summary, then, say, 3 more hours to check bibliography (download at least one article and read it, check at least 3 other sources). This is already 18 hours, plus, say 2 hours for the PowerPoint, if you’re lucky, that’s 20 hours for 5 sessions of 75 minutes each, 1.92 hours of preparation for each hour we teach, instead of the official 1.07 in my university. And this, of course, is just a silly figure, for to properly teach any novel, you need to have read many, many others novels, other Literature, and plenty of literary criticism… What I teach every session has taken, in fact, 33 years of my life to prepare, since the day I became an undergrad.

Time-consuming as preparing a novel for class is, I find it increasingly difficult to ‘control’ the text. No matter how often I have taught the text and how hard I have worked on the summary and the passage selection, it is more and more complicated to keep the whole novel ‘fully available’ in my mind.

To strengthen my grip on the text, in a few occasions I have transferred the selected quotations onto a Word document, projected onto the classroom screen. With classics available online this type of document can be produced in a reasonable time, but with new books typing the selected quotations into your computer constitutes a waste of precious (research) time. A possibility is, of course, using both the paper copy and the ebook. Since we’re trying to convince students to buy the set texts, however, I find that projecting a selection of quotations rather than reading from the print book is a self-defeating pedagogy. With quotations from secondary sources things are, I believe, different and I see no problem in just sharing a passage without bringing the whole book to class. But maybe I’m wrong…

These days in particular, I feel that the bottom is dropping out of my own pedagogy, for I am having trouble handling in class the bulky text of Suzanne Collins’ trilogy The Hunger Games. Summarizing in the manner I have described book three, Mockingbird, selecting the passages for discussion and writing the class notes took me about three hours of a very busy morning. This is for a book I have read twice, which means I was already using a copy with pencil markings and comments. After these three hours, however, and seeing that there was no way I could comment on so many aspects of the protagonist’s (gender) characterization in just 75 minutes, I threw it all away (metaphorically speaking) and decided to focus on just the last chapter and the Epilogue, using intensive close reading. And trust that the novel would be sufficiently ‘covered’ in one session (I’m using 7 for the whole trilogy, treating it as a single text, within a one-semester elective course on Gender Studies). In the end, I only had time to read three passages…

Perhaps I should be teaching poetry… Or use less close reading?

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