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TERRI’S TIPS FOR CLOSE READING (Especially for "hard" theory pieces) - Terri Senft

Terri Senft
Date: 2011-03-31 12:03
Subject: TERRI’S TIPS FOR CLOSE READING (Especially for "hard" theory pieces)
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What is a close reading?

Close reading is a method for

• comprehending
• analyzing and
• appreciating the context of a given piece of writing

As a written document, a close reading looks like an “amped up” version of personal reading notes, designed to help you gain the best understanding of the text you can. In general, close readings are meant for personal use only. If you desired to make your notes more formal (say, for teaching purposes) you would call them Reading Notes.

By the end of a close reading, you should be able to:

• Understand by whom and for whom the text was written
• Understand when the text was written (with an eye toward politics)
• Re-state the text in your own words
• Provide examples for theories
• Map the structure of the piece
• Understand key vocabulary and catch phrases
• Put the piece in dialogue with other texts

What is NOT included in a close reading?

A close reading is not a summary (that’s a précis); nor is it a series of bullet pointed sentences (that’s an outline.)

Steps for doing a close reading

1. Consider the context. Teachers put writers on a syllabus for one reason: to help you think about the class. So what IS the focus of the class for which you are reading this writer? What is the focus of the WEEK for which this writer has been assigned?

2. Read the text out loud. No, really. Try for two or three sentences at a time at first, and work up to whole paragraphs later. Listen for words you don't know how to pronounce, because there's a strong chance you don't know what they mean, either. Circle them to look up in a minute. As you read aloud, think to yourself, "Are these the words I would use to make this point to a friend?" If the answer is "no" (and it generally is), then

3. Re-phrase what you just read in your own words. Ideally, type these words into your word processor for later use as your reading notes. Remember those words you couldn't say? Look them up (I generally use dictionary.com because I'm almost always online.) Translate EVERY sentence in the piece into your own language for at least the first few pages.

4. Provide examples for everything. As a critical reader, the two strongest words you have at your disposal are: FOR INSTANCE. If you can provide an example for every major point the essay is trying to make, you will have understood the essay. A bonus is that many times, examples COMPLICATE an author's argument, which will give you great material to bring in class or in a paper.

5. Recognize and defend yourself against front-loaded essays. It is common for editors of journals to demand that writers "front load" their essays, compacting all the findings and deep thoughts into three or four beginning paragraphs that get unpacked later in the body of the essay. This is done for the speed of advanced researchers, not the ease of beginning students. If you find yourself saying WHAAAAT? over and over again, don't panic. You are probably reading a front-loaded essay. Instead, gloss (for now) the dense paragraphs and go right to the first heading in the essay. That's the beginning of explanation. Read that through to the end and then the beginning may make much more sense.

6. Think about structure. Theorists make their living with language, and to understand theory, you need to understand that it is as carefully crafted as literature. To this end, note how the piece is structured, and organize your own notes that way. The easiest way to do this is to write down all the headings and sub-headings in an essay, leaving lots of space in between. Then, as you organize your notes, you will be following the author’s structural logic.

7. Think about language, and make a list of KEY WORDS. Are there any new words or phrases the writer comes up with? These matter, because they signal new thoughts that couldn't be put in old words. Are there any phrases or words that come up over and over? This repetition is a way of trying to hammer home a point. Compile definitions for KEY WORDS used by the author, which is a fancy way of saying vocabularly list. What about the examples the writer uses? How do they differ from the ones you came up with? Make a note of that, too, and you'll be working on a potential paper topic while you read, killing two birds with one stone.

8.Think about argument, and make a list of BULLET POINTS. It's sometimes hard to find it, but even the most "creative" theorist is expected to make an argument. To tease the elements of that argument out difficult prose, ask yourself, "If I had to summarize this entire essay in five bullet points, what would they be?" Somewhere in those bullet points reside both the main and the secondary arguments of the piece. I will write more about this later because it is actually one of the hardest part of reading theory, I think.

9. Think about tone. Think about the voice of the writer in this piece. Is it funny, sad, austere? Does the author talk about him/herself, or is the whole thing delivered in the third person? If you had to cast this writer as a character in a movie, how would you dress him/her? Where would s/he live, who would be in his/her audience?

That's all the advice I have for close reading. The next advice isn't technically about close reading, but can be INVALUABLE for people reading theory. You need to know that it is possible for you to read someone's work, put it into your own words, analyze the language for rhetorical effect, and STILL not quite get what the writer is saying, simply because you lack the background and historical knowledge necessary to "get" the essay in question. Like everyone else, theorists have their own soap operas, and sometimes you need to know who is delivering an insult to whom or nothing makes sense. Besides, all gossip is fun, even gossip about people who have been dead a zillion years, which is why I recommend:

10. Do some cursory research on the author. Go to Google or Wikipedia and take a general look around. In about fifteen minutes, you should be able to answer these questions: Who is this person you are reading, and what was life like in the time they wrote the text in front of you? What is their discipline (anthropology, sociology, etc. etc.)? Who were they mad at in the academic world? Who was mad at them? Did they have any love affairs or duels or suicide attempts worth noting? Also: Were they affiliated with a trend or a school of thought? Can you summarize that school of thought in a few sentences? If not, look up the school of thought and read a bit about that.

11. If you are assigned multiple pieces in a week, put the piece you are reading in some sort of dialogue with other pieces assigned for the week. Because a juicy subject always has multiple viewpoints, your professor has probably assigned more than one writer for the week. How does the piece you are reading "fit" with the other pieces assigned for the week? Why do you think the professor put them together the way she did? Again, Google can sometimes help with this. Try typing two or three of the authors assigned for a week into Google and see what comes up.


12. Stop consuming, start thinking. A good theory class should function through a dialectic, with students turning ideas over and over again, rather than absorbing The Truth from on high. This is why teachers think less highly of students who give "loved it" or "hated it" responses to readings than they do those who take a generative stance, asking "What can we learn from this reading?" even if that learning is not at all pleasant, agreeable or even morally defensible in your view. One way to ask "what can we learn" is to hold the theory up to your mirror of the world to see what reflections and refractions emerge. From there, you may feel the need to either reconsider what you call reality, or alter the theory at hand, or a bit of both. Either way, you are thinking rather than buying, and that's what makes school different from the mall, even when the topic is cultural studies.

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Gang of Centaurs
User: rockstarbob
Date: 2011-03-31 23:04 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
You are some kind of genius.

Can I share this with my students, with credit?
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Terri Senft
User: tsenft
Date: 2011-04-01 05:52 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Loving you :)
And PLEASE do! That's why I put it up here!
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User: contrary_wise
Date: 2011-04-01 15:29 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Where were you when I started grad school over a decade ago? I'm not sure I read this carefully and systematically even now, months from finishing my dissertation. But it's not too late to start, right?

And if I do end up teaching, I'm sharing this with my students, appropriately credited, of course.
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April 2011