Close Reading

Interesting passage from today’s Chonicle. From Susan Wise Bauer, visiting instructor of English at the College of William and Mary:

Certainly the meaning of “doing a close reading” has changed over the past eight years or so. When I started teaching, “close reading” always meant verbal analysis: looking at metaphors, similes, sentence rhythms, and structures; pulling apart syntax, musing about the effect of a complex-compound sentence instead of a series of simple sentences. Now, teaching in an English department with ties to cultural and American studies, I find that “doing a close reading” in this sense is almost impossible. Students (and faculty members) doing close readings are much more likely to construct interpretations that deal with historical issues, popular-culture influences, relationships between writers and readers, and contemporary political currents.

My sense is that we’re at the very beginning of this shift, because so many resources for students still talk about close readings as having to do with examining text. But in my experience, close reading, more and more, means examination of cultural references alone. Close readings (those dealing with words) now seem to fall under a much more specialized branch of study, having to do with rhetoric or some kind of linguistic analysis: a more scientific and less “humanities”-focused type of study.

Bauer might actually be understating her point. She talks about this change occurring over the “past eight years or so,” which happens to correspond exactly to my years in graduate English programs. While graduate seminars continue to involve traditional close readings (more or less), the emphasis in undergraduate teaching is most definitely placed upon cultural analysis and something resembling reader response. How did you (the reader) respond to what you read? Why did you respond the way you did? How have you been conditioned (by, for lack of a better word, “culture”) to respond in that way? This teaching method makes for fun (relatively speaking) discussions, but I would question its effectiveness in producing better readers.

Next, I hope Bauer writes about “scanning a poem.” Talk about a lost art. (And this is coming from an ABD in English who is woefully ill-equipped to scan poetry.)