Close reading; or, my teaching timeline

On the module of my PGCHE focused on classroom practice, one of the first activities we were invited to participate in was to draw up a ‘teaching timeline’.  We had to cast our minds back as far as we could remember, and map a chronology of our experiences of being taught, highlighting particular memorable moments, periods, or teachers.  It was a great activity, which I would recommend to anyone.  The first response it provoked in me, besides nostalgia, was immense gratitude.  My feeling is that I’ve been particularly lucky to have encountered so many great teachers, of so many different kinds.  (The first learning experience I remember in any detail is Mrs Reed, a semi-retired and quite elderly woman – or so she seemed at the time! – coming into one of my classes in perhaps my second year at primary school and teaching us some of the basics of grammar.  Those lessons have never left me.)

The main thing that I soon came to recognise, though, was the primary importance within what I might somewhat loftily call my ‘intellectual formation’ of one method of inquiry: close reading.

The apex of my experience of this method during my days of being taught was my two years studying A-level English literature at Ridge Danyers College (now Cheadle and Marple Sixth Form College), principally by two truly great teachers: Julia Wilde and Tony Cassidy.  We spent two years studying only a handful of texts: A Streetcar Named Desire, The Color Purple, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Bell Jar, Othello, The Tempest, and some Ted Hughes poetry (there may have been one or two others, but I don’t think there were).  That works out at just over one text per term (although in practice there were overlaps – meaning, in fact, that we spent longer than a term on each text!).  We were not given lectures, and I don’t remember much in the way of secondary critical literature (a point I shall return to later), though I do remember being chastised in the feedback to one of my essays for parroting a reading that I had found in a ‘Critical Guide to…’.  What we did, for two and a half hours, twice a week, was sit in a circle with the teacher, read passages of the set texts together line by line, and talk about what they meant.  It was amazing, and I still (that is to say in part, after a subsequent first degree in film and literature) count Cuckoo’s Nest, The Bell Jar, Othello and The Tempest as amongst the texts I know best of all, and admire the most (these two things of course being closely related).

University study (in my experience of the courses I’ve been on or looked into), and not just that of literature, tends to be very different from this.  For an undergraduate, a more typical pace is to have one set text per week of term.  Often, there will only be two hours of contact time per text, and one of those hours will be a lecture.  And that is per module; depending on the institution, a student may be juggling between four and six modules per week.

Another key difference that I found (in my particular but I believe quite widely-applicable experience) between studying humanities at A-level and at undergraduate level was that in the case of the latter there was a much greater emphasis upon engaging, both in the classroom and in one’s essays, with existing academic material on the topics and/or texts one was studying.  Again, this is a point I shall return to towards the end, after offering some thoughts on the issue of speed and depth.

The virtues of taking a ‘deep and narrow’ approach

I have offered above a general sketch of the way university teaching will often be conducted: one text per week, one lecture, one seminar.  However, there are of course plenty of exceptions to this general trend, and plenty of eloquent and prestigious voices in favour of close reading.  I’m not going to talk here about contemporary voices in educational theory that argue (correctly) that the pursuit of coverage is often at the expense of the cultivation of the skills that would allow students to stand back from the rapid-fire tour of modular copses the better to see the woods of the discipline.  (This is one of the arguments of those who advocate ‘threshold concepts’ – the topic of a future blog, perhaps.)  I am also consciously eschewing the ‘contemporary information overload’ argument (which re-emerges every time a new communications technology is disseminated, and is at least as old as the invention of writing).  I find Nicholas Carr’s article ‘Is Google Making Us Stupid?’ interesting and provocative, but that line of argument is not the one I am pursuing here.  I take it that we live, as we always have, in a world where there is more information available than any one person can hope to become acquainted with, but that we also live, as we always have, in a world where there are a range of ways of responding to this fact.

In a previous blog entry I quoted a short passage from a great interview given by communications scholar John Durham Peters.  Here is Peters again, in the same interview, advocating reading in depth as a vital accompaniment to attempts to achieve breadth of coverage:

Truth is robust.  Though there is too much to read, many minds will light on common truths.  So instead of angsting about how to encompass it all, find an angle and start digging and you will soon discover roots and branches that connect you with other perspectives.  Dig into Weber far enough, and you’ll be able to figure out Marx and Durkheim.  This is the wormhole principle: the key thing is to figure out how to access the network.  So instead of dictating a canon of specific titles, I would encourage people to find their scripture, their text that can help interpret the world for them, and then read and reread it.

The main source of reflections upon this topic that I have been reading lately though, the one that prompted me to write this entry in the first place, is the introduction to Robert B Ray’s book The ABCs of Classic Hollywood Cinema (Oxford University Press, 2008).  One thing that Ray cites there as a way of introducing his own method is an interview with Carlo Ginzburg, an historian whose work I admire enormously.  Ginzburg is talking about the thing in his teaching timeline that led him down the professional path he chose:

I didn’t even consider history because I found it so boring.  What changed my mind was a seminar in which [I] was asked to spend an entire week analyzing only ten lines of a book written by a leading 19th-century historian.

It was the slowness that fascinated me.  Every phrase, every word had to be dissected for their possible implications.  I came to understand that texts can have hidden, invisible meanings.  It was not an easy lesson.  In my speech, my writing, my judgments about people, I tend to be very quick.  I learned the importance of reading and rereading one page, even a single passage, for days, weeks. (Qtd. in Ray, xviii)

Ray’s book itself abides strongly by the ethos of close reading.  Not only this: it arises from Ray’s experience of teaching film to undergraduates not by presenting them with a new film each week, but instead by spending fourteen weeks studying four movies (he describes his book, brilliantly, as ‘a kind of lab report concerning what can still be done with four famous movies and a few basic critical texts’ [xxv]).  His experience of this teaching was that, ‘[f]ar from wearing out the films under investigation, the intense scrutiny enhanced both my own and my students’ interest in them’ (xviii-xix), and that his students ‘produced the most consistently interesting work I have seen in my 25 years of teaching’ (xxv).  (I have, happily, experienced some measure of this closeness in my own university film education.  The University of Warwick’s Department of Film and Television Studies, as a rule, screens each module film twice to its students, and expects them to attend both screenings.  I found this to be a great discipline to cultivate, and looking back, I also see that it greatly enhanced the quality of discussion that occurred in the seminar room.  V F Perkins in particular would often spread the study of a single film across multiple weeks in his teaching.  One of my fellow Warwick alumni has since moved on to the University of Bristol, and has told me that there is a final year undergraduate module there on which students spend several weeks studying a single film from a range of perspectives.  I am sure this list could be extended further.)

The (secondary?) place of ‘secondary’ literature

I agree with Peters that it is not worth having a passing acquaintance with a huge number of texts if one does not also possess intimate knowledge of at least a handful of favourites; indeed, that a lack of experience in close reading of some texts will condemn one to a superficial grasp of all texts.

I mentioned that as well as not being diluted by greater coverage of a larger corpus of literature, my primary focus upon a small number of texts during my A-level literary study also largely eschewed any engagement with secondary literature on those texts, or on literature more broadly.  Looking back, do I believe that my engagements with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or The Tempest would have been deepened with the help of other critical voices, or that being taught, at that stage, how to stage a dialogue with existing sources would have made for sounder ‘training’ for the further studies in the humanities that I was about to embark upon?

I would answer each of those questions with a confident ‘no’.  I should immediately add that I believe that engaging with other voices, among them existing academic literature, some of which sometimes goes under the name of ‘theory’, is a fundamental element of study from the undergraduate level onwards.

There was a stage in my university studies where I was a close reading ‘purist’.  What I mean is that I, semi-unconsciously, measured the closeness of my reading by the extent to which I excluded references to ‘theory’.  Theory dealt with the abstract; I was dealing with the particular.  (I’m caricaturing slightly for the sake of clarity: my work was never ‘theory’-free; it was only during particular passages and for particular purposes that I would eschew secondary material.  I still believe there are occasions where this is justified.)  However, I do not see things this way any more.  I still think that ‘theory’, when used badly, can lead to what Kristin Thompson (I think) called ‘cookie-cutter’ criticism: every text that the theory comes into contact with comes out looking the same.  But not all theoretical writing offers its readers a reductive procedure for pigeonholing texts and their components, reducing them to deathly sameness.  As Terry Eagleton puts it in After Theory (Penguin, 2004),

At their most useful, critical concepts are what allow us access to works of art, not what block them off from us.  They are ways of getting a handle on them.  Some of them may be more effective handles than others, but that distinction does not map on to the difference between theory and non-theory.  A critical concept, even a useless or obfuscatory one, is not a screen which slams down between ourselves and the work of art.  It is a way of trying to do things with it, some of which work and some of which do not.  At its best, it picks out certain features of the work so that we can situate it within a significant context.  And different concepts will disclose different features. (94/5)

I still think that offering alive, detailed, sensuous descriptions of individual texts and the experiences they offer is one of the most important and valuable tasks of work in the humanities, but I now have no residual guilt or qualms about using ‘theoretical’ material to help me achieve that goal.

We are what we read, and as Carr suggests in his article (quoting Maryanne Wolf), we are also how we read.  I would go one further: we are the order in which we read.  I believe there is a big difference between, on the one hand, watching Vertigo and then reading ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, and, on the other, reading ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ and then watching Vertigo.  (The example is hardly random or innocent, but there are plenty of others I could offer, and I invite the reader to think of her or his own.)

I think, though (I recognise the possibility that I could be wrong about this), that without that crucial formative period of closely studying literature, largely untroubled by what others (beyond those others in the room discussing it with me) thought about it, I would not have the same respect for aesthetic texts and their autonomy (and what I am even tempted to call ‘rights’ in the face of hermeneutic endeavours directed at them), nor the same taste for losing myself in details and close analysis, nor the same primary reliance upon my own engagement with the text, as a first step, at least (to briefly invoke once again the ‘second screening’ system at Warwick: another part of its logic was that one would have the opportunity to watch a film once with only one’s own preconceptions, before hearing a lecture about it, and then again afterwards to allow one to measure the evidence of the text against the words of the lecturer, and to do so in light of one’s own initial response).  This is why, although one of the leitmotifs of my life is to find myself saying ‘I wish I’d known that sooner’, and although there have been darker moments in my university life where I have cursed my greenness in the face of certain types of academic cut and thrust, when I look back at my teaching timeline I am glad that the encouragements to adopt particular approaches to my objects of study came at the times and in the order that they did.

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