Thursday, January 9, 2014

Close Reading 2.0

Close reading is an example of how misshapen and distorted a teaching technique can become when it enters the gravitational pull of CCSSetc. The specific ways in which it has become misshapen tells us a lot about the shape of CCSS.

Where did close reading come from, anyway?

A search on good old google ngram tells us that the phrase "close reading" has been around since 1800 in some trace amounts, starting to climb post-WWII and steadily growing to a peak around 2000. This is not surprising. Calling a reading technique "close reading" is kind of like announcing your new athletic program, "fast walking."

But close reading as a technique for literary analysis began, according to some sources, in the 1920's under the tutelage of I. A. Richards, a forefather of the New School of criticism. You can google all this and pursue it at greater length. Take away that close reading is old.

It is also...well...vague. Or rather, broadly interpreted by many proponents over the decades. Some critics assert that Richards was taking a Skinnerian view of language, treating it as a behavior. And the path gets tricky because although Richards is sometimes considered important to the New Critics, the New Critics said they rejected much of his work, and then proceeded to pretty much follow it. Add to that the fact that so much of the groundwork was laid in the fertile but often hard-to-translate-into-plain-English soil of academia and high-toned scholarliness, and-- well, for our purposes, let's just note that close reading has been around as a technique for almost 100 years.

How does close reading work?

So what is it? There, too, we find a number of interpretations, and for every one of us who went to college to study Englishy Stuff, it all seems so vaguely familiar. My professors never said, "Okay, we're going to do a close reading of this text. Here's the official list of close reading steps. Follow them." I suspect my experience is not unique.

But on the occasions when I have heard about close reading, I recognized it pretty readily. Look carefully at the writer's language choices-- diction, tone, that good stuff. Know the context of his/her writing. Follow the syntax. In longer works, note the sequencing of words and ideas. Is it narrative or dramatic-- watch for specific choices accordingly.

In short, "close reading" is what many of us think of as  "reading."

In thirty-five years, I've never told my students, "Okay, we're going to do a close reading now." But I direct their attention to how it makes a difference whether Frost writes "to stop without A farmhouse  near" or "to stop without THE farmhouse near." We examine what Longfellow might intend in "Psalm of Life" and how the recent deaths of loved ones might inform that intention. We watch Twain eviscerate Cooper's inexact word choices. We search for allusions in the word choices of William Bradford. We try to pick apart that confounding twentieth chapter of Light in August.

So why is putting close reading with CCSS a big deal?

So when I first heard that close reading was coming to town, a-riding on the CCSS train, I thought, "No big deal. We've been doing that for years." Well, yes and no.

Close Reading 2.0 is a new animal. As Coleen Bondy learned in her LA close reading training, the new, improved, CCSS-ready version has some significant differences from the old-school version we thought we knew.

It's for hard things. In one of many training videos available on youtube, the teacher starts right in by noting that close reading is for hard things. It's kind of an odd assertion. As a teacher of pop culture, my bread and butter has long been giving close readings of ordinary pieces of writing. Twilight may be a work of light fluff, but a close reading of it unpacks how many truly indefensible and odious subtexts are lurking in its gooey pages. But no-- we are hearing repeatedly that we are supposed to use close reading for hard things.

It's for short stuff only. Short poems. Short excerpts. Little things. It's an aspect that I hardly know how to argue with, like a nutritionist who insists that we should only eat red food. I'm pretty sure there is some valuable literature out there that is more than one page long.

It must be read in a vacuum. Of all the cockamamie bits of malpractice that have been attached to reading under CCSS, this is the most cockamamied of all. The examples are legion. Read the Gettysburg Address without knowing anything about the Civil War. Read "A Modest Proposal" without being told anything about Swift or the poor of the time. Read The Sun Also Rises without knowing anything about The Great War (only, of course, don't, because it's a big long novel).

It's an easy game. Any English teacher can rattle off a dozen works that only fully give up their depth and riches if students understand a bit of context. There isn't a real teacher of literature on the planet who thinks this is a good idea. These three restrictions tie the students' hands and force them to do readings that are, contrary to the buzzwords, an inch deep at best. With just a few quick additions, CCSS whizzes have turned Close Reading into Close Reading 2.0, whch is kind of like turning wine into vinegar.

So then why is Close Reading 2.0 here?

Why Close Reading 2.0? Simple. Reading instruction is hereby turned into test prep.

Standardized test excerpts are always short, usually inpenetrably hard (or the kind of dull that passes for difficulty), and always delivered without any context at all, not even the context of the rest of the work from which they've been untimely ripped.

Close Reading 2.0 is proof (piece of evidence #2,098,387) that CCSS was built to feed the testing beast. Close Reading 2.0 is authentic assessment turned on its head. You remember authentic assessment. It was just starting to flourish when NCLB plowed it under over a decade ago. The idea was that if you were trying to teach a particular skill, your assessment should come as close as possible to actually demonstrating that skill.

What we knew back then was that if you wanted to teach reading and interpreting a full, complex work of literature, you couldn't assess that skill with a bubble test. Now, instead, our Educational Overlords say that since the assessment is going to be a machine-scorable standardized test, then that's the skill we must teach. And so instead of actual reading, we are now pushed to teach standardized test reading, and to make it look like legitimate, we'll give it the name of an old and honorable practice.

Close reading? You reformers keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Close Reading 2.0 is crap. Specifically, it is the kind of crap that only people who know nothing about reading or teaching could come up with. It is one more application of the idea that if we are only able to count X, then X must be all that counts. It is teaching redesigned to fit the test. It is educational malpractice. For English teachers, it is one line that we refuse to cross.


  1. Great stuff…poor old Brooks and Warren would be turning in their graves...

  2. I really enjoyed this for all the obvious reasons, and I am glad you write this column most of all.