I spent my Friday night writing a model close-reading essay for my Milton students. This is the kind of thing I always think about doing, but almost never do--just because it's labor-intensive and annoying and because I spend enough time on class prep as it is.
Since virtually all my classes require some understanding of the terms and techniques of formal poetics, the close-reading essay is one of my staples. In Shakespeare I have my students close-read a speech in verse, and in my other classes I usually have them do a sonnet. Since my own college teachers did a piss-poor job of teaching poetics, I've spent a lot of time thinking about the basic toolkit students need to understand and analyze a poem. And I gotta say: I love doing it. Even after years of assigning some version of this essay, I'm still not tired of it.
But not being tired of it isn't the same thing as saying I've done everything possible to prepare my students for the task.
Sure, we do a lot of close-reading in class, and I try to be explicit about how our work might translate into a thesis or how we might organize all our observations into a coherent argument. And I've revised my assignment sheet a number of times to include a detailed breakdown of the whole process. But as for an actual model. . . eh. A couple of times I retyped one of my own undergraduate essays to share, and often I kicked myself for not having been foresighted enough to ask a student from a previous class whether I had permission to distribute copies of her paper. But I could never fathom finding the time to produce five relatively polished new pages of my own.
But this week I decided it was time. Maybe being on sabbatical last year left me with secret reserves of pedagogical energy, or maybe it's just that I've taught for long enough that the basics of class prep don't suck up as much time as they used to. In any case, I sat down and banged out a four-page close-reading of Sonnet 7 in a little under four hours. (I ask that my students' papers be 4-6 pages--and true to the undergraduate spirit, I decided there was no benefit to my doing more than the minimum.)
And you know what? It was fun. Maybe not the funnest thing I could have done on a Friday night, but it wasn't bad. I don't think it gave me any new insights into the assignment itself or how I might do things differently in the classroom, since I've been tinkering with those things for years. But it did produce one or two new thoughts about a poem I thought I knew upside-down--and there's ultimately no substitute for showing students how a thing is done, even when you believe that your instructions are perfectly aligned with both the process and the end product you desire.
Also? I won't have to do this again for years.
Readers, when have you gotten into the trenches and done an assignment alongside your students? Did it change your teaching or the nature of your assignment?