Sunday, September 07, 2014


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?


Comradde PhysioProffe said...

Could you post this essay? Because I haven't the faintest fucken clue what the fucke a close reading essay is.

Anonymous said...

My history classes read primary source documents. So this semester I have started doing in-class reads of some of the documents. They really seem to like it.

Sapience said...

Doing one of our own assignments was the first assignment we did in the pedagogy class I took when I started grad school. We then had to write a 10 page paper explaining what we had learned from doing our own assignment. What I wanted to write in that second paper, but didn't, was that I was making my students do writing that was way more fun than what I had to do in my pedagogy class.

More seriously, I regularly give my students my own writing as models. I wrote a blog post as an example when we were doing those, and I gave my honors students one of my articles as a model for how to engage both theory and a less-well-known bit of popular culture in order to make an argument. The really nice thing about using my own writing as an example as I can talk in a lot of detail about the evolution of ideas, and how writing as a process works, etc.

Flavia said...


Basically, with a poem, it means making an argument about the text that combines content (what the poem says) with form (the way the poetry says it--via meter, rhyme, word choice, aural effects, etc.).

If you're really dying to see it, happy to email it to you, but I don't want to post it on the open Interwebz lest it wind up on a free essay site somewhere!


Do you mean that you're having them do in-class what you used to have them do at home? Or something else?

Flavia said...


Yes, I've done that before; in my advanced or M.A. classes I sometimes give students my own published work; more often, I've circulated, with students of all levels, copies of my own ferociously marked-up drafts of works-in-progress so they can see how writers revise (and that I'm not being any harder on their work than I am on my own!).

But with short written assignments, I should probably, more often, do exactly the kind of work I'm asking of them.

Anonymous said...

Yes -- since it's early in the semester I am working on their fluency in reading primary documents. I also assign document stuff as homework but I'm trying to maximize our class time. So I have started doing this and they seem to benefit from it.

Anonymous said...

I do explicit models for certain types of class presentations (which I hate doing but are really very useful to the students), and in the advanced courses I do talk explicitly about the work that I'm doing, how I revise my own writing, etc., though I haven't yet given students any of my own papers to read through. I also give explicit models for crafting discussion questions (in courses where students are expected to lead 1 or 2 class sessions).

sophylou said...

I'd actually kind of like to see this too -- I'm a historian, wrote my dissertation on antebellum poets, and did some close readings I guess, but never really had training in it (in college the "English" classes I liked best were in the history/American Studies dept, so, much more historicist.

PhysioProffe said...

Yes, please e-mail it to me:

I've never liked reading poetry, but this "close-reading" shittio sounds like maybe it'll be fun, like a puzzle.

What Now? said...

Flavia, how do you handle the ubiquity of online sites doing close readings (good or not) of so many poems? I reluctantly stopped assigning straight-up close reading assignments because I was apparently practically inviting students to plagiarize. Even when they didn't copy, they had clearly consulted online sources and patched together a reading based on other people's ideas.

Flavia said...


Sorry for the delay! I'm on it. And yes, that's what I like about it: it's only 14 lines, and let's see what we can squeeze out of it.


Maybe I'm naive, but I've felt that for most my classes this is actually rather hard to plagiarize while meeting the specific parameters of my assignment. This may be less true with lyric poems, especially the heavily taught ones, but in Shakespeare, for example, I have them choose part of a speech (and we're not usually doing the big plays at this point, and they often choose pretty random passages). I also think that the things we focus on and the terms I have them use aren't much found in the stuff I've seen online.

But as I say, maybe I'm just naive!