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A Multimodal Way to Teach Close Reading

This skill building activity is designed for first and second year college students but can be adapted for use with graduate students.

Close reading is not the end of an analysis of literature and culture, but it is a building block to enter into theoretical discourse.

In literary criticism, close reading is the careful, sustained interpretation of a brief passage of a text. A close reading emphasizes the single and the particular over the general, effected by close attention to individual words, the syntax, the order in which the sentences unfold ideas, as well as formal structures.

One of the methods I’ve folded into my pedagogy is making the familiar strange. This is also known as ostranenie or defamiliarization.

Most students, if they aren’t fond of reading, enjoy listening to music most of the day (as evident by ear buds and headphones).

Two songs I’ve used to get them immersed in analysis skill building are:

Aretha Franklin “You Make Me Feel”

Glasvegas “Geraldine”

I owe a debt to Brian Bradford, one of my first professors, for introducing me to a close reading of “You Make Me Feel.” I still remember his boombox tape deck playing the track several times for our class and asking key questions:

“How do we know who Franklin is addressing in her song?

She simply says: you make me feel.”

We have to look for the evidence: who is the speaker referring to? Some common answers for students is: a lover, the self, God, family, a child, a spouse. One particular article of speech they point out in the song is “baby.” I usually say, “yes, good point--this is a colloquialism we usually reserved for a lover, but not always.”

In the song “Geraldine” students meet with a similar analytical dilemma. The lyrics appear to be referring to a romantic relationship as well. With this song the subject is revealed later on, so at this point I pause the song and ask students to reflect--”who is this song about?” As you can hear for yourself, the song is addressed to the lyricist’s social worker, Geraldine. Students usually are surprised, but after the first exercise they are ready for a twist.

When your sparkle evades your soul I'll be at your side to console When your standing on the window ledge I'll talk you back from the edge I will turn your tide Be your Shepard and your guide When your lost in the deep and darkest place around May my words walk you home safe and sound

When you say that I'm no good and you feel like walking I need to make sure you know that's just the Prescription talking When your feet decide to walk you on the wayward side Up upon the stairs and down the downward slide I will, I will turn your tide Do all that I can to heal you inside I'll be the angel on your shoulder My name is Geraldine, I'm your social worker

I see you need me I know you do

Once students do this activity (and of course, leave time for a bit of meandering discussion about meaning and intent) it’s advantageous to jump into a poem or story. I recommend something accessible to symbolic interpretation. A fun one is “Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne with its sociopolitical and religious implications. Then I go to something more contemporary like “Ode to Britney Spears, Ending in a Flood” by Hanif Abdurraqib which requires research, sifting, and conversation. Another rich work is Joy Harjo’s “How to Write a Poem in a Time of War.”

With this lesson we usually move onto a unit in visual rhetoric and media literacy. One semester our culminating experience was an analysis of the 1955 film Rebel Without a Cause. Films are a great way for students to practice close reading of visual rhetorics and literary analysis.

A helpful text to teach close reading of visuals.

A still from the film Rebel Without a Cause

It's worth mentioning, in my courses, all students are immersed in critical theory practice (follow the link to find this resource on my blog).

These choices depend on your time frame for teaching close reading. I find you can spread this skill out over a semester, several classes or create a course unit.

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