I think it’s important for students to learn to read closely, to notice word choice and tone, the ways words interact with each other to create images and other literary effects. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked in class, “What’s the general feeling of this passage?” and everybody says, quite accurately, “Sad!” or “Joy!” or “Skeptical!”
Then I say, “And where does that feeling come from? What words create it?”
. . . . .
. . . . .
Even the crickets are silent.
So I teach them to figure this out. Over the years, my instructions got longer and more detailed, as I tried to include all the advice that various people had found useful, until the instructions were as long as the paper I was asking for. (2 pages, that’s all.) Clearly that is overwhelming.
Here’s how I’ve cut back, this year. Instead of explaining the process in detail, I’ve short-circuited it by doing some of the work for them, in a first close-reading assignment. I pick the words and phrases I think should get attention, and ask the students just to do the analysis of how they work. In a second assignment, I will underline just one set of words, and ask students to find two more sets that go together. Here’s what the first assignment looks like:
Virgine, that art so noble of apparaile,
And ledest us into the hye tour
Of Paradys, thou me wisse and counsaile
How I may have thy grace and thy sucour,
Al have I been in filthe and in errour.
Lady, unto that court thou me ajourne,
That cleped is thy bench, o fresshe flour,
Ther as that mercy evere shal sojourne.
Read these lines several times, carefully. Notice that some words are underlined, some are italicized, and some are in bold. Some words belong to more than one group.
Write a one-to-two page essay (250-500 words), with a clear thesis statement and examples from the text, explaining the importance of these groups of words in this passage. Use the following questions to help you organize your paper:
What does each group of words have in common? What images do they invoke? Which words are concrete? Which words are abstract? Look up all the words in one group (your choice) in the MED or OED: what languages do they come from, and at what period? (In other words, are they learned French or Latin additions to English, new in Chaucer’s time, or are they older words that come from the native English word stock?) What do the word choices contribute to the tone of the passage? How do these lines fit into the surrounding context of the poem?
In this example (not one I actually used this time), the words I have selected as important have courtly, religious, or legal connotations; some of them overlap in significance. It’s up to the students to figure out these connotations and how they interact, and to devise an argument, and to support it adequately. Instead of telling them how to find the most meaningful words, I’ve done that for them, so they can get on with the writing, rather than taking so much time in the planning.
Later, there will be in-class group work focusing on the planning stages (what words do you think are really important? are there synonyms or other thematically related words in this passage? etc.). By the end of the semester, I hope they’ll be able to take a passage, find the words that create that sense of sadness, joy, skepticism or whatever, and write an essay about it, with minimal prompting. But we’re working up to that very slowly.
Results on the first paper varied. Some just answered questions, without giving a thesis statement. That was a problem for their grades, but even working through the questions teaches you something about this skill. The best students found this assignment fairly constraining, so to anyone who came to office hours to complain, I explained my reasoning and assured them that they would face fewer constraints as the semester wears on. I’ll continue to tinker with this, as one does, but in general I’m happy with results. Given the parameters of the assignment, no essay was breathtakingly brilliant, but most were competent.
So if you’d care to adapt this approach for your own use, feel free!