What is Close Reading?

Berkeley Connect English students explore close reading (and Wheeler Hall!) in last week’s small groups

Last week, Berkeley Connect English focused on an important topic – close reading! I had the chance to sit in on one of the small groups being mentored by graduate student Sarah Mangin as they explored the art of close reading. Here’s a glimpse into the lively and insightful discussion:

The hour began with introductions and food (including delicious mini bacon sandwiches!). But it didn’t take long for the discussion to begin in earnest. “What is close reading?,” Sarah asked her undergraduates after showing them artifacts of her recent reading: a copy of The New Yorker, current bedside novel Wuthering Heights, and a research text for her dissertation – all texts, she noted, that she reads very differently from one another.

“It’s finding the meaning behind everything,” offered one student. Another suggested a layered approach – first examining each paragraph, then each line, then each word. “It’s also about zooming out and finding the context,” another student pointed out. Turns out they’re all right! As Sarah stated, there is no hard-and-fast definition, but she likes to define close reading as “forming observations and inferences, which build into an interpretation.”

To illustrate her point, Sarah had her group close-read something we’re all familiar with: Wheeler Hall! “We’re in it all the time, but we might not always pay close attention,” Sarah said – and with that, the class was set free into Wheeler to do their own close reading. When the students re-grouped, the details they noticed were endless. Several students noted the “Harry Potter bathroom” – an old-fashioned women’s restroom on the third floor. “An abundance of interest and a common interpretation!,” Sarah remarked. Another said that she found Wheeler “a building of character,” while others found Wheeler Hall deceptive. “You never really know which way you’re facing in regards to the rest of campus when you’re inside,” a student said. Mysteries were solved, too, as Sarah and students answered just what is in the center of the circular third floor of Wheeler and why there are lockers (fun fact: they’re for graduate students!).

After each student had shared, Sarah posed another question. “What made you latch onto the details that you did?,” Sarah asked. For one student, it was trying to explain a feeling. “Every building feels different to me, and I looked for what made it different.” For another, it was finding interesting details, rather than just mindlessly following a map or path (or plot, perhaps?). Sarah agreed. “In close reading, you don’t just iron out the weirdness. You sit and think about why it is there.”

Bringing the discussion back to texts, Sarah asked the students how to start close reading. The first step, according to one? Read! The class also discussed the dangers of “over-determined reading,” or reading too much into details, and debated how much context is needed and how close the reading must be. “We can all start with little building blocks,” Sarah noted. Another student put it well: “[Close reading] is like a back-and-forth conversation with the text.”

As a last exercise, Sarah challenged the students once again by reading a short poem by William Carlos Williams and after discussing what struck them, asked what someone might say about it if they were a skeptic of close reading. “They’d say, ‘I can write this,’” one student remarked. “Or maybe, ‘It’s like a note he just wrote up,’” said another. “Well, someone who admires the poem could say the same thing with a very different tone,” another student pointed out. In the end, Sarah said it best when she noted that “part of why we close read is because the texts reward this activity.”

As the students’ excursion into Wheeler Hall and their discussion proves, there’s so much more we can see – in our books and in our daily lives – when we slow down, pay attention to details, and fully immerse ourselves in the process of looking.

SONY DSCStudents agree – It’s the Harry Potter bathroom!

posted by Katherine Wang
Berkeley Connect Communications Assistant