Short Close Reading Assignment

Teaching Assistant: Patrick Mooney
English 10
Summer 2015


You must perform this assignment twice this quarter: once with a piece of poetry, and once with a piece of prose. One of these assignments is due at the end of week 2; one is due at the end of week 3. You may (in fact, must) choose which week you do the assignment for poetry, and which week you do the assignment for prose. You may also choose to perform this assignment again in week four instead of performing the annotated bibliography assignment; if you do so, you are welcome to choose any piece of text that you have not yet analyzed for a close reading assignment. (However, students who are planning to complete a major or minor in the Department of English or another department emphasizing textual studies are strongly encouraged to complete the annotated bibliography assignment and to use that assignment as a way of preparing for the final research paper option on their final paper).

The purpose of this assignment is to get you to look closely at a short piece of text and interpret it, in writing, in a way that leads to an argument about what that text means. Both assignments (by which I mean: both the prose version of this assignment and the poetry version of this assignment) are designed to get you some practice on skills (reading, writing, logically structuring an argument, MLA compliance, working with a standard format for an essay that analyzes a literary text, the mechanics of using textual evidence, etc.) that will contribute to your success on your final research paper (and future studies, both in literature and in other fields). Both assignments are relatively low-stakes in terms of your final grade for the quarter, and you are welcome — encouraged, even — to take risks and make mistakes, provided that you learn from them and make your learning pay off later in the quarter (and later in life).

Which texts are fair game?

What To Do

For each essay, choose a short piece of a course text — it may be one that we have already read by the time your paper is due, and this is arguably a very good idea, but you are also welcome to look forward at texts from later in the term. Your chosen passage should be short — no more than about a standard-length paragraph of prose, or twenty-five lines or less of poetry. (You are welcome to pick even less if you'd like. You may pick a lot less if you want to, and doing a very good job with a very short selection is itself an impressive move. You may pick a little bit more if it is necessary and you are making a wise textual selection. However, if you pick much more than that, you're missing a big chunk of the point of the assignment.)

You will then write a short essay (two to three full pages, plus a works cited page) analyzing your chosen chunk of text. Your essay should clearly identify which passage you are dealing with, though you should not simply type the whole passage into your essay to take up space. Instead, you should find ways to briefly describe your portion of text, should quote selectively from it in order to support your argument with well-chosen textual evidence, and should, in other ways, engage in sophisticated writing practices that identify your text. You might find using the following textual identification models helpful:

Each of the above identifications is far better than simply quoting the entire passage: not only can you slip them into an introduction that problematizes a claim or a reading or otherwise sets up your argument, they're short. Remember that you only have two to three pages here: you need to make your space count, and this means both that you should (often) do things in the shortest form in which they're effective and that you should (often) try to accomplish more than one thing at once. Writing this argument in only two to three pages is supposed to be a challenge, because you should have more things to say than I'm giving you space for, and this should show itself by motivating you to make carefully considered writing decisions so that everything in your paper contributes to the argument that your thesis statement articulates. If you find yourself engaging in space-filling activities to get to two pages in the first place, then this is a sign that you've done a poor job of picking a passage that you are capable of analyzing in sufficient depth.

Your essay should begin with an introduction (probably a single paragraph, and not a particularly long one, at that) that identifies the specific text with which you're working and which sets up an interpretive problem, and which ends with a real thesis statement. As we discussed in our third class meeting, a real thesis statement:

The body of your paper needs to consist of a logical argument that is based on well-chosen textual evidence and explicit interpretations of that evidence. The body of your paper should be tightly focused on the task of proving that your thesis statement is correct. In short:

The conclusion to your paper should do more than merely summarize or restate what you've done before. Look for ways to contextualize the analysis you've performed: can you connect it to another, related issue, perhaps one that is at a larger scale. Or, if your argument is already quite broad or abstract, can you sketch out a specific implementation the idea that you've developed in your paper? Can you show how your ideas about this particular selection from the text apply or are relevant to other portions, or to the text as a whole, or to another text? Is what you have to say about an issue that you've analyzed as relevant today as it was when the author whose text you've just read wrote that text? Why or why not? If things have changed, what does this say about us today, or about people who lived in the author's own time? If things haven't changed, why not, and what does this say about us? There are thousands of other possibilities. What you generally need to do to write an excellent conclusion, regardless of the specific model that you're following, is to shift your viewpoint in some way and take a different, though related, position that illuminates the argument that you've already constructed.

Getting Started

To begin your close reading, you will need to start with an analysis of the text that you've chosen. Make sure that you sufficiently understand this text before you begin explaining it to someone else. You might use the Oxford English Dictionary to look up any words that you don't know or that seem to have different meanings or connotations than you are familiar with. A close reading, especially with poetry (but also with prose), looks not only at what the text says, but also at how the text says it — or, how the form conveys meaning. That is to say, your essay should ideally talk about how the form and the content work together to create meaning. Interrogate the text as you read. Ask yourself: What does this mean? Why is it there? How is it attempting to influence or manipulate my understanding of what is going on here? Before writing, ask yourself some of the following questions:

Working closely with the language, form, imagery, rhythm, and style of the text will allow the text to speak for itself, will allow you to notice how the text is operating, and will prevent you from imposing your own expectations onto it. You do want to have an argument about the text and develop theories about what certain things mean, but those theories should be based on and inspired by the inner workings of the section that you're working with. After analyzing the passage, you will be able to develop an argumentative thesis statement based on the evidence you have amassed during your close reading; this evidence will provide the textual evidence required to support your thesis in the body of your essay. After having written your analysis, review your argumentative thesis statement to make sure that (a) your paper argues what you originally planned to argue, and (b) your thesis predicts the specific argument that you have developed as you've written. Arguments can change over the course of your thinking, and your job is to go back, revise, and make your thesis consistent with those developments. Remember that your thesis statement should be a concise, clear statement about the argument that you spend your paper defending.

Formal Requirements

In conclusion...

This assignment is meant to get you practice at reading much more closely than you normally do, and to get you practice at using what you notice when you read very closely to build an interpretation about this. But it's also meant to give you an opportunity to try out new ways of thinking and writing, and this is part of the reason why it's a low-stakes assignment: getting a C on this assignment only loses you two percent of your total grade for the term in comparison to what you would have gotten if you'd had an A on this assignment.

So, really, have fun with this. Read closely, think carefully, and build an argument out of something that you notice when you do these things. Feel free to take risks in your writing, because that's how you'll learn how to be a better writer and thinker. If you fall on your face, and even if you do so badly and embarrassingly, there are extra-credit opportunities that can make up the difference in points, if you want to do so.

Have fun. Work hard. Be excellent. If you're still motivated primarily by concerns about what grade you'll get, then realize that the students who get the highest grades on this kind of assignment are, almost without exception, the students who are shooting for all three of those things, not just the last one.