‘Close Reading’ and Resistance
In this panel we will discuss a ‘close reading’ approach to teaching English Literature. We will be referring to the provision that has been developed over the last thirty years within the MA in Children’s Literature at The University of Reading, but we will making connections to the wider pedagogical and critical scene. We acknowledge that the approach we are discussing is often viewed as either outmoded or partial within academic teaching practice. We will address some of the most frequently cited concerns, especially in the context of First Year undergraduate teaching and the transmission from FE to HE.
We wish to address specifically the links between our engagement with notions of ‘textuality’ and ‘close-reading’ that have fallen out of critical favour and our teaching of Children’s Literature. We have found that discussions within this field often turn on the ability to correctly identify the child, its needs, and the books that will meet these. In response, we ask our students to focus on the precise term of the texts they are reading, and through this reflect on their on their assumptions about childhood, texts and reading. As Prof. Karin Lesnik-Obersien, the convenor of the MA, has written: ‘instead of clinging to the perusal of understanding the other, [our students] are challenged to investigate their own investments and interpretations, and the way this produces narratives about the other.’ We argue that such a seemingly simple approach to literary perspective can lead to a profound and systematic critique of enabling structures and ideologies.
The panel will begin with two papers that forward a close reading approach to literary texts, whilst also drawing attention to its limitations. The first of these will focus on Children’s Literature, with a reading from the work of Louisa May Alcott (West). This will help set out some of the controversies around a narration focused and non-essentialist approach to the field, and go some way to introduce our work on Children’s Literature. We will follow this with brief reading of a passage from Paul de Man’s ‘The Resistance to Theory’, which will further clarify the stakes, and caution against a too easy dismissal of close reading when engaging what is perhaps the best known example of a text that offers such a caution (Cocks).
The next section of the panel (led by Cocks/West) will address the place of close reading in contemporary pedagogy. Taking NATE’s 2004 Text: Message as a starting point, we will: explore some of the doubts that have arisen concerning a provision rooted in close reading; discuss the place of close reading within the contemporary affective, material, and ethical ‘turns’ within theory; think through some of the difficulties that can attend a reading-based pedagogy within the contemporary University.
The panel will close a discussion of the practical and pedagogical challenges that impact on reading-based provision at both Part 1 and Foundation level (led by Das). We have found that close reading can open up University level study to new students, not least in the confidence and independence it can promote, and the way in which it builds on established work with A02. There are significant challenges with this kind of provision, however, not least the need to introduce students to a wide range of approaches when commencing their studies.
Our intention is that Soma will be joined in this final section by a teacher from the Reading area, specialising in A Level English Literature. We are, at present, clarifying availability and financial support, and will forward full details when confirmed.
Dr Neil Cocks, Associate Professor of English Literature and outreach officer, University of Reading
Dr Krissie West, Independent scholar, A Level Tutor
Soma Das, PhD candidate, The University of Reading