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This issue of CDTL Brief features the teaching practices of some 2006/2007 Annual Teaching Excellence Award (ATEA) winners.

October 2008, Vol. 11 No. 3 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Close Reading as Critical Thinking
Assistant Professor Johan Geertsema
University Scholars Programme

“Why do folks who teach Writing and Critical Thinking modules in the USP fetishise close reading?”, an NUS faculty member recently asked me. Since an insistence on the value of rigorous close reading is a central tenet of my teaching philosophy, I would like to explain what I consider to be its value and briefly indicate how it informs my teaching. While close reading is in the first instance an activity that concerns the way one approaches texts, and is therefore of particular significance to students of language and literature, all university students, regardless of the discipline in which they specialise, on a daily basis need to read—and to read well. Close reading should matter not only to teachers of writing but to all NUS faculty: it is the sine qua non of independent, critical thinking. To the extent that the university wishes to equip students to think for themselves, close reading needs to be taught rigorously; as a crucial element of critical thinking, it adds real value to students’ education.

Defined most simply, close reading is just another name for one of the most basic elements of the scientific method: observation. It involves the ability to read with attention and comprehension, which should make it an uncontroversial activity. However, close reading does have its enemies. In the most recent issue of the annual Modern Language Association (MLA) journal Profession, Jane Gallop, Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, notes that close reading has, in the field of literary studies, been deemed elitist. However, she makes a compelling case that it is in fact anti-elitist since it enables “active learning” (p. 184) by getting students “to encounter the text directly and produce their own knowledge” (p. 185). When one is engaged Close Reading as Critical Thinking Assistant Professor Johan Geertsema University Scholars Programme in studying a topic, this necessarily entails observing and interpreting phenomena. These may be experiments in the laboratory, or they may be more strictly textual in nature: reports on such experiments or scientific papers. Close reading is the process of observing phenomena carefully in order to notice details, discern patterns and aberrations, and ask questions. Such careful observation and interpretation of phenomena is the most basic prerequisite for engaging in research since it enables one to know what one does not know. If one is to make an original contribution to scholarship, then this needs to start with the process of paying close attention to the minutiae of the data that one is investigating.

While careful observation, leading to interpretation, is a prerequisite for research, it is not enough: an essential corollary of close reading must be writing. The relation between close reading and writing is symbiotic. Not only does close reading lead to research questions which require further exploration and eventual written transmission in the form of scientific papers, but such papers in turn lead to close reading: they require careful consideration and lead to further observation and interpretation, that is, reading. Thus the scholarly conversation consists of a virtuous circle in which close reading and writing each leads to and informs the other.

This has important ethical consequences. In the first instance: as university teachers, a central aspect of our duty to students is to help them become independent and critical thinkers, and this presupposes the ability to make up their own minds about whatever they are studying. Close reading is a cardinal aspect of teaching them this, and if we renege on this duty thenwe renege on our duty to help students become critical thinkers. Close reading is implicit in teaching students skills associated with critical thinking: comprehension, analysis, evaluation and inference. In each case, the ability to read closely is a precondition for the skill in question. Without close reading, not only does basic comprehension (not to mention sophisticated understanding) become impossible, but so does the ability to analyse and interpret a phenomenon by identifying patterns and aberrations. Furthermore, such analysis then needs to lead to real-world applications: students must be able to evaluate the positions of others who participate in the scholarly conversation, and they need to be able to make inferences regarding the applicability of these positions to the particular cases they are investigating. In other words, they need to be able to synthesise information; again, the foundation of this entire process is close reading since without it the conversation cannot even get started. A second ethical consequence of close reading is that it assists students in fulfilling their responsibility to the sources they are reading. If students have been taught the techniques associated with close reading, they will have been equipped with the ability not to misrepresent what they are reading or, worse, appropriate information from a source as their own without due acknowledgement (plagiarism).

Close reading shapes how I teach in decisive ways. In order to help students find topics about which to write, I let them read texts closely. Not only do I teach the critical thinking skills discussed above, all of which rely on close reading, but students practise these skills regularly. Before most class meetings, students read at least one new text. I guide their reading in the form of worksheets uploaded to the IVLE workbin two to three days before class. Each sheet provides a clear outline of the aims and objectives for the class concerned, and situates the class in terms of the module while providing context to the readings for the day. The sheet further poses questions concerning the reading and requires students to pose their own questions on it. Thus students are constantly required to engage closely with the texts they read and justify their reading of the texts. This forms the basis of all class meetings, which in turn are linked to their paper assignments. Close reading of sources (whether texts or real-world phenomena being studied) is thus fundamental to my teaching. It serves not only to equip students with the ability to observe closely and ask critical questions, but to produce well-crafted and persuasively argued essays. Far from fetishising close reading, this is merely an acknowledgement of its centrality in the process of independent inquiry.

Gallop, J. (2007). “The Historicization of Literary Studies and the
Fate of Close Reading”. Profession, pp. 181–186.

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Inside this issue
A Teaching Re-evaluation
Close Reading as Critical Thinking
Small-group Teaching for First-year Law Students—Thoughts from a Tutorial Taskmaster
Teaching: A Learning Process for Towards a Student Driven Pedagogy
Engaging the Phenomenon
Thai Language Teaching at NUS
Learning from Failures
Learning Through Teaching