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Using the Black Studies List: Reading Responses, Spring 2005

If you've been to the course listserv page, you know what a listserv is, how to join your section's listserv, why we have class listservs, and what to do if you run into problems using the listserv. This page takes on three important questions about the reading responses you are required to post to your section's listserv: what, what for, and how to. I've included "do"s and "don't"s to help you understand my expectations for your reading responses. My goal is to make this page as useful to you as possible, so let me know if it can be improved. If anything is badly worded, unclear, or missing, please contact me with constructive criticisms. Thanks.


A reading response is an email you send to the course listserv in which you give at least one sustained observation and ask at least one substantive question about the readings for an upcoming class (see "How To," below, for advice on crafting your observation[s] and question[s]).

Over the course of the semester, you must post a number of weekly reading responses to the course listserv and come to each class having read and thought about your peers' responses. Your grade for the reading response potion of your grade is determined by the number of on-time reading responses you submit to the list: 7 or more reading responses=A; 6=B+; 5=B; 4=C+; 3=C, 2=D; 1 or 0=E. Only one response per week will count toward your total; the quality of your reading responses will be factored into your preparation/participation grade (see the main page for details). Hence, each week you may post a reading response (including at least one sustained observation and one substantive question) that you believe would spark discussion either by 10 pm Sunday for Monday's class, 10 pm Tuesday for Wednesday's class, or by 10 pm Thursday for Friday's class.

Any response that doesn't meet the above requirements or the expectations laid out below (see "How To") will be counted as an extra-credit "follow-up response" (the extra credit will be factored into your preparation/participation grade; the better the quality of the follow-up response, the more extra credit it will be worth). So there are several circumstances in which something you intended as a reading response may end up being counted as a follow-up response: if you submit your reading response late, if it looks back on a previous class's readings and discussion without also looking ahead to the next class's readings and discussion, if it lacks a question or an observation, if its observation is an unacknowledged repetition of a previous response that fails to amplify on or develop its point, your listserv submission will be counted as a follow-up response.

For the first few weeks of the semester, as people are familiarizing themselves with these requirements, I will notify people when I am counting their submissions as follow-up responses rather than reading responses, but by mid-semester, I will expect everyone to understand what is expected of them and will stop notifying them when a listserv submission is counted as a follow-up response. It is your responsibility, in short, to know the difference between a reading response and a follow-up response and to keep track on your own of how many of each you have submitted to the course listserv. If you have any questions, contact me; I will assume you understand what is required and expected of you unless you ask for clarification.

What For

At the most fundamental level, I prefer having you write weekly reading responses to giving you reading quizzes or having a final exam. I can tell a lot about how carefully you've read a text from the kinds of observations you make and the questions you ask of it--and I'd rather watch how the kinds of questions you ask change over time than use the one-time assessment measure of a final exam. Rather than the teacher always supplying the questions and your job being to figure out the answers, having you ask interpretive/discussion questions can enable you all to influence or even set the agenda for a given class discussion. Rather than taking up valuable class time with pop quizzes or making you think this is the kind of course where it's ok not to do any work except for cramming for the exams, I want the reading responses to help you get in the habit of being an active, critical reader. Even the activity of reading and thinking about others' posts in itself is valuable--you can get a clear sense of what others are interested in, you can see the range of different kinds of observations that can be made about and questions that can be asked of literary texts, and it's very likely that others' questions and observations will lead you to see the text in a new light. In fact, your getting in the habit of noticing interesting things about literary texts and asking incisive questions of them is the intellectual foundation of the course--these are the fundamental building blocks of literary analysis, and they can best be developed by consistent, steady practice. The questions you and others ask can not only form the basis of our class discussion, but they can spark ideas for the essays and projects in the course, as well. The discussion questions provide opportunities for inquiry-based learning, class time gives you practice in generating and discussing possible answers to important questions, and papers give you practice in choosing a challenging question and not only giving an answer to it, but doing it in such a way that it's persuasive to your audience, as well.

Two more pragmatic reasons it's worth your while to put a significant amount of time and thought into these reading responses: avoiding boredom and getting better grades. If you ask questions that you're genuinely interested in and that you want others to be interested in, as well, you're increasing the chances that we'll have a vigorous class discussion. And when I calculate your final grade, I will be sure to raise the base grade of those who have made extraordinary contributions to class discussion and to the listserv. (You should be aware that since reading responses are the only writing from you that I'll see until you hand in your first essay, they influence my general sense of how you're doing in the course and may well have some influence on how I grade your more formal writing assignments and projects.)

How To


So how to practice noticing things about literary texts? What should you be looking for when you read?

Well, you first have to give the text your full and undivided attention. And you have to give yourself time to process what you've read. So make sure you've given yourself sufficient time to read and think about the assigned texts. Make sure that you're alert and focused when you read, and that you have something to write with and on, so as to record your first impressions that don't fit in the margins of the book. Manage your time efficiently. Without giving yourself enough time with the text and away from it, you make it very difficult to notice anything at all.

So let's say you've taken care of this timing issue. What next? My advice is to start off by considering your gut reactions to the text--what jumped out at you, bothered you, confused you, made you think? What did you like and dislike about it? If you found it difficult to understand, precisely what features made it difficult? What would you need to know to make better sense of it? Thinking carefully about these kinds of first impressions can help provide the raw material for a reading response, particularly if you strive to be as specific and detailed as possible in your answers to these questions. But a reading response shouldn't be only a record of your first impression. It should consist of your reflections on what you've read. Making an observation, in other words, takes more than a first look at a text. So what else should you look for and think about?

As you're thinking about composing a reading response, you should move from thinking through your initial reactions to the text to analyzing it and considering issues it raises:

Focusing on these aspects of a text can help you move from figuring out what happens to whom and why in a text (issues of plot and character) to considering how the story or poem is told, by whom, and to what end (issues of form, structure, address, and narrative strategy). Both kinds of issues are important, but the latter tend to be valued more highly in literary studies.

So far, I've suggested strategies for close reading--what some have called a "formalist" approach because of its emphasis on the "form" of the text, its concern with how a text means. Another reading strategy I encourage you to explore has been called "intertextual" because of its emphasis on the relations between literary texts (or between literary texts and other kinds of texts). Any time you compare or contrast two texts, you're engaging in an intertextual approach to literature. Some of the things to ask yourself when trying out this approach are:

A third reading strategy I like is what some have called a "contextual" approach because of its attempt to read a text in historical "context," its concern with how political or social issues of a specific time or place are represented, registered, or responded to in literature. This approach can be difficult to do well if one's knowledge of context is limited, but we can certainly try to make inferences about the relation between text and context based on what we have read. This is a valid and potentially fruitful way to generate observations about a given text, and I encourage you to experiment with it in your reading responses.

If you've asked yourself some of these questions and considered some of these issues while reading or rereading the assigned text, you're now ready to begin composing a reading response. Your task is to cull or distill from all the possible observations you've made on your own while reading and thinking about the text the one or two that you want to share with the listserv. Remember that informal as reading responses are, you're still writing to a "public"--to your classmates, in this case. Take pride in what you do, and be aware of your audience as you write. Try to interest them in your point of view, make them see the text from your perspective. Try to explain why you find the observations you're posting important or interesting. And try to treat each reading response as part of a continuing dialogue that goes on out of class; feel free to respond to other people's observations or questions, to note patterns in what people have been talking about, or otherwise show that you're thinking about the issues other people have been raising in their reading responses.




Think of all the questions you have as you finish reading the first sentence of a story. Now, as you read on and are first trying to make sense of the text, you're probably still going to have a thousand and one questions. The process of moving from first impressions to first analyses should radically reduce the number of questions, hopefully by several orders of magnitude. But there will still be many more questions than we could hope to address on a listserv or in a day or week or even semester--particularly when the questions are not just about the plot or characters, but are also about the way the text is structured, the author's intentions, the ideas or issues being broached in the story, and so on. So you have to prioritize when considering what questions to ask on the listserv. Keep in mind that the point of asking these questions is for you to influence the shape of our class discussions. Ask questions that you believe will lead to active, interesting, and productive discussion--a discussion that not only helps us understand the text better and its relation to the "powers of narrative" theme of the course, but that also gives people the opportunity to share their own interpretations, analyses, and reactions, to agree and/or disagree over significant issues, and to bring their own perspectives, values, and experiences to bear on their responses to the readings and the students in the course.

Here are some informal suggestions/guidelines for generating discussion questions.



In closing, if you find it difficult to come up with observation and questions, it's probably a sign that you're not reading the text carefully enough or giving yourself enough processing/brainstorming time. Adjust your work schedule accordingly. If you don't, you'll find it very difficult to complete the other, more formal writing assignments.

Or to put the point more positively: the more work you put right now into making observations and asking questions on your reading responses, the better off you'll be when it comes time to write your essays and projects.

M A I N * N E W S * L I N K S * R E S E R V E S

ENGL/INDS 240: Introduction to African American Literature and Culture, Spring 2005
Created: 1/20/05 11:57 am
Last modified: 1/20/05 11:57 am