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On Writing Rousing Reading Responses

In a reading response, as you know, your task is to post to the course listserv an observation or two that you find interesting about the texts you've read for that week and three to five questions you want to be addressed in class discussion. Your base grade for your reading responses is cumulative, calculated strictly by the number of responses you post on time that contain both observations and questions (see the syllabus for the grading scale--note that the grades skip from A to B+ and B to C+ [no A-'s or B-'s], which means that as little as one reading response can make a big difference for that portion of your grade). Each individual reading response will be graded on a scale of +/0/-/E, and those grades will factor into your grade for class participation. Steady and serious commitment to the listserv by the majority of the class will mean that there's no need for quizzes in this course.

But what's the purpose of these reading responses beyond being a quiz substitute? Where's the incentive for putting more rather than less thought into them? To answer the latter question first, I see two major payoffs to getting in the habit of writing rousing reading responses. First, 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. Second, 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. (Also, you should be aware that since reading responses are the only writing from you that I'll see until you hand in your first critical response paper, 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 exams.)

Beyond these relatively pragmatic considerations of avoiding boredom and getting better grades, there's a larger incentive for writing thoughtful, provocative reading responses and a larger purpose to this process I'm putting you through. I can think of few more important survival skills than attentive observation and incisive questioning. One wager of this course is that your developing these skills through close engagement with literary texts will have all sorts of good consequences in your life, both in and out of school. Let's leave these sorts of consequences tantalizingly open for now, and focus in on how to go about noticing interesting things about literary texts and asking provocative questions about them. These are the fundamental building blocks of literary analysis, and they can best be developed by consistent, steady practice.

Noticing

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 text. 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 was striking about 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 the text itself:

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 over what it means. Another reading strategy I like 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 "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. Some questions critics often consider while pursuing a contextualist approach include: what was going on around the time the work was written or during the time in which the work was set that may have influenced the shape of that work? in what ways may the work be said to be a reaction to a specific social issue or historical event? what are the less overt strategies writers use to invoke history in their fiction? what historically-bound or culture-bound assumptions does a given writer appear to be relying upon that are interestingly different from or similar to our own? in what subtle or unconscious ways does a given time, place, or culture "mark" a writer's work?

A fourth reading strategy to consider exploring is implicit in the course description, in the phrase "how and to what ends an author uses ghosts in her fiction"--namely, an authorial approach. Typical questions that critics who focus with this interpretive lens ask include: What was the author's creative process? What changes did a work undergo from first draft to published text? What were the reasons for these changes? What were the author's intentions and purposes when writing the work? What kind of effect was the writer attempting to have on her audience? What events or issues in his time was he responding to by writing the story the way he did?

If you've asked yourself some of these questions 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.

Questioning

Now, as you're first trying to make sense of the assigned text, you're probably going to have a million questions. The process of generating your observations (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. So as with your observations, you have to prioritize when considering what questions to ask on the listserv. Here are some informal guidelines for completing the "questioning" part of your reading response.

Dos:

Don'ts:

If you find it difficult to come up with questions, it's probably a sign that you're not reading the text carefully enough or giving yourself enough processing/brainstorming time before beginning to compose your reading response. 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 critical response essays, your mid-term exam, and your final paper.

Noticing and Questioning: The Big Picture

It's a tired cliche that you get out of your education what you put into it. But like most cliches, this one has more than a grain of truth to it. I can't promise you that learning how to make interesting observations about and ask provocative questions of literary texts will help you in your other classes, help you decide what you want to do with your life, or help you become a better and happier person. I can't promise you that going through this learning process and becoming an active reader is a good investment of your time and energy. But I sure can suggest it. The rest is up to you.


M A I N * N E W S * T O P I C S * L I N K S * R E S E R V E S


EN 209: Novels and Tales, Fall 1999
Created: 8/21/99, 3:45 pm
Last modified: 8/21/99, 3:45 pm