A guide to close reading

I’m planning to give my first year undergraduates a worksheet designed to help them engage with the theological and philosophical texts we study during our course. I’ve noticed that a lot of my students struggle to find critical ways into the texts, and I’m hoping that giving them some fairly generic questions to work through will help them find ways in. I’m planning to talk through the list of questions when I hand them out then use them as a basis for some of our seminar discussions over the rest of the semester so that the students can get a handle on how to use them.

Here’s the list of questions I’ve drafted so far; I’d really appreciate any comments/suggestions/wisdom gleaned from other people’s teaching experience, and of course you’re welcome to appropriate these for yourself if they look like they’d help you in your own teaching:

  1. Who is the text written by and what do you know about the author(s) and their context?
  2. What type of text is this (a philosophical treatise, an autobiography, a poem, a lecture, sermon etc)?
  3. Who is the author writing for, and how might their intended audience shape the kind of text they are writing?
  4. Why is the author writing (to persuade, to argue, to describe etc)?
  5. What binary oppositions does the text set up (good/bad, rational/emotional, civilized/uncivilized, private/public, masculine/feminine)? How does the author use these binaries, and are there points in the text where the binaries break down or become unstable?
  6. What metaphors and images does the author use, and what does this tell you about the assumptions they are making and the things that they value?
  7. What role do ideas about gender and/or sexuality play in this text, if any?
  8. What role do ideas about race and/or empire play in this text, if any?
  9. If ‘the ruling ideas of any age are the ideas of its ruling class’ (Marx), what do you know about the ruling class in the time and place this text was written, and how does the text reflect this context?

5 thoughts on “A guide to close reading

  1. These are great questions! Are you also asking your students to apply the text or reading to the present times? If so, you can guide the students into thinking about how (or if) what they’re reading applies to themselves personally, to their community (in this case you could use CNU), and on a national or global scale. We often want to jump to how it applies to “me” but we need understand the original context first. I’m interested to hear how this works for your students. Thank you for sharing!

  2. I think these are great questions, and similar to ones I’m also preparing for first year UG philosophy, theology, and ethics students. I do wonder about using a specific theorist in a question though (Marx) when this isn’t followed through in other questions – suggests bias in the question? Would the students be able to identify and comment upon this?

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