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students primarily in the role of listeners, expected to recall information (a
lower-order function in Harold Bloom’s taxonomy), and eventually to imitate
the professor’s skills without necessarily having had a lot of practice doing
so. We found the Stanford approach unrealistic in our institutional context
and, more significant, incompatible with our teaching philosophies. We think
that our students, even in a lecture course, should not be conceived of as
relatively passive recipients of our knowledge but rather active participants in
constructing their own knowledge. They should be active learners, engaged
in creating new ideas, explaining ideas to each other, applying information to
new contexts, and evaluating their learning.3
We therefore instituted a number of innovations to further these goals.
Instead of prioritizing specialized knowledge about texts in cultural con-
text, we worked on developing undergraduates’ skill with close reading, the
most fundamental aspect of literary study. We were confident that improving
students’ ability to perform close readings would substantially benefit them
in their academic and postacademic careers. Our primary interest in the
course therefore turned out to be the way it confronted us with two crucial
disciplinary questions: How do students learn to read closely and to write
effective analyses of complex texts?4
And can students substantially improve
their close reading skills in a large lecture class? To address these questions,
we designed a course that forced us to discuss and reflect on our own close
reading practices — to articulate to each other and our students just what it
is we do when we analyze texts — and that, as significant, required students
regularly to engage in close readings and reflect on their experiences.5
This article presents the results of our qualitative assessment of our
students’ learning of close reading as evidenced in their writing.6
demonstrate close reading skills primarily through writing, which displays
both their progress in developing interpretations and the gaps in their knowl-
edge and skills. Student writing is, moreover, available for rigorous qualita-
tive analysis and thus has provided a suitable basis for us to assess student
learning during and after the course. We structure the remainder of the article
as follows: a description of our teaching strategies; an assessment of student
learning as evidenced in responses to online quiz prompts; an evaluation of
improvements in students’ formal essays; and a discussion of the pedagogical
conclusions we derive from this collective evidence. We close with a brief
coda commenting on our experience of collaboration in teaching, conducting
research, and writing this article. We think that the faculty – graduate student
collaboration that culminates in this article merits discussion just as much as
our pedagogical strategies for improving undergraduates’ close reading skills.
Tinkle, Atias, McAdams, and Zukerman Teaching Close Reading Skills 507
As we defined it to the students in this course, close reading is a very detailed
analysis of a text that includes commentary on such formal features as meter,
theme, imagery, figurative language, rhetorical strategies, tone, and diction.
As a piece of student writing, the close reading demonstrates how these fea-
tures work together to create and enhance meaning. Close reading involves a
number of related skills: first, the ability to identify textual details that have
significant interpretive implications, and then the marshaling of disciplinary
terminology and an understanding of genre to develop an original argument
about how, what, and why a text means. Mastering close reading takes time
and effort, requiring engagement with a text on a number of different levels. It
forces students to practice active learning: students performing close readings
do “not just take knowledge produced elsewhere or by someone else and par-
rot back the ideas” (Gallop, Jane, qtd. in Weber-Fève: 2009: 459). Students
must generate their own unique responses to texts, drawing on the structures
of thought and practice offered in the classroom but also discerning when
they need to seek additional information about language or terminology (from
the Oxford English Dictionary, for instance, or a dictionary of literary terms).
A close reading develops from each student’s own observations about a text,
and students’ ability to develop this independence is crucial to their suc-
cess. Although this individual skill development initially seemed difficult to
address in a large course, we felt it worthwhile to help undergraduates learn
to do what we do — to read closely, analytically, imaginatively. We sought to
accomplish this by defining and modeling close reading for them, by hav-
ing them collaborate with their peers and instructors on close readings, by
requiring them to write a number of close readings, by giving them regular
feedback about how to improve, and by going through these instructional
“events” recursively throughout the term (Gagné et al. 2005: 206 – 7).
The course was structured such that students attended two lectures
and one discussion section per week. The faculty instructor conducted
eighty-minute lectures for all students, while the graduate student instruc-
tors led fifty-minute discussion sections of about twenty students each. We
conceived of the lecture as necessarily interactive, designed to ask questions
of the students, use their responses to facilitate a large-group discussion, and
create opportunities for them to pose questions and share comments. Our
dominant mode during class time was the lecturer speaking while students
took notes, but we frequently broke up the lecture so as to foreground the
students’ role in exploring texts for themselves. We worked to diminish the
hierarchy inherent in the lecture model by inviting active student engagement
and by structuring class so that student participation was sustained, mean-
ingful, and essential. We designed the course to focus on what we see as the
crucial learning goals of the major: not only close reading but also analytical
writing, presentation of evidence, and historical literacy.7
Our goal was to
teach a mode of thinking and writing more than a set of facts, in much the way
Robert Scholes (1998: 145 – 49) advocates a “canon of methods” rather than a
“canon of texts.” We did not ignore content mastery — far from it; we simply
emphasized that our most important goal was for students to develop their
ability to write persuasively about texts. Each instructional unit (Old English,
for instance, and then Middle English) built on previous units and involved
both repetition of prior content and directed transference of knowledge and
skills from one unit to the next. For instance, students were asked to track
developments in the poetic line, the shifting priorities in the education of a
gentleman, and the generic features of tragedy.
Our goal throughout the semester was to have students become bet-
ter close readers by doing a great deal of close reading — in preparation for
class, orally in class, in writing, and in reflective work on their writing. We
developed several pedagogical strategies for teaching close reading; the most
effective of these are briefly summarized in the following paragraphs.
Before Class: Online Objective Quizzes
In order to ensure that students at least read the assigned works before class,
we required them to take a brief online, open-book quiz before almost every
We designed the quizzes to prompt students to confront interpre-
tive questions (e.g., Is this passage in the General Prologue to the Canterbury
Tales ironic?), to define and use literary terminology appropriately (Which
of these lines is an octosyllabic couplet?), and to recognize basic sequences in
English literary history (When was Old English written?). Because the quiz-
zes were intended to help students internalize content through repetition and
application, they were allowed to take a quiz as many times as they deemed
necessary in the day or two before each class. As the semester progressed,
students were encouraged to interact more fully with the quizzes and, in so
doing, to take on elements of the instructors’ role. For example, students
were invited to dispute the instructors’ chosen answer using the software’s
comment function. Their engagement with this option gave them practice
articulating their reasoning process and often led to their gaining more credit
for the quiz. This in turn helped them recognize and exercise their own
authority over the text, and in some cases led both students and instructors
to realize anew the interpretive potential of many texts. The students also
Tinkle, Atias, McAdams, and Zukerman Teaching Close Reading Skills 509
contributed their own questions to the quizzes, and each discussion section
was responsible for composing one entire quiz.
Most of the quizzes contained some combination of multiple choice,
true-false, and fill-in-the-blank questions, all of which were graded elec-
tronically, substantially reducing the amount of grading time required to
ensure that students achieved the relevant content mastery. For the students,
the quizzes revealed to them what they did not know, motivating them to
raise questions in lecture and thereby facilitating additional instruction on
challenging points. From our perspective, the quizzes allowed us to gauge
whether students had met our expectations and what additional instruction
was needed to move the group forward. Although all of these quizzes were
designed to test “objective” knowledge, the results often demonstrated to stu-
dents and instructors alike the degree to which there are few “right” answers
to interpretive questions. This became a valuable prompt for discussion dur-
ing the lecture sessions, and an opportunity to reflect on our expectations,
as well as how we might best clarify what knowledge was important and why.
In Class: Lecture and Discussion Sections
Both lectures and discussion sections were venues for practicing close read-
ing skills and continuing the project of active learning. Whereas discussion
sections have typically been understood as the primary forum for student
participation, our goal was to bring active student involvement to lectures
as well. During lectures, we combined PowerPoint slides with small-group
interpretive activities. The slides highlighted literary terminology and mean-
ingful textual details and provided students with in-depth information on
particular topics that would enrich their understanding of the works at hand
(e.g., a slide lecture on vanitas paintings prefaced a discussion of imagery in
Webster’s Duchess of Malfi). At regular intervals, the lecturer would ask stu-
dents to discuss in small groups how they thought a particular passage might
be interpreted in light of the lecture, how particular details would support
(or rebut) their interpretations, or how the passage might lead to multiple
interpretations. After the small group work, students would volunteer their
conclusions, and the lecturer would moderate discussion about the virtues
of one interpretation over another. The lectures opened at these points to
Of course, even in a relatively open lecture there is a limit to how
many students can participate, especially in a class this large. Consequently,
discussion sections were a forum in which we targeted specific student needs
and encouraged students to experiment with tentative or risky ideas. Our goal
throughout was to let students’ interests, questions, and needs not only enter
into but also help shape the discussion sections. Frequently, graduate student
instructors facilitated a line-by-line close reading of a passage or poem not
covered in lecture. In the more intimate and less intimidating small-group
discussion, students were invited or called upon to contribute and test their
hypotheses. Another typical pedagogical strategy consisted of addressing
open-ended and exploratory discussion questions that students had posted
to the course website before class. In addition to allowing reticent students a
less extemporaneous mode of participation, we found that asking students to
post questions online in advance prompted even those who had not posted to
raise their own questions in class. Discussion sections also provided opportu-
nities to clarify and reinforce concepts introduced in lecture and to take them
a step further, giving students another setting in which to rehearse them. We
also used discussion sections to teach specific skills such as scansion, share
excerpts from writing exercises, workshop essay drafts, act out scenes, and
show clips from theatrical or cinematic productions of the course texts.
After Class: Online Long-Answer Quizzes
Interspersed with the “objective” online quizzes, students completed three
long-answer quizzes, each of which featured a prompt about a particular
text and asked students to write a close reading. Students’ responses were
expected to fill one paragraph at the beginning of the term; late in the term, as
the prompts grew more complex and students’ skills developed, they typically
wrote between five and seven paragraphs. These long-answer quizzes also
took place online, and two of them were scheduled to occur approximately
one week before a formal essay was due. These quizzes enabled students to
practice and receive feedback on written close readings shortly before writ-
ing a formal essay. The quizzes were thus middle-stakes writing: writing to
learn, writing meant as practice, and writing intended to encourage fluency
For each long-answer quiz, each student received brief but specific
written feedback from the lecturer, who concentrated on offering one or two
focused suggestions for improving students’ close readings in their upcom-
ing essays. Grading each quiz took some hours — there were, after all, 120
students — but a comment or two per student was hardly exhausting, and the
quizzes had many benefits for the instructional team as well as the students.
Reading short pieces by each of the students at several points in the term
gave the lecturer an appreciation of what the students could and could not do
at any particular moment and allowed her to shape instruction accordingly.
Tinkle, Atias, McAdams, and Zukerman Teaching Close Reading Skills 511
This was especially useful as we approached the due dates of the essays,
enabling us to provide students with specific, timely, and individualized
guidance. After the term, the archived quizzes served as the basis for the
qualitative assessment of their learning discussed below.
In short, our teaching tools consisted of online quizzes (involving
both objective questions and long-answer close readings), lectures inviting
student participation and discussion, small-group discussion, frequent prac-
tice with close reading, and online posts of discussion questions, quiz ques-
tions, and challenges to quizzes. None of these tools is revolutionary, but
our strategy of focusing on close reading from multiple directions is worthy
Assessing Student Learning: Long-Answer Quizzes
We felt confident throughout the course that we were implementing strate-
gies that allowed students to practice and improve their close reading skills.
Yet we were keenly aware of the need to assess our strategies objectively after
the course ended. We thus retained a data set, in the form of the long-answer
quizzes, which allowed us to analyze how successfully our students learned
close reading skills during the course.10
The responses to the long-answer
quiz questions lend themselves brilliantly to qualitative assessment: for
each quiz, all of the students addressed the same question, facilitating com-
parisons among the texts they produced; the writing samples are relatively
short, allowing the instructors to assess them efficiently; and the quizzes
were spaced throughout the semester, allowing for an assessment of change
In order to evaluate the quizzes, we developed a rubric that encom-
passes the major trends we observed in the responses and emphasizes the
skills we consider essential for performing successful close readings. The
rubric constitutes our attempt, after the fact, to articulate to each other and
to a larger audience the full range of competencies we observed in students’
writing for the long-answer quizzes, and is thus descriptive rather than pre-
scriptive. The rubric also reflects our institutional context and expectations:
the University of Michigan is selective in admissions, and students typically
work at an advanced level in upper-level courses like this one; yet we nonethe-
less expect them to improve, grow, and develop. Accordingly, the rubric is
intended, first, to designate levels of actual student achievement and, second,
to allow us to measure improvement over the course of the term. The rubric
runs on a scale of 0 to 5, as shown in fig. 1. Responses scored at 0 and 1 con-
tain no analysis, those scored at 2 contain some analytical elements, and those
scored at 3 or higher contain at least a baseline of good analysis and detailed
evidence. This rubric parallels the findings of a British study about how stu-
dents conceptualize close reading, which posits that students’ (as opposed to
lecturers’) reading processes seek to make texts more familiar, to bring texts
into their own “domestic and familial contexts,” to perceive texts as mirror-
ing their own experiences, and to respond emotionally more than rationally
The rubric is intended to designate levels of actual student achievement
and help to measure improvement over the course of the term.
0 • Nonresponsive to the question (e.g., addresses a fragment or an unrelated
1 • Relies on summary or paraphrase rather than analysis
• Tends to use impressionistic descriptions
• Contains overly generalized conclusions
2 • Mixes analysis with summary
• Notices some details but is more likely to deliver impressionistic
conclusions than analysis
• Contains some overly generalized points
• Attempts to use literary terminology and engage with formal features (such
as poetic devices, meter, and others) but may err in doing so
3 • Develops good analysis connecting literary details to specific conclusions
• Occasionally offers overly general or impressionistic remarks
• Is attentive to details and nuances of language
• Shows occasional errors in use of literary terminology and identification of
• May perceive relation of passage to larger structure and theme of work
4 • Offers good if not fully developed analysis of details and nuances of
• Pays good attention to details and nuances of formal features
• Demonstrates good sense of literary evidence
• Uses terminology correctly for the most part, though minor errors may
• May tie reading of passage to larger context of work at hand and other works
5 • Contains analytical originality and specificity
• Pays excellent attention to details and nuances of formal features
• Demonstrates evidence for cogent conclusions
• Shows awareness of layers of meaning and tensions among formal features
• Ties reading of passage to larger themes and tendencies of work at hand
and/or to other works
Figure 1. Close reading grading rubric
Tinkle, Atias, McAdams, and Zukerman Teaching Close Reading Skills 513
to the text (Weller 2010: 93). We detect in our sample a similar tendency to
domesticate texts, and this appears in our rubric under the labels impres-
sionistic, uncritical, and overly personal, all of which earn a 1 or 2 ranking.
(A 0 ranking is reserved for entries that simply did not respond to the prompt
and did not develop a close reading of any sort.)
We faced two broader questions as we assessed the quizzes. How
should we rank a response that astutely notices details but arrives at an unper-
suasive conclusion? And conversely, how should we assess a response that
arrives at a compelling conclusion but fails to show the appropriate evidence?
We decided that neither response merited full credit: in the first case, we
concluded that close reading is not just about reading detail, but about devel-
oping a strong understanding of a text with which others would agree. In
the second case, we decided that since these exercises focused primarily on
reading a text closely and presenting detailed evidence from it, we needed to
evaluate those skills rather than being satisfied with strong analytical think-
ing that did not “show its work.”
In order to evaluate the quizzes, the four of us began by meeting to
discuss a few sample responses and norm our assessments. Afterward, each of
us assessed all the quiz responses individually and then compiled our scores.
For about 90 percent of responses, we found that our individual assessments
were within one number of each other; any time at least three people agreed
on one score (the usual situation), the response earned that score. For those
rare responses where our assessments differed by more than one number, we
met to discuss them in more depth. As might be expected for any group of
four literary scholars, we read with different emphases and found the process
of norming our responses challenging. In the end, however, we arrived at a
satisfactory ranking for every student response, and the process of norming
enhanced our ability to identify salient aspects of the writing samples. Often
these discussions led to a minor revision of the rubric as we more clearly dis-
cerned what elements of close reading we considered most crucial, and what
types of responses students could generate.
The First Long-Answer Quiz
The first long-answer quiz asked students to “Develop a (1 paragraph) close
reading of the opening sentence of Chaucer’s General Prologue. You may
want to focus on imagery, sound effects, or plot.” As might be expected
from a quiz given within a week of the start of the semester, the majority of
responses to this question fell in the 1 range. Responses that receive a score of
1 could do so in different ways. Many are entirely composed of summary, as
in this example: “Starting with the first line of Chaucer’s General Prologue,
I can immediately tell that we are being given background information of
the time that the story is being told. ‘Whan in April with his showres soote’
leads me to believe that we are in April and there are rain showers, so it is
definitely spring time.” Here the student might be attempting what resembles
an analytic move with the phrases “I can immediately tell” and “leads me to
believe,” but the response does not get past plot summary. Other 1 responses
tend toward the impressionistic: “The way in which the first three lines roll
off my tongue in a lively fashion suggest that there is a mischievous tone to the
tale.” On the whole, a 1 response simply does not present adequate analytical
or evidentiary work to support the conclusions drawn.
The responses that receive a 2 are a bit better but still offer conclu-
sions not supported by adequate evidence:
As Chaucer describes it, April is a time of renewal, growth, and break in the
tradition of the old, in the case: March’s drought that April’s rains “perced to
the roote” (l. 1 – 2). This imagery is easily applicable to the tales of the pilgrims in
Chaucer’s company: spring had awakened in them a desire to grow, to discover,
and to visit the roots of their culture and religion (l. 12 – ff ).
Here, the analytical connection between the natural imagery and the pil-
grims’ desires is apt, and more specific than a response that would earn a 1,
yet it lacks the supporting textual evidence that would bring it to a 3. Another
common type of response to earn a 2 pays attention to detail at the level of
word choice and attempts to analyze sound but remains impressionistic:
“Soft vowel sounds present in words such as ‘longen, goone, and sonne’
allow the lines to flow together. Also, rhyming increases the sense of fluid-
ity. For example, ‘showres soote’ and ‘perced to the roote’ create a very calm
tone and feeling of peace between mankind and nature.” This response does
some things well, such as noticing repetitions of a certain type of vowel sound
and calling attention to the regular rhyme scheme; there is something of the
attention to detail involved in close reading. However, the responder does not
effectively analyze those details.
Responses that earn a 3 contain adequate analysis and evidence.
Often, a 3 response draws a persuasive conclusion backed up by underdevel-
As Chaucer writes, “Of Engelond to Canterbury they wende/ The holy blisful
martyr for to seeke/ That hem hath holpen whan thet they were seke” (16 – 18).
Tinkle, Atias, McAdams, and Zukerman Teaching Close Reading Skills 515
Interestingly, though, this religious note only appears at the very end of the sentence,
a position that seems to de-emphasize its importance. Indeed, it almost seems
as though the beautiful scenery serves as the greatest incentive to embark on a
pilgrimage, rather than any religious reasons.
This response makes a credible point about the tension between religious
and natural urges that abounds in this passage; it attempts to back up its
claim with evidence based on word-placement, a fairly sophisticated analyti-
Responses that earn a score of 4 or 5 demonstrate greater awareness of
detail and multiple meanings than responses that earn lower scores, and are
also better able to articulate a broader significance in the passage (a thesis or
gesture toward a thesis — at the least, a main idea). We think of 4s as responses
that would be 5s but for certain weaknesses, such as the following response:
Chaucer begins his General Prologue with stacked images of spring’s natural beauty,
which arouse a sense of awakening in the reader and mimic the growing Wanderlust
of the Canterbury pilgrims. Lively verbs reinforce this awakening as Chaucer
personifies each image of springtime. In the first few lines, “April with his showres
soote” “perced” the dry soil of March “and bathed” the plants and “engendered”
the flower (1 – 4). Had the plants simply been watered and, later, bloomed, the reader
would not sense such excitement when the near-dead nature transitions into a ripe
and reproductive spring. These verbs transfer the restlessness of spring plants to
the people, inspiring action as if it were contagious as the plague. This connection
becomes clearer when “Nature” “pricketh” “folk” in their hearts, inspiring the
itch to embark on a pilgrimage (11). Chaucer also achieves this connection between
people and plants using diction associated with human anatomy or human nature
to describe nature. He mentions the “veine” of the flowering plants, the Zephyrus-
“inspired” “holt and heeth,” and the “tendre” shoots (6 – 7).
This response presents convincing analysis at the level of word choice and
makes a well-supported point about the connection between plants and
people in Chaucer’s passage. It is weakened by a misreading of just whom
Nature “pricketh,” and the response does not quite develop a coherent main
idea about the passage. A 4 response is often a persuasive analysis that con-
tains errors in use of metrical labels or genre definitions or that, for instance,
confuses poetry with prose or drama or a novel (which happened surpris-
Two responses in the first set of quizzes register a distinctly higher
level of achievement than the rest, and they earn a score of 5. Although these
responses are not perfect, they work at a higher level than most of the 4s and
enable us to use every level from our rubric on each long-answer quiz. Here
is a selection from one of the 5s:
The imagery of the first four lines, such as the fresh spring rains piercing
“droughte . . . to the roote” gives readers a sense of regeneration and renewed
purity. However, there also seems to be a subtle not [sic] of sexuality in line four,
“ . . . engendred is the flowr.” Flower was a word used to describe virginity, while
engender (according to the OED), could have been used (at the time) to mean,
“[o]f the male parent: To beget” or “[t]o copulate, have sexual intercourse.” In line
five, the speaker talks of “Zephyrus” blowing his sweet breath, thus personifying
wind, creating a mystical or fairy-tale like atmosphere. However, the use of
“Zephyrus” is also an allusion to Greek mythology, which seems somewhat out
of place in a tale concerning a Christian pilgrimage. Another occurrence of this
religious contrast is in line eight, with the speaker’s reference to Aries, “the Ram.”
One reason for these instances of mythological allusion may be to foreshadow the
not-quite wholly Christian, perhaps even heathenish, value system of some of the
characters within the story.
This response shows an awareness of layers of meaning and presents persua-
sive evidence for its conclusions at the level of word analysis. It also ties an
insightful reading of the passage to larger themes and discourses, providing
an understanding of the significance of those connections, and suggests the
writer has a clear, coherent idea about the passage. The ability to use detailed
evidence to explain significance is the most important factor in awarding this
response a 5.
A graph of the first quiz rankings (fig. 2) demonstrates the range and
distribution of students’ achievement at this point in the term. As is clear from
this graph, which resembles a lopsided bell curve, the two most common
scores for Quiz 1 responses, making up 84 percent of the class, were 1 (55
percent) and 2 (29 percent). Only 14 percent demonstrated adequate analyti-
cal work by earning 3s, 4s, or 5s. These results demonstrate that a significant
majority of students arrived in the class reading at a relatively superficial
level: they do not generally exhibit analytical thinking, nor do they notice
detail and subtlety or track multiple meanings as they read. Of course, the
29 percent with scores of 2 include some analysis into their writing; however,
their work has not yet matured to a level at which they consistently turn
observation into analysis or provide textual evidence for their conclusions.
Most students have a long way to go to be able to develop persuasive close
Tinkle, Atias, McAdams, and Zukerman Teaching Close Reading Skills 517
readings. Quiz 1 serves as our pretest of the students’ skills at the start of the
class. The second and third quizzes measure their skills development over
the course of the semester.
The Second and Third Long-Answer Quizzes
As the semester progressed, the long-answer quizzes grew more challenging.
The second long-answer quiz posed this interpretive problem: “Chaucer
describes the ‘gentil’ Pardoner in considerable detail in the General Prologue
(ll. 671 – 716). Develop a close reading of this passage (about three paragraphs)
in which you present a clear thesis and consider more than one kind of evi-
dence (e.g., diction, imagery, tone, point of view).” This quiz fell after a lec-
ture on the General Prologue that engaged students in deciphering Chaucer’s
tone and mode of characterization of several pilgrims, but passed silently over
the Pardoner. The responses therefore captured students’ attempts to transfer
what they learned to a new passage. Their improvement will be apparent in
two representative examples of writing that follow. For the sake of efficiency,
we will focus on the responses that earned a 3 and 5, which should suggest
the range of responses students are developing at this point in the term.
Scores that earned 3s tended to contain both strong and weak quali-
ties. The compelling parts of the analysis, if extended throughout the entire
response, would have earned a 4, while the weaker parts would have earned
a 2 on their own. Consider the following response:
Figure 2. Quiz 1 rankings
In The General Prologue, Chaucer uses diction, imagery, and tone to expose and
discredit the Pardoner’s proceedings, while revealing the irony that lies within the
Pardoner’s religious title and appearance and his truly immoral, non-Biblical acts of
tricking and stealing from the people around him; Chaucer proposes in his prologue
that the Church is not entirely pure and honest.
The imagery in this passage is also a very powerful tool which Chaucer uses to
reveal to readers the true selfish nature of this Pardoner; this is made evident by his
clever juxtaposition of the Pardoner’s most religious attributes with his greatest acts
of deceit. One clear example of this juxtaposition is in the lines that read “A vernicle
hadde he sowed upon his cappe, his wallet bilforn him in his lappe,” (687 – 688)
where Chaucer illustrates the image of the portrait of Christ’s face, followed
immediately by the wallet that he carries around in his lap, with which he will cheat
others into giving him money.
Here the first paragraph is not quite on target and presents an overly general
thesis (“the Church is not entirely pure and honest”). However, in the last
paragraph, the student offers a perceptive close reading of the juxtaposition of
the wallet and the religious artifacts. Clearly, the student is developing some
of the skills needed for an effective close reading.
The higher quality of a 5 response is readily apparent in the following
Chaucer uses imagery and diction, accompanied by the Chaucer pilgrim’s ironic
tone and satiric point of view, to portray the Pardoner as an increasingly deceitful
character. . . .
Near the beginning of the passage, Chaucer describes the Pardoner’s hairstyle
in great detail, mentioning that he “hadde heer as yelow as wex / But smoothe it
heeng as dooth a strike of flex” (l. 669 – 70), and “But thinne it lay, by colpons, oon
by oon” (l. 680). The Chaucer pilgrim’s descriptions of the Pardoner’s “yellow”,
“flaxen”, “smooth”, “thin” and “strand-like” locks are so incredibly detailed and
image-laden, they suggest that the Pardoner’s character is overly vain or stilted, a
notion confirmed when Chaucer writes, “Him thoughte he rood al of the newe
jet” (l. 684). This likely ironic remark reveals that the Pardoner thinks he’s a
fashionable man and uses his flaxen locks to flaunt that fact. However, consider
the Chaucer pilgrim’s later remark that “No beerd hadde he, ne nevere sholde have; /
As smoothe it was as it were late yshave: / I trowe he were a gelding or a mare”
(l. 690 – 3). Although the Pardoner aims to portray himself as a male fashion plate,
this passage confirms that his appearance and lack of facial hair cause the Chaucer
pilgrim to both question his gender and sexuality and also satirize the Pardoner as a
conspicuously unmanly figure who resembles a “gelding” or “mare.”
Tinkle, Atias, McAdams, and Zukerman Teaching Close Reading Skills 519
Here we see a specific thesis that encompasses not only the description of the
Pardoner but also the narrative techniques and point of view that Chaucer
employs to create his characterizations. The analysis contains detailed close
readings of significant, well-selected details and makes persuasive assertions
about how and what the text means.
About a month later, the third and final quiz asked students to write
about King Lear: “What is the significance of rhyming in King Lear? At what
points do characters rhyme, which characters do so, and to what end? Cite
the play by act.scene.lines (e.g., 1.1.17 – 18).” This question was selected from
student contributions, and it addresses a topic not covered in lectures on the
play. As the question reflects, our demands on the students increased from
one quiz to the next: the first long-answer quiz asked them to analyze a sen-
tence, the second to explicate a passage, and the third to interpret an entire
play. The questions became more difficult conceptually as well, requiring
longer responses. Although some students’ close readings improved when
they had more space to develop their ideas, longer was not necessarily better.
Since our rubric focuses attention on what happens at the sentence level and
where the analysis is or is not developed, shorter responses often earned just
as much distinction as longer ones.11
Despite considerable general improvement in the students’ close read-
ing skills over the course of the semester, some students still earned a score
of 1 on the final quiz. The following example of a 1 response demonstrates
improvement in observational details from earlier quizzes but lacks analysis:
When Lear banishes Kent from his dominion, “The moment is thy death. Away!
by Jupiter, This shall not be revoked,” Kent delivers a rhyming soliloquy to mark
his departure (1.1.175 – 176). As a faithful servant to Lear for so many years, Kent is
both angry because of his banishment and melancholy for having to leave his closest
comrades. He sincerely begins this formal farewell with “Fare thee well, king. Sith
thus thou wilt appear, Freedom lives hence, and banishment is here,” refraining from
voicing the bitterness he undoubtedly still feels towards Lear (1.1.177 – 178).
This response grasps Kent’s character but presents no argument as to what
purpose rhyme is serving in this speech.
Many students, by contrast, generated intriguing and original ideas
about the text in response to this challenging quiz. The following excerpt is
taken from a response that earned a 3:
The purpose these rhymes serve, when coming from the Fool, is to solidify into
silliness the actual problems faced by the King. However, because of his nature,
Lear always manages to dismiss the Fool’s hidden metaphoric warnings as mere
entertainment. This is unfortunate, because the Fool breaks into rhyme whenever he
feels he should bestow his (correct) opinions upon the ears of Lear. A sharp contrast
to the poetry of the Fool remains Lear’s violent outbursts, which usually issue forth
in inconsistently rhyming meter or prose (1.1.123 – 139, 1.5.270 – 285, 2.4.262 – 284,
3.2.14 – 24, 4.6.96 – 104). Shakespeare thus demonstrates for his audience the rashness
of Lear’s non-rhyming utterances with the wiser Fool’s more thoughtful poetic
displays. Rhyming becomes synonymous with sanity, and prose with the craziness
surely occupying Lear’s degenerate mind.
This response presents an insightful interpretation of Shakespeare’s rhyming.
It makes a persuasive if counterintuitive point about rhyme but does not quite
go into sufficient depth to earn a 4 or 5.
In the following excerpt, from a response that earned a 5, the student
draws on a careful reading of the text as well as historical knowledge gained
in lecture to develop an original and debatable argument:
Many of the rhymes in King Lear would likely have remained in the heads of the
audience members both during and after the performance, especially Shakespeare’s
original audience, an audience “trained in memorization” [lecture cited].
Shakespeare uses the attention rhyme calls to itself to link characters in the minds
of the audience and to emphasize when a line is didactic.
In discussion on Friday, people struggled to recall Goneril and Regan’s
names. Instead the class referred to them as Cordelia’s sisters and didn’t distinguish
between which one of the two characters said or did anything in the play. Why
are the two so homogenous in our collective memory? At the end of Act 1 Scene 1
Goneril and Regan remain on the stage. Their dialogue abruptly transitions from
verse to prose as the other characters exit:
goneril: You see how full of changes his age is; the observation we have made of
it hath not been little: he always loved our sister most; and with what poor
judgment he hath now cast her off appears to grossly.
regan: ’Tis the infirmity of his age; yet he hath ever but slenderly know himself.
(1.1 290 – 295)
Although these lines are prose, Shakespeare makes use of internal rhyme, rhyme
approximations, and repetition. In Goneril’s lines, “Changes” approximately
rhymes with “age is”, “observation” approximates rhyme with “hath not been”,
“most” shares assonance with “grossly,” and “he” rhymes with the “ly” of “grossly”
as well. As Regan responds, she rhymes “ ’tis” with “is”, and “infirmity,” “he,” and
“slenderly” rhyme with “he” and “grossly” from Goneril’s line. Regan also repeats
the words “his age” calling back to Goneril’s lines. Even when the two are speaking
Tinkle, Atias, McAdams, and Zukerman Teaching Close Reading Skills 521
in prose in a manner that distinguishes their sound from the other characters, they
use rhyme similarly, continue each other’s rhymes, and repeat not only their own
sounds but one another’s. At least part of the difficulty distinguishing between
Goneril and Regan can be explained by the inseparable nature of their speech.
This response demonstrates thoughtful attention to detail at the level of word
choice and is well supported with specific, convincing textual evidence.
Indeed, this amounts to a draft essay. It contains a specific thesis, reveals an
understanding of complexity, and demonstrates an intimacy with the text that
can only be achieved through careful reading.
After assessing all the quizzes, we compiled the results in a graph
that demonstrates a marked improvement over the course of the semester
in our students’ close reading skills, as measured by the online long-answer
quizzes (fig. 3). The improvements this graph documents are apparent in
the samples of student work discussed above. For the first quiz, 57 percent
of students who took the quiz were working at the 1 level: they were reading
superficially and writing summaries and impressionistic responses. By the
second quiz, most have learned that those types of responses do not qualify
as successful close reading: only 23 percent of quiz-takers remained at the
1 level, while 46 percent earned 2s by including some analytical elements in
their responses, and the remaining 30 percent — over twice the number for
the first quiz — incorporated persuasive analysis and evidence as defined by
a score of 3 or above. By the third quiz, 22 percent of respondents remained
Figure 3. Quiz comparison
at the 1 level and 38 percent at the 2 level, and the number of 3s, 4s, and 5s
again increased: 39 percent of the students were now making clear arguments
supported by varying degrees of detailed textual analysis. In other words, for
the first quiz over half the class was not writing analytically, by the third quiz
almost 80 percent of the students were doing some analytical work.12
over, a mere 14 percent of students on the first quiz demonstrated fairly to sig-
nificantly strong close reading skills (as defined by a score of 3 or higher), but
by the third quiz nearly half the students were doing so — an almost threefold
increase. Our results show that our students were learning and utilizing the
skills required to develop effective close readings.
Assessing Student Learning: Formal Essays
The long-answer quizzes were one component of an integrated system
in which several kinds of writing assignments built on each other, and
we believe that this integration was crucial to the course’s effectiveness.
Throughout the term, students were required to write every week, often more
than once a week. Besides the long-answer quizzes, students regularly posted
discussion questions online. In addition, some writing assignments asked stu-
dents to imitate a selected verse form or style, and they shared these produc-
tions (sometimes gleefully) with each other during discussion sections. These
low-and middle-stakes writing assignments encouraged students to pursue
their own interests and to develop independence; they allowed instructors to
discern how students’ skills were developing and shape discussion sections
around students’ interests.
As with the long-answer quizzes, these low-and middle-stakes writing
assignments were designed to improve the high-stakes writing students did
for the course’s two major essays, one four pages in length and the other six.
As mentioned above, we scheduled the long-answer quizzes to provide stu-
dents with practice and feedback shortly before the formal essays were due.
Similarly, the other short writing assignments were integrated with the formal
essays in that we developed the essay prompts from students’ online posts.
For each essay, students were asked to “perform in writing a close reading of
a passage of poetry or drama, demonstrating an ability to read for significant
details and analyze how those details create and enhance implicit as well as
explicit meanings.” A sample prompt was: “Animal imagery recurs numerous
times in the texts we’ve read. How does this imagery function in a particular
passage? For instance, you might consider instances where a character in
either Doctor Faustus or King Lear employs animal imagery. What does the
Tinkle, Atias, McAdams, and Zukerman Teaching Close Reading Skills 523
imagery suggest about the speaker or the subject (the person or thing being
compared to an animal)?”
The essays required students to use their close reading skills but
also to demonstrate their ability to produce a thoughtful, provocative, and
well-supported argument. Whereas the long-answer quizzes were exercises
based on and evaluated exclusively in terms of close reading, the essays tested
proficiency in other skills as well.13
We felt that what distinguished essay writ-
ing from close reading was primarily the added requirement that students
construct and sustain an original argument. This can be seen in the essay
grading rubric that we distributed to students along with the essay prompts
(fig. 4). An essay graded as a D or E was defined negatively as not meeting
this standard for one or more of the criteria. The essays expanded students’
competence in close reading at the same time that they pushed students to
perform the even more complex task of integrating close reading into an
original argument about the text. Some essay prompts in fact invited students
to revise and expand their response to the most recent long-answer quiz. For
those prompts, a student’s original close reading could serve as the seed of a
longer, argument-driven essay.
The improvement in students’ grades between the two essays suggests
that students’ close reading skills improved significantly. Of the 115 students
who submitted both essays, 22 percent improved by two-thirds of a letter
grade or more; 35 percent improved by one-third of a letter grade; 29 percent
When we read your essay, we will focus primarily on its thesis and evaluate
your use of several kinds of specific evidence to support it:
A Develops a coherent analysis of several aspects of the passage (e.g., diction,
image, and tone), and demonstrates how parts of the text function together to
create both implicit and explicit meanings. Advances a clear and persuasive
thesis through a thoughtful selection of evidence. Does not generalize! Uses
textual details to support interpretive claims.
B Analyzes several aspects of the passage quite well, and develops a clear thesis,
well supported by evidence. Tends to have more superficial and obvious
arguments than in an A essay, either in the thesis or in the specific details
considered. Does not generalize.
C Analyzes one or perhaps more aspects of the passage fairly well, remaining
relatively general about just how the poem (or prose passage) works as a poem
(or prose passage).
Figure 4. Essay grading rubric
earned the same grade on both essays; and 16 percent earned a lower grade
on the second essay than on the first. Although improvement in essay grades
is not as great or as general as we hoped it would be, most students’ grades
do indicate a significant improvement in their ability to write persuasively
We have not performed on the essays the rigorous qualitative assess-
ment we completed with the quizzes, but we have collectively examined
samples of students’ work and identified similar trajectories of improvement.
Our assessment of the online long-answer quizzes structures our evaluation of
essay improvements. This paragraph from a student’s first essay, for instance,
is impressionistic and packed with personal examples:
After we are introduced to “a gentil Pardoner,” six lines later we are told his hair is
as yellow as wax. He could have said as yellow as a butter cup. Wax suggests that it
was stiff and greasy. In the next line we learn that it hung smoothly as does a hank of
flax. These are photos of flax, the first from the cave of Qumran. Although it is pale
yellow, it does not appear smooth to me. Chaucer could have said a smooth as silk.
The word choice indicates that he does not intend to flatter him. It is convenient that
wax and flax make a true rhyme and that neither term is flattering. “Such locks as he
had hung down thinly” — this is unlike the advertisements for L’oreal.
Rather than analyzing further the ways that Chaucer’s language creates an
unflattering description, the student used images copied from the Internet to
support his argument.
This student’s growth is clear in his second essay for the course, on
John Donne’s Holy Sonnet 14:
Line 11 continues with a one-on-one conversational tone but the urgency returns
with a call for action: Donne begins with a trochaic substitution in a five foot line:
“Divorce me, untie or break that knot again;” a declarative ordering/pleading
with God. “Again” tells us that he has been there before, and may be there again,
a depressing and anxiety producing state of affairs, it seems to me. And line 12
also starts with a trochaic substitution a declarative to God, “Take me to you,
imprison me, for I,” . . . Again, we see evidence of the desperation claimed in the
thesis statement. However, as resolution approaches (a mini volta), we see that
line 13, which has 11 syllables, could be read as iambic pentameter if one reads it
merging “you” and “en” — “Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,”. And line 14
completes the final couplet with perfect iambic pentameter, “Nor ever chaste, except
you ravish me.” The reader notices the return to peaceful iambic pentameter in the
final couplet, with no trochees or spondees here.
Tinkle, Atias, McAdams, and Zukerman Teaching Close Reading Skills 525
Instead of looking outside the text at visual or pop-cultural material, here
the student supports his claims through an in-depth examination of Donne’s
manipulation of diction and sound. The student scans the poem in order to
compare Donne’s metrical choices with what he knows to be conventions of
the sonnet form (iambic pentameter; the volta) and shows how Donne both
deploys and departs from these techniques in order first to fracture and then
restore peace with his “three-personed God.” It is not only the student’s
close reading skills that have improved, but his ability to form an argument:
whereas his first essay presents the unsophisticated observation that Chau-
cer’s narrator mocks the Pardoner by describing him in an unflattering man-
ner, the second shows how form and content operate in tandem by claiming
that “the literary decisions that Donne makes, his ars poetica, emphasize the
prayer’s helplessness, his sense of failure, his terror, and the urgency and
importance of God’s assistance.” By providing a critical vocabulary that helps
him both notice and discuss attributes of the text, close reading practice has
aided the development and demonstration of this student’s analytical skills.
Similarly, the following student’s essays provide an example of how
even strong students were able to use close reading to improve their analysis.
Here is a representative paragraph of her first essay, on the Anglo-Norman
poem Lanval by Marie de France:
The physical description of the Fairy Lady and her possessions illustrates to
the reader that her wealth, wisdom, and beauty are too great for her to truly be
considered a living creature of this world. When Lanval first sees the Fairy Lady,
he is immediately in awe of the tent the Fairy Lady lies in. In fact, he proclaims that
“no earthly king could own this tent” (91). Before even seeing the Fairy Lady, Lanval
already admits that it is impossible to even comprehend the beauty and illustration of
massive wealth that the tent conveys. The fact that the tent is too majestic to exist in
the world foreshadows that the owner of the tent is an imaginary creature as well.
Here, the student uses textual support, but marshals it toward the obvious
point that the Fairy Lady is supernatural. The quotations restate what the
student has already paraphrased, and there is little actual analysis. In con-
trast, her second essay both makes a more complex point and proves it more
The irony lies in that Lear is really the “fool” in the play. Lear responds angrily to
Cordelia’s statement of “nothing, my lord” (1.1.89) in response to his request for
flattery because this simple line has a direct impact on him: Lear now has only two
daughters to care for him instead of three. However, the “fool’s” roundabout manner
of speaking means nothing to Lear because the words are just hidden warnings and
not directly increasing his suffering. Lear even asks the “fool” “dost thou call me
fool, boy?” (1.4.145), but then fails to respond in a violent rage because of the tangled
mess of metaphors and rhyming the “fool” applies. For example, in lines 1.4.161 – 164,
the “fool” sings to Lear: “fools had ne’er less grace in a year; for wise men are grown
foppish . . . ” Through this song, the “fool” attempts to explain to Lear that wise
men are putting the “fool” out of a job because they are acting so foolish themselves.
Once again, Lear completely misses the direct insult and responds with “when were
you wont to be so full of songs, sirrah?” (1.4.165). Unfortunately, the “fool” is the one
person in the play Lear actually needs to listen to because the “fool” is not concerned
with flattery and power. He knows that Lear is not acting in a rational manner and is
not afraid to tell Lear to change his actions.
The student makes strong use of textual evidence to support her claim that
Lear is actually foolish while the fool speaks the truth through intricate meta-
phors, rhymes, and allusions that Lear does not follow.
The difference between this student’s two essays is apparent in the
thesis statements as well. The first essay merely points out that the “initial
description of the immeasurable beauty and power of the Fairy Lady . . .
foreshadows the eventual dispossession of Lanval as a result of his decision
to find true love instead of attempting to gain stature in society.” The sec-
ond essay, on the other hand, reads beyond the surface meaning of the text.
The student argues that “Shakespeare tends to place a greater emphasis on
rhyming in speeches by ‘the fool’ in order to illustrate that the truth is not
always easy to figure out and accept. The inability of Lear to decode the truth
hidden within the ‘fool’s’ rhymes and riddles inevitably leads to his tragic
downfall.” Here, the argument is not only supported by textual analysis but
emerges as a result of it: attention to rhyming highlights Lear’s flaws.
Taken together, these four essays from two students show that our
close reading interventions not only taught students to provide evidence for
their claims but also led them to new and more complex interpretations of
Literature survey courses like ours are traditionally organized around the
goal of students mastering the content: developing insights into and expertise
with canonical (and/or noncanonical) literary works and engaging with schol-
arly interpretations of those works. Such a privileging of content mastery can
come at the expense of fostering students’ development as thinkers, readers,
and writers. Close reading is a skill necessary to the serious engagement with
Tinkle, Atias, McAdams, and Zukerman Teaching Close Reading Skills 527
literature of all periods and central to students’ intellectual development,
regardless of their major. The class we taught enrolls the occasional engineer,
scientist, classicist, and historian as well as many English majors with varying
levels of enthusiasm about fulfilling their pre-1600 requirement. Few of these
students will pursue careers in which a familiarity with the specialist content
of our course will be a valuable asset. By concentrating on close reading, we
invite students to learn transferable skills: the critical analysis of texts, the
presentation of evidence, the correct use of disciplinary terms, and the ability
to frame questions for research and analysis.
We designed a learner-centered, skills-oriented survey course that
sought to build students’ historical literacy through a focus on textual details
and to develop the reading and writing skills that would serve them well
in other courses and in life. We sought, ultimately, to involve students in
the production of what Geoffrey Harpham (2011: 33) aptly calls “uncertain
knowledge, knowledge that solicits its own revision in an endless process of
refutation, contestation, and modification.” No small task. On the whole, we
agree with the Modern Language Association’s Report to the Teagle Founda-
tion (2009: 3) that “reading and writing are not natural or instinctive skills
but skills contingent on a lengthy learning process in which students practice
reading and writing as an interrelated, complementary pair.” The evidence
presented here demonstrates that despite their difficulty, these skills can
be taught: students can improve their close readings substantially even in a
single course and even when that course is a large lecture.
In order to accomplish this, we sought to provide students with ample
opportunities to practice the skills of critical reading and writing. Each com-
ponent of the course, from the lectures to discussion sections to the quiz-
zes, was designed with the goal of maximizing active student practice of
close reading skills. These priorities necessitated a course that was writing-
intensive, and although this emphasis is unusual in a large lecture class, our
experience and existing research suggests its potential value (see Boyd 2010).
One might fear that teaching a writing-intensive large lecture course
would burden the instructors with the onerous task of giving students writ-
ten feedback on all their voluminous assignments. Although our course was
writing intensive for the students, however, it was not particularly grading
intensive. Additional student writing exercises need not be accompanied by
a commensurate increase in grading time. The feedback the lecturer gave on
quizzes was brief, necessarily so given the number of students and the other
demands on faculty time, but also focused on offering one or two pragmatic
suggestions for improvement on the next quiz or essay. We chose to give
students limited feedback on their quizzes for pedagogical as well as practi-
cal reasons: we propose that the quantity of the individual written feedback
students receive is less important to their skills development than the practice
they gain from repeatedly writing analyses. The low-and middle-stakes writ-
ing students practiced on quizzes likely improved their high-stakes writing
The instructors responded to online posts and other informal
low-stakes writing tasks orally during class time, using the online posts as
prompts for deeper discussion. Of course, grading the two formal essays was
labor intensive, but less so than might be imagined as the comments focused
primarily on the quality of close reading and on a few suggestions for improv-
ing argument skills in the next essay.
The class developed an integrated model in which pedagogical ele-
ments reinforced each other and different modes of intellectual engagement —
reading a text, generating a discussion question, responding to a quiz prompt,
writing an essay — were linked by their common emphasis on close read-
ing. The skills-based organization of the course helped streamline the work
required to respond effectively to students. Though reading a text closely and
producing a written close reading remain two separate and recursive actions,
the vocabulary used to describe and evaluate them is the same. Even as the
course grew more challenging, instructors could build on concepts previ-
Additionally, without requiring a great deal of written feedback,
students’ performance on quizzes served an important diagnostic function,
revealing to the entire instructional team the range of skills within the class
and enabling the lecturer to shape lectures to provide timely instruction
tailored to students’ actual abilities and needs. The quizzes also informed
planning for discussion sections, and the discussion sections and lectures for
each week were substantially unified by instructional goals specific to current
levels of student performance. In this context, even with minimal individual
feedback, students improved their skills significantly. The salient factor in
learning to perform close readings is apparently the repeated doing of it,
supported by continual explicit discussion about what makes for a cogent,
Having assessed a large quantity of student writing together, we have
formed a clear and accessible rubric with which to structure our future teach-
ing. In future courses, we will use the rubric to establish course goals and
provide students with consistent and explicit formative feedback. In fact, in
the subsequent manifestation of the course, in fall 2011 with a new group of
graduate student instructors, the faculty author used the assessment rubric
Tinkle, Atias, McAdams, and Zukerman Teaching Close Reading Skills 529
and examples of student work at the beginning of the term to define the learn-
ing goals of the course, and the rubric to direct her grading of the online long-
answer quizzes. This gave students clear signposts about their developing
skills and areas that could use improvement. The results were startling. The
2011 undergraduates performed from the beginning at a much higher level
than their peers did the year before, and they ended at a much higher level.
The graph in fig. 5 details the 2011 students’ rankings for the first and last
online long-answer quizzes in the term.
In 2010, the vast majority of students’ responses for the first quiz were
in the 1 to 2 ranking; in 2011, at the same point in the term, the vast majority
of students are working at the 3 level, and far more produced work rated 4 or 5
by the end of the term. Clearly, the students used the specific and intelligible
rubric to shape their approach to online long-answer quizzes. The rubric
made lucid to them what does and does not qualify as a compelling, nuanced,
detailed close reading. The rubric appears therefore to have considerable
pedagogical value, if only because it presents students with what exactly we
mean when we ask them to develop a close reading. It is clearly helpful for
students to receive explicit details about our expectations, for us to explain
to them precisely what we mean when we say “close reading.”
The idea that faculty and graduate student instructors can effectively
focus on teaching close reading skills in a large lecture course seems estab-
lished by the present research project, at least for our institutional context.
Through the teaching, research, and writing phases of this project, we have
Figure 5. Online long-answer quizzes, 2011
discovered that it is entirely possible to break down what we do when we read
a text closely, to explain to students how they might do something similar,
to help them develop analogous skills, and thereby to enable them to access
more of a text, with greater appreciation of its nuances. We have discerned, to
our immense gratification, that as students improve their close reading skills,
they begin to make more sophisticated arguments, present more specific
claims, understand and appreciate historical differences more fully, invent
their own relation to the past more self-consciously and reflectively, and,
above all, write more compelling analyses of texts. These are, we think,
worthwhile results from an undergraduate class.
Coda: Pedagogical Collaboration
As instructors, we continue to reap many rewards from this integrated model
of teaching close reading skills, rewards that go beyond our primary goal of
achieving our desired instructional outcomes for the undergraduate students.
The course also yielded important professional discoveries for us, particu-
larly about collaboration in teaching and research. Our collaboration began
through weekly meetings during the semester; the primary purpose of these
meetings was to foster increased self-awareness of how successful our peda-
gogical strategies were in teaching close reading, and indeed, the meetings
resulted in numerous productive changes of direction and revisions through-
out the course. Yet the meetings also prompted us to reflect on the process
of collaboration itself. It immediately became clear that working together
required us to become more articulate with each other about what we mean
by close reading and how we intend to teach it to students. Once the course
ended, we transitioned from a pedagogical to a research collaboration, which
presented us with new challenges and lessons. Working together to write a
grant proposal enabled us to lean on each others’ skills, areas of expertise,
and experiences of the course in order to pursue a common goal of assess-
ing what students learned and how. During the grant period, the summer
after we taught the course, we benefited from much-appreciated institutional
support for conducting research and managing a qualitative assessment of
In preparing this article for publication, we have learned that graduate
student instructors are frequently marginal to scholarship on teaching and
learning, are not mentioned in the usual descriptions of pedagogical strate-
gies, and are treated discursively as absent, even when graduate students are
employed grading papers in the courses described.15
In our own department,
faculty are sometimes heard remarking that they do not wish to spend time
Tinkle, Atias, McAdams, and Zukerman Teaching Close Reading Skills 531
mentoring graduate student teachers: the graduate students are there “to
make my work easier.” For our part, we would insist that the collaboration
of faculty and graduate students in large lecture courses can benefit all the
instructors while enhancing undergraduate education. We would go so far
as heartily to recommend faculty – graduate student collaboration, including
working together to determine the content and design of the course, work-
shopping lesson plans, and teaching with a specific and shared scholarly-
pedagogical mission in mind.
There is also a great deal to be said in favor of collaborative publica-
tion efforts. The collaboration allows graduate students to learn a series of
replicable steps that they can use in future work: how to define a research
problem, find and integrate relevant scholarship, identify a venue for publica-
tion, organize and present research in an appropriate format, and go through
the submission process. Teachers often speak about the benefits of “chunk-
ing” learning activities: breaking complex tasks down into manageable pieces
and sequencing them for effective progress toward learning goals. Graduate
student progress toward publication can be viewed in the same way. Graduate
faculty typically expect students to revise a course paper into an article inde-
pendently, as an entirely original piece of scholarship, with perhaps a bit of
feedback on drafts. This is the model of a profession that greatly values origi-
nality, and this model can and should continue. We might sensibly add to it
another, complementary model, however, based on projects over which we
can legitimately collaborate. Working on the grant research and this article
together allowed all of us to improve our understanding of and ability to help
others with the process of turning original research into a publication. For the
graduate students, it increased both our familiarity with the process of writ-
ing a publishable article and our confidence to undertake such a task alone.
Teaching offers many opportunities for collaboration; faculty and
graduate students often teach courses together, or separately teach courses
with similar instructional goals. Collaborative pedagogy involving faculty
and graduate students could foster mentoring and improve both cohorts’
self-consciousness about pedagogical strengths and weaknesses. It could
also improve the coherence of the curriculum, at present often unhealthily
divided between writing (typically seen as graduate student and adjunct ter-
ritory) and literature (often reserved for faculty). Pedagogical collaborations
that combine writing and literature could usefully remind us that we are all
involved in both, and that there is no effective instructional focus on literary
texts that does not include attention to student writing.
We conclude with a call for additional research in two areas integral
to our concerns in this study. First, we urge scholars of pedagogy to study
more fully what students are actually learning, as well as devoting attention
to what instructors are doing. The analysis of teaching practice can produce
and disseminate provocative ideas about pedagogy, but these theories are
only partially useful in the absence of serious consideration of what students
actually learn thereby. Our experiences suggest the value of a teaching prac-
tice focused on active learning, which invites undergraduates to act as peer-
teachers, involved in a collaborative learning endeavor. The study of what
and how students actually learn, as well as how teachers teach, is vital to this
project. Second, and for similar reasons, we urge further study and imple-
mentation of successful faculty – graduate student collaboration. Just as we
aim to increase active, participatory learning for our undergraduate students,
so should we improve graduate students’ access to pedagogically meaningful
experiences. Thinking more actively about how faculty and graduate students
can work together is necessary both to the professional training of gradu-
ate students for an increasingly competitive job market and to the effective
instruction of undergraduate students. Our experiences demonstrate how
such collaboration can be beneficial to all parties. More study and experi-
mentation will help determine the best practices for this ubiquitous and
undertheorized mode of undergraduate teaching.
We gratefully acknowledge the material and intellectual support of the University of
Michigan Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, which funded our research
through an Investigating Student Learning Grant (2011 – 12). The center staff generously
helped us navigate our qualitative assessment of student learning and the mysteries of
charts and graphs. Special thanks go to Deborah S. Meizlish, our guide throughout the
long process; she contributed greatly to our research and analysis of data. We are also
tremendously grateful to two thoughtful and generous Pedagogy reviewers’ reports that
helped us expand and refine our discussion of the evidence of student learning. Not least,
we heartily thank the students in our courses for their thoughtful, engaged participation in
the many pedagogical experiments we pursued with them.
1. See Summit 2010. The Stanford faculty invented a collaboratively taught three-term
sequence “aimed at delivering broad, synthetic perspectives and organized around
literary-historical throughlines and paradigm shifts over the broad sweep of thirty
weeks, with the collaborative participation of many faculty members from many fields”
(148). These courses are designed to deliver specialized content knowledge, with
students presumably being assessed on the basis of their mastery of that content.
2. For a cogent critique of this paradigm, see Weller 2010: 88.
Tinkle, Atias, McAdams, and Zukerman Teaching Close Reading Skills 533
3. For a good brief introduction to active learning in large lecture courses, see
McKeachie and Svinicki 2011. Research on the value of this approach includes
Burroughs 1993, Langer 1998, Chick 2009, Lo and Prohaska 2010, Mompo and
Redoli 2010, van Eeden-Moorefield and Walsh 2010, and Manista and Gillespie 2011.
We take seriously critiques of “student-centered teaching” (e.g., Lauter 2010: 109 – 10)
but remain convinced that active learning is potentially more powerful than the
4. We are indebted to pedagogical scholarship tackling this question from different
angles, especially to Dasenbrock 1987 and Chick, Hassel, and Haynie 2009.
5. The term “close reading” is freighted with its association with New Criticism.
Although we are conscious of and do not wish to ignore this history, our definition
of “close reading” is distinct from, even if indebted to, its New Critical uses. We
agree with those who argue that we do not need to return to New Criticism, only
to acknowledge the theoretical underpinnings of all modes of reading in teaching
students to read critically (e.g., Axelrod and Axelrod 2004; Bialostosky 2006); we
also concur with those who define close reading in a manner more capacious than the
New Critical framework allows (Bass and Linkon 2008). While these authors hold, as
do we, that “close reading” is a term elastic enough to support definitions beyond the
New Critical, others attempting to escape the hegemony of this school of criticism use
alternative terms such as “explication” (Watts 2010), “simply reading” (Garber 2010:
146, original emphasis), and “slow reading” (Modern Language Association 2009:
8) to describe practices akin to the ones we advocate. Regardless of nomenclature,
the value of the skills encompassed by “close reading” is widely recognized; for more
on close reading as a vital interpretive practice and instructional goal, see Modern
Language Association 2009 and Gallop 2010: 15 – 19.
6. David Laurence (2011: 5) cogently comments on the value of classroom assessment
“to gain insight into what is (and is not) happening” in the classroom. Ken Bain (2004:
150 – 72) astutely argues that the assessment of student learning is a core measure of
7. These instructional goals agree with the priorities of the Modern Language
Association’s Report to the Teagle Foundation on the Undergraduate Major in
Language and Literature (2009).
8. The online system we used is powered by the Sakai platform, a web-based course and
collaborative environment that the University of Michigan, along with a consortium of
9. For the advantages of low-and middle-stakes writing, see Elbow and Sorcinelli
2011. This is called “writing to learn” in Katherine Gottschalk and Keith Hjortshoj’s
wonderfully thoughtful guide The Elements of Teaching Writing (2004: 80 – 84).
10. It should be noted that we have complied with all institutional guidelines for
conducting research on human subjects.
11. Of course, since longer responses give students more space to articulate a nuanced
argument and provide more evidence to support it, often responses that earned higher
scores tended to be longer. We think, however, that the strength of these responses
comes from the strength of the close readings, not from the way they mimic the form of
an analytical essay: not all long responses were strong.
12. As is to be expected, there is some attrition in student participation: 125 students
completed the first quiz; 110 completed the second; and 107, the third.
13. We asked students not to consult secondary critical sources when writing quiz
responses or essays. We encouraged them, however, to deepen their interpretations by
consulting the Oxford English Dictionary or Middle English Dictionary.
14. This paragraph substantially agrees with Gottschalk and Hjortshoj (2004) about the
potential value of writing in large courses.
15. For example, Jennifer Summit’s (2010) description of Stanford’s curriculum
innovation does not mention graduate assistants. In private correspondence with one
of the authors, she reports that graduate students’ teacher training constitutes the next
phase in the course development.
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