Bialostosky, Don. "Should College English Be Close Reading?" College
English 69.2 (Nov. 2006): 111-116.
Don Bialostosky’s contribution to the "What Should College English Studies
Be?" symposium in the Nov. 2006 College English works through the
question of whether it should be close reading.
His first thought: it should. From there, Bialostosky sorts through his
favor for close reading, shifting the frame from the phrase’s New Critical
entrenchment to call for a way of working with texts that uses close to
describe the compatibility of reading with the students’ existing discursive
knowledges (e.g., something like NLG’s lifeworlds). Bialostosky refers to the "critical
reading" curricular emphasis at Pitt as particularly exemplary in this regard,
in what might otherwise be regarded as a blend of SRTOL and reading with an
emphasis on "where students are at" when they come to the course.
It’s a short essay at just five or six pages. Bialostosky makes clear
that rather than appropriating the phrase "close reading," he seeks alternatives
to it that help us formulate responses to this: What reading practices to we
consider important enough to teach?
I’ll return to this because, in making a case for distant reading as
heuristic (and heuretic, euretic, eureka!), I want to argue
for alternatives not only to New Critical close reading but to the reduction of
reading practices to interpretive or hermeneutic activities. Instead,
distant reading is also (perhaps foremost) productive, generative,
and inventive, as well aligned, I
think, with rhetorical mobilizations as with interpretive glosses or
stabilized-for-now insights into the meaning of texts. Certainly it can
contribute to each. But mustn’t they must be held in check, made into
hybrids rather than dyads? That said, distant reading practices
must remain enactive or actionary; they must be additive in the sense that the
new forms of knowledge they proliferate propel us into new ways of thinking
rather than folding back into the project of criticism. I like Urban’s
discussions of inertial and accelerative for this.
Bialostosky also mentions the responses offered by I.A. Richards to New
Criticism. This is another place I should return for drawing distinctions
between the close reading (New Critics) and distant reading (Moretti).
Phrases: critical reading (111, 113), unexamined predispositions (112), New
Critics (112), unexamined resources (113), discursive knowledge (113), ordinary
language (113), productive attentiveness (113, 114), death of close reading
"Paying close attention doesnât guarantee even minimal understanding or
"The New Critics were so successful in promulgating and institutionalizing this
practice [close reading] that our students come to college English convinced that they canât
poetry, or literature more generally, because they have learned to distrust
initial uptake in order to highlight certain words and build from them a reading
will satisfy what they have learned is an institutional demand for deeper,
symbolic meanings. I agree with Robert Scholes, who documents the pervasiveness
of this practice, that this kind of close reading is a problem college English
address and not a practice it should continue" (112).
I must conclude that close reading in its institutionalized New Critical
instantiation has created the habits and expectations of reading literature that
English needs to resist and reform, or at least articulate and examine, not the
habits and expectations it should uncritically cultivate" (112).
"If you wanted, as I do not, to call reading grounded in these repertoires
âclose reading,â it would be because they would bring literary works closer to
to the discourse they know and use, instead of distancing, even alienating
those works from the language students already know how to use and enjoy" (113).
"I want instead to open a space for considering alternatives to New Critical
reading by marking out, without naming, a pedagogical space where we teach
attentiveness to literary texts" (113).
Here is a lengthy paragraph near the end of the piece in which Bialostosky
lists questions that might be addressed in review essays that account for "productive
attention to literary texts." I have switched it from a paragraph to a
"To what features of the poem or literary work or text do they direct
How do they articulate the relations among those features?
What questions do they think are most fruitful in directing their
studentsâ attention and to what sorts of evidence do they point their
students in answering those questions?
How do they divide, subordinate, and sequence the parts of what they
think worth teaching?
How do they articulate the relation between what is âinâ the text and
what is âoutsideâ it?
How do they situate the poetic or literary work in relation to discourse in
other spheres of communication including the vernacular and
institutional ones from which their students come?
How do they situate it in relation to other literary texts?
In relation to historical and cultural texts?
What do they teach their students that literary works do, and what do
they teach the students to do with them?
What traditions, arts, and disciplines inform their pedagogiesâgrammar,
rhetoric, dialectic, linguistics, semiotics, ethics, politics, sociology,
philosophy, among themâand from what sources in those disciplines do their
reading practices draw?
Could they offer a theoretical argument for their reading practice
grounded in those arts and disciplines?
Have they troubled themselves to articulate the practice they teach with other
practices, to respond to criticisms addressed from other disciplines or sources,
to differentiate their practices from those who teach under the same banner but
How much of their critical orientation to other schools and practitioners
do they share with their students and how and when do they share it?
What kind of writing do they ask their students to do, and how is it
related to their reading?" (114).