Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Bialostosky, "Should College English Be Close Reading?"

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 (114)

"Paying close attention doesn’t guarantee even minimal understanding or response" (112).

"The New Critics were so successful in promulgating and institutionalizing this practice [close reading] that our students come to college English convinced that they can’t understand poetry, or literature more generally, because they have learned to distrust their initial uptake in order to highlight certain words and build from them a reading that will satisfy what they have learned is an institutional demand for deeper, hidden, 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 must address and not a practice it should continue" (112).

"So, paradoxically, I must conclude that close reading in its institutionalized New Critical instantiation has created the habits and expectations of reading literature that college 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 “close reading,” it would be because they would bring literary works closer to students, 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 close reading by marking out, without naming, a pedagogical space where we teach productive 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 list:

"To what features of the poem or literary work or text do they direct attention?
How do they articulate the relations among those features?
What questions do they think are most fruitful in directing their students’ 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 “in” the text and what is “outside” 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 pedagogies—grammar, rhetoric, dialectic, linguistics, semiotics, ethics, politics, sociology, philosophy, among them—and 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 teach differently?
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).

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