Testing out a teaching idea: library instruction meets close reading

Hello, neglected blog! I’m still here, just preoccupied with other writing projects, so blogging has fallen rather by the wayside. I have plenty of updates to share about said writing projects, but I’ve been meaning to post this, so here goes.

Last semester I was prepping for a library class when an idea popped into my head. I haven’t had a chance to try it out yet, because it’s specific to a particular type of literature class, and it would require a lot of advance coordination; really, it would need to be an assignment in its own right. And for that I’d need to collaborate with a faculty member who’d want to assign the assignment. But I think it would be interesting, and potentially productive, so I’m writing it down here so I don’t forget it.

One of the assignments I had to do as an undergrad English major that’s stuck with me the longest was the “annotate a poem” assignment. The way I recall it, it went like this: The class was divided up into small groups, and each group was assigned a short poem. (My group had Wordsworth’s “The World Is Too Much With Us.”) Each group had to visit the library and use a set of suggested reference books to produce a set of notes on the poem, explicating difficult vocabulary and unpacking allusions and historical references. Then we had a follow-up assignment where we had to work individually, pick a poem ourselves, and do the same thing but then turn the explication into a paper.

The great thing about this assignment was the way it joined “close reading” and “research,” which are often treated as distinct categories in undergraduate English classes. You’re supposed to learn to read closely by focusing on the text and the text alone; research means finding and interacting with the work of literary critics. But — especially for relatively new undergraduates — the language of a poem can be disorienting without some background knowledge. (What, in the Wordsworth sonnet that my class read all those years ago, is “sordid boon” supposed to mean? How do you know who Proteus and Triton are if you haven’t read up on your Greek myths?) It’s hard to close-read, in other words, without at least a little bit of research, even if that research consists of looking up an unfamiliar word or trying to track down an allusion.

So my idea is to adapt this assignment for a one-shot library class. I’d keep the small group part of the exercise, and either assign them all different poems (which they’d all have to read before the class met) or sections of one longer poem, which could be interesting as well. I’d give them a list of recommended reference sources, both online and off-: the OED, the Oxford Classical Dictionary, Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, the Dictionary of Literary Biography (for background information on their poets), maybe an atlas or gazetteer, whatever else might help with the poems in question. Or, perhaps, each group could use a different reference source on the same poem. They’d spend a substantial chunk of the class working on their annotations, during which I’d circulate to offer help to individual groups; then we’d spend some time at the end discussing them. The groups could present their annotations during the library session or during the next class, or they could hand them in at a later point.

Obviously one would have to choose the poems and poets for this assignment carefully. I can’t see this working very well with either extremely plain-spoken poets or with very “difficult” or postmodern ones. (Though I would love to give a group of students Matthea Harvey’s “Poem Including the Seven Wonders of the World” and see what they made of it, given a little nudging towards sources that could tell them what the seven wonders of the ancient world were.) One would probably have to offer some suggested starting points. But I think the idea has potential.

If any of you are doing anything like this, I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

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