Close and Distant Reading of Student Work

DIGIWRIMO 2012: Close and Distant Reading of Student Work
Yesterday a colleague talked about the importance of teachers seeing the “Big Picture” of student success–of understanding not just what they were doing in the classroom, but also how what they were doing in the classroom connected to something larger–the student’s life before they got there and the student’s story after they left.

This makes me think of Franco Moretti and “distant reading”–how his methodology promotes a way of reading not just the local text but the local text within a vast context of all that was being thought and said–not just (Arnold’s) “best that has been thought and said.”

So this theme emerges then and a tension within it: when we read, we must choose what to read. And when we teach, develop expertise, study, write, we must choose where our focus will be. How can one do close reading and distant reading too–of texts and of students? When we know one small datum about a student–that they failed math twice last year or that this is their first term in college–what does that really tell us? When we read that “battle” is a word that is far more likely to be written in texts by American men than American women until the peak battles of the Civil War, what are we really reading? What are we finding out? I like that Ted Underwood reminds us that when we discover some such pattern it is only the beginning of  a question and not actually an answer.

Still, the tension between close and distant work with students–between reading up close what they have written, commenting on it up close, meeting with them in our offices–and reading about how few of the students who succeed in one’s own class will actually complete their degree–it reveals a problematic lack of correspondence between our efforts as teachers and the effects of those efforts–a lack which is rather demoralizing.

Perhaps that’s why institutions have traditionally separated out this work of close and distant reading. That institutional research reports gives the report cards to ed boards and faculty give the report cards to students. [499 words]


1 thought on “Close and Distant Reading of Student Work

  1. Barbara Sullivan

    This is interesting, Anne! I agree that the close/distant thing is both traditional and institutionalized, but (rebel that I am) I also think it’s artificial. Even though the first small datum we learn about a student’s Big-Picture journey is “only the beginning of a question,” we can still PURSUE that question, and encourage our students to do the same. Writing teachers are in a unique position in this regard: we assign narratives, we value authenticity, we teach inquiry and critical thinking, and aim for transfer–all of these can be applied by the student in service of finding out why, for example, he or she failed math twice–and what to do about it.

    Collecting a significant amount of data that’s relevant to an individual student’s success is pretty easy, actually–except for then having to honor and bear the burden of what they willingly reveal when someone asks. Truth be told, teachers who bridge the gap are thrust into a more complex role, one that most of us were not trained for–that’s an unfortunate and serious lack in our own education. The typical English professor, for example, is perfectly comfortable analyzing a character in a novel from both close and distant perspectives, but applying the same skills to a real human being can scare the hell out of that same teacher if he or she is unprepared to deal with the result when a student is honest. Teachers who ARE prepared–through training in counseling, an empathetic temperament, or maybe just experience (when you’ve been around enough of life’s blocks enough times, nothing really fazes you), and who have a caring heart, are mentors not just in their discipline, but also in life. These are the teachers everyone remembers–many of us were lucky enough to have at least one of them in our lives, someone who understood and believed in us before we could do that for ourselves.

    Not every teacher has all the right stuff for that role, but every teacher COULD learn to be better at it. In the same way that DH aims to re-envision and broaden the humanities so as to marry traditional analytical skills with new-world content, we need to broaden our understanding of what a teacher really does (or can do!) if we really want to improve student success rather than just measure its demise. As with DH and technology, humanities professionals (and especially English/Composition specialists) are uniquely positioned to do the work of efficiently helping students get a grip on themselves and their potential. “Efficiently” is the operative word here; nowadays, students need mentors who can guide them through the kind of exploration that a four-year liberal arts education used to provide, in one ten-week term—because otherwise, they are either going to fail outright, or rack up more debt than their ill-chosen career path can ever pay off.

    I know this is a ridiculously long comment—it’s testimony, I hope, to the importance of the topic you’ve articulated here and also, on a more personal note, it’s my effort to cheer you up as regards the “demoralizing” issue ☺ –I think we can do something about this!

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