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]