As another semester begins, I offer praise for a "less is more" approach in the classroom. In particular, teaching fewer readings than you might usually assign, and teaching them slowly, can allow students to practice close reading and “close writing" in transformational ways. Think of it as "slow reading” and "slow writing” — which, let's face it, is how practiced readers and writers actually work.
I offer poet and essayist Claudia Rankine’s work as exemplary texts for this approach. Andrea Lunsford has blogged about Rankine’s edge-of-the-seat keynote at the 11th biennial meeting of the Feminisms and Rhetorics conference. Lunsford followed up with a post on teaching Rankine’s book-length poem, Citizen: An American Lyric (2014). Both entries reminded me why my co-author, Stuart Greene, and I include Rankine in the 4th edition of our book, From Inquiry to Academic Writing. We chose Rankine’s essay, “The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning,” as a text to slow-read on the topic of race in the U.S.
In this densely woven but accessibly brief essay, Rankine threads back and forth in history to provide a context for her incisive claim: “Though the white liberal imagination likes to feel temporarily bad about black suffering, there really is no mode of empathy that can replicate the daily strain of knowing that as a black person you can be killed for simply being black” (458). Rankine’s essay title comes from a friend, the mother of a black son, who captures this brutal truth: “The condition of black life is one of mourning” (458). Rankine stitches this observation to an almost identical lament in 1955, from Mamie Till Mobley, who insisted the mutilated body of her son, Emmett Till, be placed in public view: “Let people see what I see …. I believe that the whole United States is mourning with me” (460). As Rankine argues, “[Mamie Till Mobley’s] desire to make mourning enter our day-to-day world was a new kind of logic” (460). Imagine inviting students to read those sentences aloud, and to explore what it means to call this violence "a new kind of logic."
Perhaps because she is also a poet, the rhythm and economy of Rankine’s sentences beg us to slow down and ponder the word choices. What could happen if you give your students the space and time in class to consider (on paper, in pairs, in small groups, or in a large group) the implications for the following claim: “We live in a country where Americans assimilate corpses into their daily comings and goings. Dead blacks are a part of normal life here” (459)? What insights might emerge as your students connect these words — shimmering with feeling — with other reading in your course about the media, identity, education, or any number of topics we often teach in composition classes? Imagine returning to Rankine’s rich text as a touchstone, throughout your semester, to see what emerges in the context of other texts — a practice that can become a transformational tactic for lifelong readers.
Rankine’s poetic prose implores us to slow down. These thick and weighty words remind us how wrong-headed the advice is that novice close-readers often receive: “Read between the lines.” No. Instead, we should urge students: Read the lines. Read the words themselves, slowly. Read them aloud. Read them in the context of another writer's ideas, and then again in the context of yet another writer. Read them, certainly, in the context of their own lives, too. See how close reading — slow reading — invites a proliferation of interpretations. That challenge, and that pleasure, is the heart of our courses, and that takes time. Give yourself and your students that gift.