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As I was teaching my Introduction to Literary Theory course this semester, I thought a lot about what it is that we’re teaching students to do.  I paid particular attention to the way that I taught students about formalism, which led me to further thinking when we hit other theories, including deconstruction, feminism and Marxism. 


One of the things that’s so difficult about formalism for students -- whether they’re in a theory class or in an introduction to literature class -- is recognizing the rigor and care that we show when we’re serious about close readings.  For years, I’ve been trying to impress upon my students that they shouldn’t settle for a single example of something.  Rather, they should be paying attention to every instance of an image, thinking about how it changes over the course of a text.


It hit me this year that I’ve been framing this all wrong for my students.  It’s all about the patterns.  For many of us -- particularly those of us who are a couple of decades away from our first college English course -- it’s easy to forget that finding themes and patterns of images is not particularly intuitive for most people.  This is something that seemed entirely obvious once I realized it -- and it’s something that many of the questions in anthologies ask students to do (e.g. “Trace the patterns of light and dark in ‘Araby.’”). But how often do we speak to our English majors about patterns?


Of course, it’s not simply about finding a pattern -- or to put it in more scientific language, it’s not all about finding a complete dataset.  It’s about figuring out what to do with that textual information.  What we want to encourage in our students is not simply an ability to find all of the metaphors that are about animals, or all of the images that engage the ear, or every time the color yellow shows up in the novel. Instead, we want to help our students build the pattern and interpret from there.


Even our work using theory requires this special kind of careful thinking: we cannot simply cherry-pick what we want from a text to make the point we want to make. We have to look at all of the possibilities and figure out whether or not they help our thesis or defeat our thesis -- and then we have to go back to reconsider our original impression of the text.


  While I don’t have a particular exercise to help with this -- I’ll be working on that over the summer -- I think it’s an important insight for me.  It provides my English majors some boundaries on their interpretations (it can’t mean whatever you want it to mean, but must instead be plausible. Or, as I tell students, you cannot insist that Hamlet is about pterodactyls in space, because you want it to be.); it also gives us a way to talk about the interpretation of literature with students who are less comfortable with ambiguity.  It gives everyone a way in.

David Eshelman

The Cold Reading

Posted by David Eshelman Expert May 16, 2016

Other creative writing teachers may be surprised how much time the typical playwriting class spends in the act of reading aloud. In my classes, students rarely if ever take their classmates’ scripts home to read silently.  Since plays are meant to be performed, writers learn a great deal more by hearing how their words function in the mouths of actors.  While, in an ideal world, readings would be rehearsed and conducted by trained performers, in reality most readings in a beginning playwriting class will be unrehearsed—“cold” readings—with members of the class.  Though imperfect, these early performances still stand to teach a lot—at least, insofar as they remind beginning writers that words are tied to and derive their significance from performance.


Unfortunately, many instructors do not spend time on the skills of out-loud reading, sometimes called “oral interpretation.”  To help facilitate cold readings, instructors should discuss the reading as a form itself, as a type of performance.  By providing guidelines on author and actor preparation, the instructor can ensure a more valuable experience for all. 


First, playwrights should prepare their scripts for easy reading. They should familiarize themselves with current playwriting format.  They should pay careful attention to stage directions.  While in rehearsed, fully-staged theatrical productions, all stage directions are performed; in a reading, though, they must be read by a narrator figure.  I suggest that writers take care to determine which directions must be read aloud and which directions can be suggested by the actor.  For example, “Pause” and “Sadly” can be acted.  In contrast, a stage direction like, “He walks in dressed like a bird,” should be read aloud or the audience may not understand.  As another example, if one character suddenly and quietly kills another, the audience may be confused unless that stage direction is read aloud.


In their book Scriptwork, David Kahn and Donna Breed lay out guidelines for actors in an unrehearsed reading.  From my classroom experience, my best advice boils down to urging actors to refrain from making bold choices.  For example, I have occasionally heard an actor read a character a certain way—for example, as very lazy or as having a British accent—only to learn as the reading progresses that that interpretation is wrong, leaving the audience confused.  It is far better to read lines tentatively, without undue emphasis on how the speeches fit together.  In other words, at a cold reading, it is the playwright’s job to build a character, not the actor’s.  The actor’s job, then, is simply to express what is present on the page.  In a fuller production, the actor adds details and fleshes out the character; in a cold reading, to avoid an uninformed and incorrect interpretation, the performer should aim simply to neither to add nor detract.


The skills of the reading are different from the skills of production.  But, if considered and thought out, they can yield a positive experience for all.