New Criticism, Close Reading, and Failing Critical Literacy Again

When the Common Core debates drift toward advocacy or critiques of the standards themselves, I have refused, mostly, to engage with that conversation because I believe debating the quality of CC concedes too much. I remain opposed to CC regardless of the quality of the standards because of the following reasons: (1) CC cannot and will not be decoupled from the caustic influence of high-stakes testing, (2) all bureaucratic and mandated standards de-professionalize teaching, (3) accountability/standards/testing as a reform paradigm has failed and nothing about the CC iteration offers a different approach, except that this is called “national,” and (4) there is absolutely nothing in the CC agenda that addresses social or educational inequities such as disproportionate discipline policies, course access, and teacher assignment.

So with due trepidation, I now wade into the few but needed challenges being offered about how CC encourages “close reading” of texts.

First, let me highlight that my primary field of teaching writing offers a powerful and disturbing parallel model of how the accountability/standards/testing movement supplanted and destroyed evidence-based pedagogy.

I have detailed that the rise of best practice in the teaching of writing in the 1970s and 1980s was squelched by the accountability era begun in the 1980s; see Why Are We (Still) Failing Writing Instruction?

As well, Applebee and Langer offer a chilling refrain of best practice in writing wilting under the weight of standards and testing in their Writing Instruction That Works: Proven Methods for Middle and High School Classrooms.

Reading instruction and reading experiences for children, we must acknowledge, will suffer the same negative consequences under CC and the related high-stakes tests because there are no provisions for implementing CC that change how standards and tests are implemented (often each round of standards and tests are simply infused into the current practices) and, in reality, CC approaches to reading are new names for traditional (and flawed) reading practices.

Next, I strongly recommend the following pieces that essentially confront the central problem with CC’s focus on close reading (and as I’ll expand on below, how close reading continues the traditional view of text-based analysis grounded in New Criticism—and thus excluding critical literacy and the powerful contributions of marginalized writers and critics [1]):

Reading Without Understanding — Common Core Versus Abraham Lincoln, Alan Singer

Martin Luther King Jr. and the Common Core: A critical reading of “close reading,” Daniel E. Ferguson

I want here, then, to add just a few more thoughts on why committing to CC and close reading fails against the gains we have made in understanding the complexity of responding to texts in the context of the words on the page, the intent and biography of the writer, the biography of the reader, and the multiple historical contexts that intersect when anyone reads any text.

Let me start with an example.

I began my poetry unit always with “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams:

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

My instructional goals with starting here are many, but in part, this poem was ideal to make a key point about how we respond to text. I would read the poem aloud and then ask students to close their eyes and envision a wheelbarrow. Then I would ask several to describe what they saw.

The exercise highlighted that many students pictured wheelbarrows in various positions. I always shared with students that I always see any wheelbarrow turned up on its front edge, leaning against a tree because my father was adamant that a wheelbarrow must not sit with the body of the wheelbarrow turned so that it can gather water, which leads to rust forming.

This activity allowed us to discuss what readers can say about the text of a piece, distinguish that from their personal responses (the text says nothing of how the wheelbarrow is sitting, but dictates that it is red, for example), and tease out how writer intent, text, and reader affect create the possibility of dozens of credible, although different, interpretations.

From there we began to confront what counts as “right,” as well as who decides what is “right” as an interpretation.

I made certain my students understood how to conduct a New Criticism analysis and stressed that school, teachers, and many testing situations (notably Advanced Placement) honor only such approaches to text.

Next, however, we challenged that dynamic and began exploring how each student’s empowerment and autonomy rested on having a broad set of lens through which to engage with text, through which to unmask power dynamics embedded in authoritative interpretations of text. [2]

This, of course, is the province of critical literacy.

Ironically, if we use a critical reading of CC and calls for close reading, we discover that “close reading” (and the move by David Coleman from writing CC to leading College Board, where AP and SAT tests are spawned) is simply a repackaging of text-only approaches to text embraced by New Criticism (see the history of New Criticism in the ELA classroom in “A Richer, Not a Narrower, Aesthetic”: The Rise of New Criticism in English Journal (English Journal, 101(3), 52-57).

Like the mechanistic and reductive ways in which New Criticism has been implemented in formal schooling in order to control and measure objectively how students respond to text, CC and the focus on close reading are poised to serve efficiency models of high-stakes testing while also failing students who need and deserve the complex and challenging tools afforded with critical literacy.

CC and close reading—if we wade into debates about the quality of the standards—are nothing new, in fact. Advocates of CC are ironically proving why instead of close reading we need critical reading.

Context matters.

[1] See, for example, Literature: The Reader’s Role, Louise M. Rosenblatt (May, 1960), The English Journal, 49(5), 304-310, 315-316.

[2] See how I use a children’s book, Click, Clack, Moo, to introduce students to Marxist and Feminist critical lenses for texts as a contract to text-based analyses: “Click, Clack, Moo”: Why the One Percent Always Wins.

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17 thoughts on “New Criticism, Close Reading, and Failing Critical Literacy Again

  1. I insist in calling the “close reading” now being advocated Close Reading 2.0. The insistence on cold reading with no context in particular is so antithetical to my understanding of close reading that I feel as if we’re getting another piece or Orwellian relabeling here.

  2. Personally, I’d rather teach students read through new criticism than through any historical approach. Historical approaches tell students WHAT to see; they reduce literature to propaganda.

      • That which we use to describe often becomes a recipe. I believe the historical approach often teaches students to look for something in a work of literature that might not be there, my never have been considered by the writer, might not be any part of that writer’s vision, desire or intended creation. We humans, as pattern recognition animals, WILL find what we look for.

      • I don’t understand. Who is to dictate what is there and what is not there? According to your comment you are effectively assuming that absolute authority thereby doing the exact thing you denounce in your first comment…telling students what is all right to see and what isn’t…you are the one advocating for a stifling recipe. You assume that there exists a right or wrong interpretation set in stone, undeniable, not to be challenged or questioned. And none of this relates to the definition of propaganda. Furthermore just because something is not intended in a work of literature does not mean it’s not there. Prejudices and and social, political, and historical contexts tend to inject themselves into works of art whether the author is conscious of them or not. Why? Because humans are historical beings. We don’t exist separate from the world which influences us and which we influence. Of course we will often find what we look for…but the point of analyzing a work of literature by its broader historical and sociopolitical context and how that context might relate to our lives is to broaden our perspective not narrow it.

  3. RT, if I understand correctly, CCSS imposes on the student the limitation of reading the piece without any supporting context, i. e. “close reading”. which should maybe be called “closed reading” instead. CCSS then limits the range of contextual information available to the student, thus turning the entire exercise into an opportunity to propagandize the student.
    “When I look back on all the crap I learned in high school, it’s a wonder I can think at all…” Paul Simon (Kodachrome) Nothing new here, just the same old stuff, repackaged.

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  5. Excellent. Our job is to teach New Criticism, put it in context, (including the real-world context of who will be grading them) teach other methods, and coach the students so that they make thoughtful choices.

    We don’t mandate the “right” approach, any more than the right answer.

  6. Outstanding essay. I was trained, for the most part, by New Critics, and I value the approach, but there are many ways in and out of texts, and I share your antipathy for invariant, top-down “standards,” for all the reasons that you articulated so concisely and clearly above. Thanks for this. It was a pleasure to read.

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