Coursera Learnings: The Close Reading
Word by word, pay attention to the text
Not so long ago I wrote about the Modern Poetry class I’m attending with ~30,000 new friends. We’re watching Professor Al Filreis and a team of dedicated UPenn student TAs react to and discuss Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, Allen Ginsberg and others. The class involves a fair amount of dissecting meanings and is lots of fun. And now we are grading each other’s close readings of a Dickinson text. The Coursera machinery for dealing with a massive online open course is startlingly easy to use and even (sort of) personal. Kudos to Professor Al Filreis and team!
For me this was to be a year off from grading college essays, but these essays are different. People from all over the globe are struggling to sort out what the assigned Dickinson poem means. Some—like me—have never worked this closely with poems. Many of us read our own meanings into the text—often this is linked with a lack of close attention to the words. Even word by word: the close reading demands the individual words add up to something. To gloss over the words is the thing that allows me to pack in my own meanings. I’ve noticed this tendency for years reading ancient texts with small groups: the farther we get from the words on the page, the easier it is to attach our pet peeves to the author’s supposed/assumed point. But the words themselves lead into or out of meaning and belief.
Naturally, there is lots to say as you go word by dash by word. But one thing—from the perspective of conversation—Corman focused on how we know something about ourselves as we stand together in conversation.