Teaching Particulars: A Review

David Randall

Helaine L. Smith

Teaching Particulars: Literary Conversations in Grades 6-12

Paul Dry Books: Philadelphia, 2015. 246 pp.


Helaine Smith’s book recounts in streamlined form conversations she had with her middle- and high-school students over the years—conversations meaning the directed discussion of particular texts, where the teacher’s questions are meant to evoke thought and analysis on the part of the student. Smith is a devotee of close reading, and focuses her students on the particular sounds of poems, the particular choice of words in novels, so that they can see how closely bound up the meaning of a text is in these details—how the meaning of Shakespeare’s sonnets is bound up in their caesuras, how the characters of Jane Austen’s novels are delineated by their different uses of the exclamatory mode. We can see how Smith’s close reading works in the account she gives of teaching John Donne’s “Goodfriday, 1613, Riding Westward”—or rather, the account Smith gives of ninth-grade students using the close reading technique they have learned from her.

Someone else replies, “The last six lines, 37 to 42, are a single unit. Donne changes course and now says that his turning his back on the east is purposeful, and that the purpose is not ‘pleasure or businesse,’ as he said it was in the poem’s opening. Instead, it is ‘to receive / Corrections.’”

By which he means … ?

“I think it’s very literal. When you’re whipped or scourged, it’s your back that’s struck. He is asking Christ to ‘correct’ him in this way, until Christ, in his ‘mercies,’ leaves off.”

“And then,” someone adds, “he says something remarkable—at least remarkable to us. ‘O thinke mee worth thine anger.’ He’s saying that he hopes he’s worth God’s scourging. And that in that scourging his ‘rusts’—his corruptions—will be burnt away.”

“After that,” someone goes on, “he pleads that God ‘Restore thine image,’ which must mean something like, ‘Let your goodness become part of me.’ And adds, ‘by thy grace,’ which, I think, means that even the process of burning away his ‘sinnes’ cannot make him pure enough to see God—only God’s grace can do that.”

“And then, in the beautiful, concise turn at the very end, he says, that when that happens, ‘I’ll turne my face.’”

“The poem’s final turn,” someone adds, is on the word ‘turne.’”

“And perhaps reflects the turning ‘Spheares’ we hear about at the beginning.”

Great job, everyone, I say as the class ends. [pp. 103-04]

The book is an education to the casual reader—Smith has convinced me to put the poems of Anthony Hecht on my Christmas list—and they inspire the impossible dream of going back to the sixth grade and taking English classes again, just to be in class with a teacher like Smith.

The book is fascinating in itself, but it also speaks to questions more centrally concerned with college education. Smith does not answer these questions herself—unsurprisingly, since that was not the aim of her book! Nevertheless, some answers can be inferred from the content of her book.

Does the technique of close reading require the subject matter of classic texts for best effect, or can it be applied to any book with equal results?

Smith’s texts range from the Bible, William Shakespeare, and Donne to John Samuel Beckett, Anthony Hecht, and James Baldwin: modern classics are represented as strongly as the traditional ones. Yet Elizabeth Bishop is no less a master of prosody than Ben Jonson, and Flannery O’Connor no less in command of her prose than Charles Dickens: there is as much for close reading to reveal in the works of Bishop and O’Conner as there is those of Jonson and Dickens. In effect, the technique of close reading is a tool of canon-building. If you learn nothing of a text by close reading, then it shouldn’t be in your canon; if close reading illuminates a text, then it’s worth studying. Close reading therefore is perhaps of most use as a diagnostic to determine which modern texts ought to be included in a syllabus along with the canon of classics. This diagnostic, however, ought to be conducted before actually assigning the books in class.

Is this sort of close reading more appropriate to high school than to college, or is it equally apt for both?

Close reading ought to come first, whenever taught. The basic appreciation of the details of a text, the knowledge that how a story is told contributes to the meaning of what is told, needs to come before the approach to literary theory or thick historical background. This implies a certain sequencing of texts. Dante’s Divine Comedy does require a minimum knowledge of medieval theology and Florentine history for full effect, and Ben Jonson’s Tacitean play Sejanus is aimed for an audience highly literate in the details of Roman history and early modern political theory. Works such as these probably are not the best choices for a ninth-grade close reading. It is not so much a question of whether close reading is best suited for college, but rather that college is the place to integrate close reading with literary theory and thick historical background, and that texts that benefit from all three modes of inquiry are better suited for college.

Can close reading be taught in college?

If college students have never been taught close reading before, it may be a struggle to get adults to bother to learn the basic technique. Yet if sixth graders can be taught close reading, than college freshmen can. The question may be rephrased as, “Are college teachers capable of teaching close reading?” And, “Are college classes small enough to allow for the sort of discussion which is the best medium by which to teach close reading?” College students can be somewhat intractable, but the capacities of the professors and the schools are more to the point.

Is it only appropriate for gifted students, such as Smith has taught through her career at Hunter College High School and Brearley?

Maybe only a gifted sixth-grader can begin to do close reading properly—but any college freshman ought to be the equal of a gifted sixth-grader. The standard college freshman is equipped to learn at least the basic technique, and that would be a very great thing to get from a college literature course.

What does close reading offer that other techniques don’t?

At the very beginning of the book, Smith recounts how she teaches her sixth-grade students the account of Creation in Genesis. As her fairly secular students seek out the meaning of the words, they also uncover its theological meaning—begin to understand the text as something more than a document to be studied, but rather as communicating to them a message of great importance. Historical background and literary theory assume that in important ways you know more about the book than the author does; close reading assumes that you have something to learn by paying attention to what the author wrote, and by thinking the author is in complete command of his words. This is at least as useful an approach in college as it is in the lower levels.

Smith’s book, in short, although it addresses high-school English, provides a very useful framework for how to approach college-level literary study—indeed, college-level humanistic study in all the disciplines. She shows how close reading can illuminate texts, and draw out students to do much of their own education. The greatest caution one can draw from her book is that teaching close reading properly is a very great skill indeed—Smith makes it seem easy, but a close reading of her text reveals that you must be very talented to teach as well as she does. One may surmise that professors who can teach close reading are in shorter supply than students who can learn from it. There is no easy answer to this particular problem—but knowing where the bottleneck lies is half the solution.

Image Credit: Public Domain.

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