‘Close Reading’ sucks the fun out of the English major

I assumed the agony of analysing texts line by line finished as the pen dropped in my final HSC English exam. USyd had other plans.

I assumed the agony of analysing texts line by line finished as the pen dropped in my final HSC English exam. USyd had other plans.

The ‘Close Reading Exercise’ assigned to first-year English majors hands once animated and driven bookworms into rethinking their entire identity as a reader. The task requires students to make an evidence-based argument about a text studied within the unit, solely based on the author’s intent and used language devices within a 750 word limit. The task is mainly introduced in ‘ENGL1017: The Idea of the Classic’ where the Close Reading Exercise is assigned in three out of four assignments. The average mark for this assignment ranged from 67.5 to 69.5 throughout the semester, highlighting a consistent gap in the comprehension of this task. A redditor on r/usyd explained how it is “difficult to understand what the tutors want” and found the “marking particularly harsh”. 

What little guidance is provided to students is formulaic and at times patronising. Students, for example, are given a three-page “Do’s and Don’ts list” exerting phrases such as “don’t make grandiose claims” and to make readers see the text “in a richer, more complicated way”. These meaningless one-liners attempting to equip students with the skills to objectively analyse texts most of us didn’t finish reading. The task is also similar to HSC English, as it requires a ‘PEEL’ paragraph structure that is highly formulaic and restrictive, limiting students’ style and voice in their analysis.

The style of writing required by the Close Reading Task emerged in the 20th century New Criticism literary movement, and was initially valued for its narrowed focus on authorial intention and the promotion of active reading. However, while this may be beneficial at primary and lower high school level, Close Reading fails the students who were taught that the reader determines meaning. 

A ‘classic’ text is not considered classic merely because of its role in starting conversations about power imbalances or its contribution to religious movements. Rather, it is how these ideas are engaged with and challenged by readers over time. Given this, why am I paying to pursue an education that makes me write about what an author has already said? Where is the room for critical engagement that is so crucial to the development of literature?

Whilst I personally hope to dodge this assignment creeping into second-year units, now I’ve begun to wonder whether the days of similes and linking sentences weren’t so bad after all.