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Workshopping Student Claims for Close Reading

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Students' various thesis statements of a particular passage are compared
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Brief Assignment Overview: 

Students are given a passage to close read and asked to compose a short analysis paper.  After submitting the paper, all claims/thesis statements are compiled anonymously and discussed in an in-class workshop.

Pedagogical Goals - Literature: 
Additional Pedagogical Goals: 

This exercise is designed to introduce students to the skills of close reading and thesis/claim formation.  It also eases them into peer review and provides the oppotunity to discuss what makes a strong thesis.

Required Materials: 

This exercise can feasibly be completed without any classroom technology.  That being said, it works well with a media console/projector and a computer - so that the list of claims can be presented to the class.  I did, nonetheless, make hand outs with all of the claims to give each student. 

Timeline for Optimal Use: 
Full Assignment Description: 

After practicing some close reading as a class, students are given a short writing assignment requiring that they analyze a pre-determined passage of text.  For my course, I used a speech from a Shakespeare play (The Tempest) as this offers a particularly rich source in a minimal number of lines.  It's important that the passage be fairly short and that the students all work individually on the same passage.  A short passage encourages them to read extremely closely, and having all of them analyze the same passage will help to highlight the varying ways of reading that each student will bring to a text.

After students have submitted their assignments, I then cull each paper for its major claim or thesis statement regarding the passage.  For this kind of short writing assignment, I ask my students to directly begin the paper with their claims - which makes it easy to extract the thesis, and it encourages students to be direct and to the point. I then compile all of the claims into a hand out (keeping them anonymous), and we discuss the claims during the following class period.

While I have mixed feelings about workshops in general, this sort of focused and highly anonymous workshop allows students to see each other's work in a low-stakes and informative manner.  I ask them to pick out some of the "stronger" claims and identify the characteristics of such claims.  We also discuss how other claims might have been improved.

Suggestions for Instructor Preparation: 

It's particularly important to keep this exercise anonymous and not to favor particular thesis statements in the handout.  I scatter the thesis at random - avoiding an alphabeticl (by student) recreation or a list that moves from "good" to "bad."  I find it more useful to let the students evaluate the quality o the claims than to feed them my own thoughts.  By pointing out to the class that we're looking at the work of their peers and that this is a learning exercise, I've found that most students are kind and thoughtful in their responses. It helps the students who are less certain of their writing abilities or less comfortable making claims, by giving them concrete examples from a text with which they are familiar.  It also helps the stronger writers articulate what makes a thesis "strong" or "weak." (I try to avoid the evaluative labels of good and bad, in favor of strong and weak).

Instructions For Students: 

Now that we’ve had some practice close reading in class, it’s time to apply these skills on your own.  For this assignment you will write a 1-2 page single-spaced close reading of the passage below, offering your own analysis of the passage’s significance both on its own and in the context of the work as a whole. 

Your reading should take the form of a mini-essay, or an excerpt from a longer work.  Avoid a long general introduction, as that would come off as mere space-filler in this type of short assignment. Begin with a claim or thesis stating what insight your reading will provide into the work as a whole, and then offer evidence from the passage to support your claim.

The bulk of your paper should consist of a close examination of the passage given. It is not enough to merely note interesting syntax, images, tone, etc. You must connect these details back to your claim/thesis for your reader, and show how the language of the passage expands, contradicts, or otherwise complicates your initial insight. 

In a paper this short there is no need for a summary at the end. However, you should try to say what the implications of your reading are in a manner that is more complex (because your reader knows more now) than your original claim/thesis. You may want to suggest other passages in the text that would be useful complements, or make a larger claim about the author's argument.

Papers should be MLA formatted (though single-spaced), with your last name and page numbers in the header, and with the passage included at the top of the page.  Please see the student example for both formatting and content guidelines.



Ay, sir; where lies that? if 'twere a kibe,

'Twould put me to my slipper: but I feel not

This deity in my bosom: twenty consciences,

That stand 'twixt me and Milan, candied be they

And melt ere they molest! Here lies your brother,

No better than the earth he lies upon,

If he were that which now he's like, that's dead;

Whom I, with this obedient steel, three inches of it,

Can lay to bed for ever; whiles you, doing thus,

To the perpetual wink for aye might put

This ancient morsel, this Sir Prudence, who

Should not upbraid our course. For all the rest,

They'll take suggestion as a cat laps milk;

They'll tell the clock to any business that

We say befits the hour.

Evaluation Suggestions: 

The in-class exercise is not evaluated, while papers are graded according to instructor's discretion/rubric

Notes on Reception, Execution, etc.: 

Most of my students found this exercise extremely helpful - both because they were able to see a variety of different readings of the same text, and because they were provided a series of concrete examples of what a "claim" or "thesis" might look like for a close reading.  Particularly for students who are less comfortable with close reading, this is a fruitful opening exercise.

Additional Resources: 

Here are some of the student examples (provided with permission) written about the passage above:

Claims about Antonio’s Speech in The Tempest (Act II, Scene 1) 

In this passage from The Tempest, Shakespeare portrays Antonio as a crafty man who thinks of nothing but power and who uses words to manipulate others.

The above passage from Shakespeare’s play The Tempest underscores the idea of power, and the attempts to assuage the consciences of those who choose its usurpation. 

In this passage, Antonio is described as cold hearted and mean person, and he does not value others especially who are obstacle to his success.

Within The Tempest there is a constant struggle for power between the characters. A common channel the characters use in trying to achieve this power over one another is manipulation.  

This passage from Shakespeare’s The Tempest is rife with strong connotations, imagery, and irony, providing a rich subtext to the great opportunity laid at the feet of Sebastian, who up to this point was simply a source of bitter humor in the play. There is no more insightful example of power struggle in The Tempest than in Sebastian’s swing in temperament before and after Antonio’s cold reply.

In this passage from Act 2 Scene 1 of The Tempest, Antonio’s alternating pronouns and powerful imagery highlight Antonio’s different point of views between his inferiors and himself, and his ability to manipulate those around him with his words.

Antonio in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest proves to be an honest, considerate character.  This notion appears most apparently through Antonio’s relationship with Sebastian. Shakespeare augments Antonio’s personable personality through the character’s actions, word choice and syntax. 

In this passage from The Tempest, in which Antonio responds to Sebastian in regards to his “conscience,” Antonio resolves to persuade Sebastian that it is okay for him to murder, as he himself has no “conscience” after having done the same for the throne of Milan. Antonio persuades by example. 

In this passage Antonio justifies that circumstances, derived by personal feelings towards remorse, can define the meaning of guilt in different ways. Here, Antonio is proposing a different world to Sebastian; a world without the feeling of guilt. 

Many people would claim that Antonio is the obvious villain in The Tempest. This may be true from Prospero’s point of view, but that does mean that Antonio is not the typical evil villain. In fact, he is simply a true realist and this passage helps prove that point.

Antonio’s passage proves that Antonio is indeed an evil conspirator who does not feel bad about uprooting his brother Prospero and would not feel bad about killing the King of Naples, Alonso, for the power that would accompany it.



Course Description: 

I used this assignment in my introduction to literary studies course, E314J Literature and Theater.

The broad goals of this course are to introduce students to the basic tools of literary analysis and to develop students’ own critical writing. No expertise in literary criticism or theater is presumed. 

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