How to Read a Difficult Text

Over the past year, I’ve written several posts that explore how to read difficult texts. In this post, I have pulled together some of the key points in those posts to help you here at the beginning of your studies this semester.

Journal-Blank-Page-676pxMost of the reading we do during the day is desultory. Most of what we consume on the Internet, or during times we want to unwind, reading at the beach…these are usually done without any serious effort put into understanding what we’re reading. But some reading that we do needs to done with a more critical eye because we need to work to understand what the author says, or there’s something important that we need to grasp, or we just need to think about what the author is saying. Because so much of the reading you need to do in your hardest college courses, especially in the humanities and liberal arts, requires serious effort to “get it,” I encourage you to develop skills in close reading. As a philosopher, this is the kind of reading I have to do all the time in my line of work. What is close reading and why do you need to read your assigned texts this particular way?

Close Reading

By the time you enter college, you have probably developed reading habits from email, texting, chatting, and web-based content that cripple your ability to read books and texts that require sustained, careful, reflective reading to be understood. That’s why it’s not enough for your teacher to tell you to “read the book.” You need to know the kind of reading that you’ll need to do–close, or studious, reading–and how to develop techniques or new habits to do this kind of reading well. Here’s the logic:

  • You are assigned books or selections from books of lasting value to “digest,” so you need to study what you read.
  • And if you are going to study what you have read, you need to annotate the text or take notes.
  • And if you annotate or take notes, you should organize and assemble them into some sort of coherent commentary.

Here’s another way to put it:

  • The point of close reading is to be able to critically evaluate what you read.
  • Critical evaluation of what you read must be done by careful analysis of the material until you understand the author’s claims or point.
  • Once you understand, then you are prepared to weigh its merits and demerits more objectively.
  • Objectivity requires you to suspend, or put out of play temporarily, your own private point of view and beliefs, as far as possible.
  • This won’t occur from desultory reading, or when your encounter with an author is on the terms of your own unquestioned, subjective authority, but only by your active engagement with the material and response to the author as a fellow rational being and critical thinker.
  • The best way to do this is by writing up your own take on it: annotations in the text and journaled commentary.

You will need the right tools to do close reading well. A comfortable chair and desk. Accessories such as pens of various colors for different sorts of annotations and underlinings, notebooks. Water, tea, a cup of coffee. Atmospherics and location that will encourage your focus on studious reading, be it a particular playlist or silence, indoors or outdoors, in a library, a study room, a park, your dorm room.

Use a good dictionary to look up any words that are unfamiliar. Look up characters, places, or events that are unfamiliar in an encyclopedia (here Wikipedia may be a helpful resource, but use it cautiously). Find a system of annotations that works for you. Marginal notes are essential. Transpose and arrange your marginalia into more developed thought and commentary. I recommend having a journal for this purpose.

Your learning style might lend itself to making categories and lists, or nonlinear notetaking like maps or trees. If you are taking notes in preparation for a quiz or exam, you will save yourself a lot of trouble if you take the time at the time you read the work to impose a linear, sequential arrangement to your ideas. So apply some systematic method, such as SQ3R or the Cornell system, to organize and structure your notes.

What is Analysis?

So far, I’ve referred to this notion of analysis a lot. So what does analysis have to do with close reading? Everything!

Analysis requires that you first understand the author, to see or hear what the author has to say in his or her own terms. This requires you to enter into a system, that is, accept the worldview and presuppositions of the author as given. Next, your critical analysis begins by looking to the internal logic of that system and to the logical implications of the ideas and arguments contained within it. In other words, once you understand the author’s perspective and argument, look for logical consequences, consistencies, inconsistencies, etc. If you haven’t first understood (listened to) the author within the world in which he or she has written, your response will usually be little more than ideologically motivated fault-finding or anachronistic interpretations. For example, if you simply dismiss Plato’s metaphysics in the Republic and other dialogues, what are you really saying beyond “I don’t care for philosophical idealism” or “Plato annoys me?” What’s the argument contained in such statements? The works of Plato have survived many centuries of uninformed hostility; they’ll outlast another biased reading! You’ll have to push yourself outside your comfort zone to tackle difficult texts.

The Oxford English Dictionary gives helpful definitions of “analysis” and its cognates. Two of the entries are germane to what you’ll need to do in close reading:

Analyze, v. (General): “To differentiate or ascertain the elements of (something complex) in order to determine its structure or nature, and hence to explain or understand it; to examine closely and methodically for the purpose of interpretation; to subject to critical or computational analysis.” (Specialized—Literary): “To examine a text critically to bring out its meaning; to give a critical description of a work especially with regard to its style, structure, or composition.”

Analysis, n. (Specialized—Philosophical): “The investigation of complex ideas, concepts, etc., so as to determine their constituent elements and their structure.”

To analyze a text you examine the specific details you find in the sentences, paragraphs, and chapters of the text, as well as the context. Analysis has a clear direction: it proceeds from the complex to the simple. A relevant and substantive selection does not speak for itself. You must “break it down” by differentiating its elements (words, phrases, sentences, ideas, concepts, and so on) and examining these elements methodically, how they relate to each other, and in their proper context. This comprehensive approach to textual analysis occurs in your thinking about the text. You need to be able to differentiate between the relevant and irrelevant details in the text, and then focus on the relevant ones. Paraphrase your relevant findings from this effort and transpose them into your written notes and commentary.

This is where your thoughts encounter the author’s thoughts. Organizing the ideas of the text into relevant and irrelevant categories assumes that you have some framework, some model, some structure for sorting through those distinctions. This is often the most difficult step–being aware of the conceptual tools that you’ve been using to unlock the meaning of the text in your commentary. If you’ve written down what you think about the reading, then you’ve been using some criteria to justify why you take particular terms, ideas, and claims of the author as relevant or not. As you organize your annotations and write out some commentary, these concepts around which you are expressing your thoughts and discussing the text should become clearer. Eventually, you’ll be able to identify those concepts and figure out if they’re related to each other in some sort of organized, structured way. If you’re required to write an essay or long reflection piece on a reading assignment, this conceptual framework is what you will need to have a strong, insightful, original “take” on the text. And it will all have come about by the careful analysis you did through close reading.

Let’s Do It!

Not long ago I wrote a three-part mini-series on doing close reading and annotations–

Part I

Part II

Part III

RP-3411I used an excerpt from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone that I had used to develop an essay for a philosophy conference and later into a published article. I encourage students to practice alongside my example and use my annotation system. Once you’ve tried it on your own, find an annotation system that works for you. If you’re annotating a text that you are going to write an essay on, then that system might look different than annotations that you are going to use to study for a quiz or test. Make up your own annotation system, adapt mine or another one you find, and use one of the notetaking systems linked above to help you get the most out of the time you spend doing your close reading and understanding difficult texts.

In the comments, I’d like to hear about your annotation system. What has worked for you? What hasn’t worked for you?




galileo-telescopeI have taught excerpts from a few of Galileo’s works–Starry Messenger, The AssayerDialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, Dialogues Concerning Two New Sciences–but the best historical insights and discussions come from a close reading of what can only be called Galileo’s primary theological work, the Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina.

Critical reading and discussion of Galileo and his works, if done from an historically informed perspective, is one of the most profitable correctives to one’s knowledge of the history of science and religion in the pre-Victorian era. As Tim O’Neill wrote in his review of God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science, no version of the “hysterical myths” of a Christian Dark Ages is complete without wheeling out poor Galileo to demonstrate the supposed malicious suppression of scientific knowledge by raving, superstitious cardinals and popes in the Catholic Church. The facts, however, about Galileo, the cardinals, the popes, and the connections between the endeavors of empirical science, its philosophical foundations, and the concerns of religion, as actually played out in early seventeenth-century Europe, are far more complex and interesting than “The Myth.”

In his 2000 book When Science Meets Religion: Enemies, Strangers, or Partners?, physicist and philosopher Ian Barbour describes a four-fold model for classifying ways to relate science and religion: Conflict, Independence, Dialogue, and Integration. “The Myth” has grown weed-like from late nineteenth century polemicists creating and promulgating the “conflict” thesis, the view that science and religion (Christianity) are inevitably at cultural and intellectual war. Despite the fact that this thesis has been long repudiated in academia by the research of actual and competent historians, it persists in the subcultures of armchair Internet polemicists and history-scorning niches of academia itself.

But historical misinformation about Galileo is not limited to axe-grinders. Ignorance about how the great minds in the medieval period advanced the study of nature and the erection of textbook heroes of the Scientific Revolution like Galileo conspire to spread misinformation about who discovered or theorized what and when. Examples abound. From the Wikipedia article on The Assayer linked above, the opening sentence declares that Galileo in this work “first broach[ed] the idea that the book of nature is to be read with mathematical tools rather than those of scholastic philosophy.” No, Wiki friends, Galileo cannot be given credit for first theorizing the connection between physics and mathematics. This insight goes back at least 300 hundred years prior to Galileo, to the fourteenth century. James Hannam quotes one of the “Merton Scholars,” Thomas Bradwardine, in God’s Philosophers,

[Mathematics] is the revealer of every genuine truth (…) whoever then has the effrontery to pursue physics while neglecting mathematics should know from the start that he will never make his entry through the portals of wisdom. (God’s Philosophers, 176, quoted in O’Neill)

Compare the relatively sparse Wikipedia entry for Bradwardine and this group of thinkers, the “Merton Scholars” or “Oxford Calculators.”

And with that incredibly lengthy introduction thankfully behind us, let’s turn to our Core Text outline and get to some key points about Galileo’s Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina

The Obvious

galileoHeliocentrism. The Letter purports to defend the Copernican model of the universe against the reigning geocentric model. You should be able to reconstruct these two models and understand the empirical evidence for them at the time.

Truth. It should go without saying, but these days, one can’t. Mind the distinction between the nature of truths and the knowledge of truths. Galileo argues from the obvious position (and assumes his readers will, too) that the nature of truths is absolute, i.e., nonrelative, while one’s knowledge of any given truth is fallible. (This is not the time to enter into the argument, but the view that the nature of truths is relative–a view I’ve often heard in the classroom asserted as though it were an obvious fact–suffers from the self-refuting implication that there is one truth which is nonrelative, viz., that truth is relative.) One possible source of the disagreement between Galileo and his opponents is the nature and domain of two reports: those from a sacred text and those from sense observation. Does Galileo regard these sources as equally truthful? As equally reliable? If they conflict with each other on some specific matter, how does he think the disagreement should be resolved?

Galileo marshals the Church Fathers and theologians of his own time to support his case. This should matter.

The Not-so-Obvious

A significant portion of the Letter uses the tools of hermeneutics. “What’s that?” Exactly. The four rules for interpreting Scripture formulated by Benito Pereira, S.J., likely informed Galileo’s approach, so you should familiarize yourself with them to gain insights into Galileo’s interpretation of the Bible.

The concept of accommodation is extremely important to understand how Galileo interprets scriptural texts that refer to empirical phenomena and the natural world.

The hermeneutical climax of the Letter is Galileo’s interpretation of a miraculous event described in the 10th chapter of the book of Joshua in the Hebrew Bible. You should familiarize yourself with this text independently of Galileo’s quotations.

Galileo’s self-presentation in the opening paragraphs of the Letter should give you some indication why he sometimes rubbed people the wrong way.

“Natural philosophy” is another name for ‘science’ or ‘physics’, but it is not reducible to the empirical sciences. It recognizes, wrestles with, and often explicitly integrates its philosophical foundations in logic, metaphysics, and epistemology.

AckbarThe Traps

The Myth. Using Barbour’s four-fold model for describing how science and religion relate to each other, you should try to classify Galileo’s position as developed in the Letter. Does Galileo adopt one of the models consistently, or does he move among more than one of them?

Galileo’s relationship with the Church. For much of his career, Galileo enjoyed the favor and patronage of many leaders and clerics in the Church. He worked out key elements of the argument in the Letter earlier in correspondence with these friends, notably Benedetto Castelli. See Maurice Finocchiario’s The Galileo Affair for key materials to appreciate this background.

The Trial. It is helpful to know exactly what the charges were against Galileo that led to his prosecution by the Inquisition in 1633, and the evidence for those charges. Though the Church operated as an arm of civil authority, it is helpful to distinguish between the civil and religious censures and penalties actually enjoined on Galileo.

Francis Bacon

francis-baconI have used extracts from Bacon’s Novum Organum that focus on his well-known “four idols.” This is an excellent text for introducing the significant cultural change in the West to a period that historians designate as modernity. Important features of modernity are present in the text, but it also straddles the preceding era. Do your background research at carefully curated sites like the Stanford Encyclopedia.

The Obvious

The four idols. Know the differences between them and be able to describe them in your own words.

Why “idols?” What is an idol?

This is a text within a text within a text. The selection is from the Novum Organum, or New Organon, which is Part II and the most complete portion of The Great Instauration. Look up words you don’t know so that you can use and refer to them correctly.

The form of the text is aphoristic. This should matter.

The Not-so-Obvious

The “Baconian method” of induction is present, but must be pieced together from several of the aphorisms.

Bacon is an empiricist, but not a naive one. The human intellect is not a tabula rasa. We see through a glass darkly. So if the student wants to investigate and know Nature “out there” he must account for a human nature that is defective, including and especially his own.

Natural philosophy is another name for ‘science’, but it is not reducible to the empirical sciences. It recognizes and wrestles with its philosophical foundations in logic, metaphysics, and epistemology.

AckbarThe Traps

The Baconian method is a scientific method. Beware essentializing Bacon’s inductive method as “the” scientific method.

Then-and-Now thinking. If Bacon’s doctrine of the idols is accurate, it isn’t limited to the errors of his own time. The careful Baconian scientist is not triumphant – “oh those silly benighted rubes in the Dark Ages” – but epistemologically humble. The Baconian scientist is not immune to the errors described by the idols.

Forgetting the context. Read the title page carefully. What’s the subtitle? What is the overall project of Bacon’s work? What’s going on in late 16th and early 17th century England and Europe?

Core Texts + 2000 years

Okay, so I’m off to a slow start on this series of posts intended to give you a teacher’s perspective on some core texts you’ll encounter in your Honors seminar. Given that the Fall semester is wrapping up, I’m going to shift to post-Renaissance with my next post. Shan’t be long now.


The Obviousgilgamesh-cuneiform

Gilgamesh is an epic, not a “novel.” Please don’t call it a novel or a book. Cute baby mammals die when you do that.

It is ancient and fragmentary (see the picture on left? And you complain about carrying around printed texts…).

It is the tale of Gilgamesh, a powerful, semi-divine ruler.

One of the major themes is human mortality.

The Not-so-Obvious

It is a tale of transformations, in particular Enkidu’s and Gilgamesh’s.

It is a tale that sets forth a definition or vision of what it means to be a civilized society of mortal beings.

Visions, dreams, and prayers are conduits for interaction between the divine and human orders, and are often the prelude to critical decisions and actions in the narrative.

The value system includes concepts like greatness and strength and glory, but the narrator and the characters in the tale may not agree with each other about the sanctioned forms these values should take.

The Cedar Forest and the battle with Huwawa are more than just a backdrop for a Hollywood-style epic showdown.

AckbarThe Traps

It is a tale in which the divine order both harms and helps the human order. Avoid exclusive thinking about these categories because the text supports a complex, often ambiguous relationship between the gods/spirits and humans. Of course, to point this out is only to make what should be an obvious observation; the challenge is to elucidate this complexity and draw interesting, textually supported inferences from it.

There are significant similarities between the tale of Utnapishtim and the story of Noah in Beresheit (Genesis). Don’t reduce one to the other, however, as the differences are many and substantial. This comparison is frequently made and it is almost always mistaken, superficial, boring, or all of the above. Avoid the intellectual laziness in such “nothing but” thinking. Any similarity across cultures and histories as evinced by two texts is going to be complex, not a photocopy.

It is anachronistic to describe the friendship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu as gay or homosexual (do your research). They clearly respect and love each other, and express this love in emotionally and physically intimate ways. Deal with it.

Don’t overlook the role that female characters play in the epic: Ninsun, Shamash, Ishtar/Inanna, Siduri.

Close Reading and Annotating (III)

Now that you have my System of annotating for close reading, let’s turn to your assignment, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (HPSS), pp 213-4. My tools are a pencil or black pen, and colored pencils corresponding to my annotation system key (I use red, blue and green). I dislike highlighting–I find it very difficult to reread the original text again.

Mirror-ErisedThis excerpt is the end of Chapter 12, “The Mirror of Erised,” in which Dumbledore confronts Harry about using the Mirror, explains what it does, and why he doesn’t want Harry to seek it out any longer. I chose this selection from the text because I’ve actually used it for one of my published articles, “Kierkegaard’s Mirror (of Erised),” which I developed from a talk I gave in October 2011 at a philosophy conference held by Marymount Manhattan College: “Imagining Better: Philosophical Issues in Harry Potter.”

How did your close reading and annotations go? Let’s compare work. I’ll show you my annotated pages in their entirety, then I’ll zoom in on bits to explain how I applied my annotation System. I’ll describe my annotations, synthesizing the text with my paraphrased annotations in more unified, developed thoughts, and pose some non-obvious questions that follow from that. In other words, my commentary after each excerpt is the sort of thing I would write up in my journal or notebook, a step I’ve already demonstrated for two other sections of HPSS in the first post of this encore series).

First, here are the annotated pages 213-4 in their entirety:




Let’s work our way down the page and dig in to those details:


Some contextual remarks are in order. First, the chapter opens up on Christmas Day with Ron and Harry opening their presents. Dumbledore’s reference to Harry’s invisibility is because Harry is wearing a new gift he received anonymously, his father’s Invisibility Cloak. Harry had been wearing the cloak to sneak around Hogwarts Castle when he found the Mirror of Erised. This is Harry’s third visit to the Mirror. Side note: Rowling has put a lot of references to seeing, reflections, and appearances into this chapter; for example, the Mirror of Erised isn’t the first mirror that Harry uses in this chapter. Dumbledore’s cryptic remark that I note in red is to remind me not to take ‘nearsighted’ in its physical sense (because that would make Dumbledore’s statement nonsensical), but figure out in what other sense he means Harry is acting “nearsighted.”

I next noted that Dumbledore gives Harry a hint about the cause of Harry’s nearsightedness: the “the delights of the Mirror of Erised.” Its delights blind him to other things he should see. But what are the delights of the Mirror? I draw arrows to them: for Harry, it is seeing his family; for Ron, it is seeing himself as head boy (the top student position at Hogwarts, one that, after graduation, opens doors in magical society). So two very different images are found delightful by Harry and Ron. You see yourself in the Mirror, but the way the Mirror shows you is different for different viewers.



Dumbledore asks Harry to figure out what the Mirror shows any person who looks in it. I paraphrase this in blue: “What it does in general.” Now this isn’t a particularly useful paraphrase, but there are multiple ways to look at how and why Dumbledore asks Harry for the answer to this, so I simply note it with a blue comment.

Harry can’t figure it out, so Dumbledore gives the explanation. I put a bracket around this because it is critical information. I probably should have put a big star by it for that reason. I also scribble a note in green, which is my most important color for thinking about textual material that seems important to explore further, either in class discussion, in an essay, or both. So green comments are going to make it into my journal. The note says: “An implicit definition of happiness can be extracted here.” According to Dumbledore, the happiest man could use the Mirror of Erised like a normal mirror. So Harry and Ron cannot be the happiest people on earth because they don’t see themselves exactly as they are. Suppose Harry and Ron are, nevertheless, happy, (it is Christmas after all, and Harry received some nice gifts, certainly more than he expected) but only relatively happy in comparison to the happiest man. So one’s degree of happiness affects how one sees oneself in the Mirror. What, then, is different about the degree of happiness between Harry and the happiest man? Is it something that the happiest man possesses that Harry lacks, or is it something he lacks but that Harry has? What accounts for the difference? If I can identify this, then I can formulate an important claim: “According to the Mirror of Erised’s principle of operation, happiness is ____________________________.” In addition to the analysis I’ve done in this paragraph, I’ll compose an initial answer to this claim and record it in my journal.


In this excerpt, we get the answer from Dumbledore to the question “What does the Mirror show us all?” I circled some of the key words: ‘deepest’ and ‘most desperate’ are superlatives, which modify the noun ‘desire’. This desire is said to reside in “our hearts.” Dumbledore then connects this definition to what Harry and Ron saw when they gazed in the Mirror. For Harry, as I note in blue, he most desperately desires something he experiences as a profound loss: the presence of his family with him. For Ron, as I note on the other margin in blue, he most desperately desires status and recognition because his experience has been absent of these (as he sees it)–second youngest child in a large family, not particularly gifted academically or otherwise, and seemingly destined to be second fiddle to the winners, the powerful, the heroes, including his friend Harry Potter. There seems to be an intrinsic relationship between “the deepest, most desperate desire of our hearts” and our wounds. That is a curious and important relationship.

Another issue in this excerpt is what is meant by the heart. This must be something different than the mind or the emotions, for there are plenty of desires, even strong ones, that I am consciously aware of or whose pull or effects I feel. The heart seems to be that part of myself that is not easily accessed, much less controlled, by conscious reasoning or even self-will. There’s an interesting spatial description–“deepest”–rather than one connoting power like “weak” or “strong.” Indeed, Harry doesn’t seem consciously driven by his deepest desire; it operates in a more subtle way, though no less powerful than conscious, felt desires. The heart seems to be a name for my truest self, the core of who I really am, and it seems to be something very difficult, if not impossible, to see for myself under my own power. And the effects of the Mirror seem to indicate that even when I am confronted with the desire that most decisively shapes me, it does not register with my conscious self.


In this excerpt we get a very important change of direction signaled by Dumbledore’s “However….” He moves from a straightforward description of the Mirror to its moral implications. First, he says that the Mirror “will give us neither knowledge or truth.” I circled the key words ‘knowledge’ and ‘truth’. Dumbledore’s claim seems obviously false. Doesn’t the Mirror show us at least one truthful thing, namely, the “deepest, most desperate desire of [one’s] heart?” Moreover, having seen an image of this desire in the Mirror, wouldn’t one then know what that desire is? Dumbledore’s further explanation helps resolve this apparent problem.

If you’re not the happiest man on earth, then you become “entranced” or even “driven mad” by what you see in the Mirror. So the Mirror does tell the truth because it accurately shows you the deepest desire of your heart, but in seeing that deepest desire on display, you become “entranced” or “driven mad,” both irrational states of mind. Seeing your true self impedes a rational, disinterested point of view on yourself. You can’t handle the truth about yourself. You become absorbed by the image rather than understand the implications of that image of yourself. You compensate this loss of self-lucidity with a self-deception or self-absorption; therefore, the truth that it shows you about yourself is not a truth you can appropriate on your own. The happiest man on earth is the polar opposite of a narcissist.

The danger of the Mirror, then, is its combined effects of delighting and entrancing the viewer. Until Dumbledore intervenes, Harry’s deepest desire and the pleasure he experiences indulging in its contemplation, overrules his good sense, his awareness of his surroundings, his empathy for Ron and others, and so on. This gives us enough information to infer a definition of happiness, albeit a negative one: “Happiness in not obtained by seeking to fulfill one’s desires.” Insofar as one derives happiness from pleasure or desire-satisfaction, one will “waste away” in front of the Mirror. This seems as good a time as any to ask a couple of questions beyond the world of the text: (1) Does this definition of happiness run with or against the grain of dominant views about happiness? [I need to further specify when and where these dominant views exist.] (2) Are there comparable objects to the Mirror of Erised in our world?


The chapter ends on p. 214. I note that Dumbledore instructs Harry in the moral lesson that the Mirror of Erised teaches. He equates spending time gazing into the Mirror to “dreaming.” He warns Harry that living in a dream state is not living at all, that indulging in the delights of the Mirror cause one to “forget to live.” I note two questions at the end of the chapter that summarize some of the issues that stood out to me in this reading selection:

  • How is enjoying the delights of the Mirror of Erised = “dwelling on dreams?”
  • What does Dumbledore think/assume that “really living” is? It must be more than mere survival or life extension, because one cannot forget to “do” that.

Final Note

I hope that this example shows you how close reading and annotations go hand-in-hand. I use the empty spaces on the printed page to record my reactions, thoughts, and questions. I imagine myself in a dialogue with the author. If she were reading this to me, I’d want to discuss some of the topics with her that I’ve noted. My annotations include analysis, assessment, hypotheses, and non-obvious questions related to the complete meaning of the selected text, and perhaps the whole book. My commentary in this post includes the sort of additional thoughts, ideas, and critical questions that I would record and develop further in my journal or notebook.

This process is one way to obtain interesting, important material for seminar discussions and text-based argumentative essays. I hope you find it helpful. As always, I look forward to any questions or comments you have.

Close Reading and Annotating (II)

I decided to break up my annotation post into two so that I could provide my annotation system for you in its own post. In the following post I’ll show you how my annotation system looks and works for a close reading of our excerpt from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.annotation-system-II


Close Reading and Annotating (I)

I have a brief series of posts planned as an encore to my Honors Seminar tutorial. The first is on the subject of close reading and annotating. I covered the definition and explanation of this topic in tutorial entries 5, 6, and 12. I chose this topic for the encore because it is central to cat-readingeverything else you do in the Human Event or text-based Honors seminar.

The primary text I will use as an example is Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (or Philosopher’s Stone, the UK (and more sensible) title). Given the cultural currency that this book has, I’ll need to discipline myself to avoid relying on other brilliant commentaryNB: I have given myself a major advantage in selecting HPSS as my example. The autograph was written in modern English. It was published very recently on the timeline of human history: 1997. We know a lot about the author. It sold in the millions worldwide within just a few years of its publication. These facts may seem obvious, but they are important contextual realities. You often cannot so easily interject a text into contemporary problems and sensibilities as I have done with HPSS. Most of your texts will be much older, have an oral history preceding the written one, originated in a different language, possibly even a “dead” language, have been transmitted through a series of translations and editorial redactions, and any number of other historical, cultural and social differences that cannot be ignored if we approach the texts by suspending our presumptions about the world of the text and the privilege we afford to our own theoretical lens. It will take a lot of work on the reader’s part to enter into the world of the text (especially its system of values), analyze that world according to its own rational framework, and evaluate it by careful triangulation with different frameworks and value systems, including our own.

Nevertheless, let us suppose that I am assigned this text to read and prepare to discuss in one class session, which is typically 75 min long. The book is 309 pages long, so I budget five days to read it through to get the big picture of the story and then reread it closely (analytically). The edition assigned is ISBN 0-590-35340-3, Arthur A. Levine Books (Scholastic), 1997. The author’s name is Rowling, which rhymes with ‘rolling’ and ‘bowling’. Parenthetically, though it shows a profound lack of preparation to pronounce an author’s name or words in the title incorrectly, this is minimal due diligence; you should look up and research all words or phrases that you don’t know or understand as part of your ordinary daily class preparation.

In my first read-through, I’ll want to reconstruct the basic storyline, and as I do so, flag chapters, sections, or paragraphs that I find especially interesting or important to explore and scrutinize more thoroughly on my second read-through. A colleague of mine once described these as “things that make you go ‘Wow!’ or ‘Hmm’. Other important things to note are sections that confuse me or aren’t clear.

Now when I read Sorcerer’s Stone, I am struck by the magical elements in the story: a hand-held device that turns off and on streetlights; letters that arrive without a mail carrier, a giant man who starts a fire with his pink umbrella; Diagon Alley, Platform 93/4 and the Hogwarts Express; moving photographs and portraits that speak; food at a feast that appears out of nowhere; candles that float; ghosts; a talking Hat that reads the character and psychology of its wearer; moving staircases; Quidditch; dragons, unicorns, centaurs, and other magical beasts; and so on. I also note the basic narrative arc: the impetus of the story is an event that happened years before the first scenes in the book–the death of Harry Potter’s parents. Harry miraculously survived the attack on his family, and grows up to find himself famous in a hidden society that is all around him. This community turns out to be magical folk, and they carefully segregate themselves from us ordinary folk, whom they call “Muggles.” Harry has been chosen to attend the boarding school for magical children, much to the dismay of his Muggle aunt and uncle. He is introduced to the magical world behind the ordinary world by his guide Hagrid. He travels to Hogwarts on a train with other students, and meets other children who become his best friends. While at Hogwarts they learn of a plot to commit a theft of a valuable and potentially dangerous object, and the remainder of the story involves solving this mystery–who, what, why, and when–and thwarting the would-be thieves.

The difficulty of preparing for a discussion on this book is that I have too much material to work with. We have 75 minutes, and we could spend the whole time simply reconstructing the plot and the characters, with commentary that reaches no deeper than “Cool!” or “This is dumb.” So I cannot get very far if I remain “above” the text, trying to make some general comments about the whole thing. I need some kind of filter to help me pinpoint selections that stand out as important and worth unpacking for their non-superficial meaning and implications. What criterion will help me filter out the chunks on which I should focus?

I start at the beginning by recalling one of the big goals of the course: to develop “the abilities to read, think, and discuss core issues of human experience analytically and disinterestedly.” My Instructor has selected HPSS as one of the primary texts for the course, so this implies that the Instructor is not only brilliant, but thinks that there are core issues of human experience that might be addressed in or gleaned from this text. I also recall that I am expected to encounter “key social and intellectual currents” in the texts of the course. Hmm, yes, okay. Well, I’ll begin to break down Sorcerer’s Stone into some broad topical areas that might align with these goals. So I whip out my journal, open my book to the flagged pages (I like to use colored sticky flags) and start making a list, paraphrasing, and posing questions:

A. Harry is an orphan and constantly mistreated by his aunt and uncle. But within the space of the first five chapters, we learn that he has special powers, he’s a celebrity and fabulously wealthy, and he’s credited with the overthrow of a horrible villain when he was just a baby. He grows up with the experience of being an outcast, a nobody, but then when he turns 11, he learns that he’s actually a very privileged somebody in a parallel, powerful, but hidden society. Questions:

  • The two worlds–magical and Muggle–provide Harry with two social identities. The Muggle, or ordinary human identity, is not the ultimately real one; it’s only partial at best. His magical identity is virtually the polar opposite in terms of ability, social recognition, and class. Does Rowling want us to generalize this picture of Harry and apply it to ourselves? Do I have an apparent or partial identity in society that dominates my sense of self? How would I describe that? Do I have a more complete identity, an ultimately real self, that I may not even know about? What could that be?
  • Who, exactly, is an outcast in the Muggle world of HPSS? In the magical world? What is “normal” for the two societies? If we find something deficient or preferable about one norm or the other, on what grounds can we judge which is better, i.e., persuasively argue that one norm is objectively worse than the other and ought to be rejected?
  • Is there a connection between Vernon and Petunia’s social class and lifestyle and how they treat Harry? What are the values that Rowling is condemning? What are the contrasting values that Rowling is approving?
  • Since the point of view is first person limited omniscient–we read the story almost exclusively as if we were sitting on Harry’s shoulder–it seems that Rowling is inviting us to enter into Harry’s perspective. Is Rowling pandering to us through her characterization of Harry? (Perhaps this question and my first question are related?)

B. The Sorting Hat seems to read one’s personality and character traits, as well as one’s potential to become this or that sort of person in the future, and on the basis of that information “sorts” students into one of the four Houses into which they best fit. Questions:

  • Suppose such a technology were possible. What are the premises behind grouping people like this? Why would adult society think it a good idea to socialize students with a form of moral segregation?
  • How does self-identifying as a member of a House strengthen or weaken one’s autonomy? How is accepting or embracing an identity like “I am a Ravenclaw” or “I am an Honors student” compare to accepting or embracing other ways we might identify: race, class, gender, etc? Should all one’s identities which have a basis in fact be embraced? Or is it sometimes best to qualify, challenge, or even reject one’s identity as this or that? What are the consequences of this embracing or rejecting?
  • Does Rowling suggest that wholehearted enthusiasm for one’s House is wise, or is it better to regard House identity with resignation? Do the answers to these question transpose to how Rowling thinks we should answer the other identity questions?

These are two examples drawn from specific passages in the text that seem to speak to the issues germane to the Human Event. Any of these would make for a good discussion, with plenty of contestable theses and arguments to develop and evaluate on the basis of textual evidence. As part of my preparation, I should also try to sketch good answers to the questions that I’ve posed in the event that I need to get the discussion going on the topic.

A discussion of these topics and questions goes well beyond a superficial literary analysis that only recapitulates narrative plot points or poses speculative questions that can only be answered, if at all, by pulling in evidence outside the text, by inserting theoretical tools alien to the author’s world and the world of the text, or by sheer guessing. “What if Vernon Dursley was a blue collar worker?” Or, “Dumbledore seems to know everything that goes on at Hogwarts…why would he allow 11-year-old kids to pass through lethal traps set by teachers and confront a unicorn-murdering thief?” Such questions cannot be answered with arguments formulated on the basis of what the text says, and taking that text at face value.

What I’ve shown you in this post is an example of the kind of inquisitiveness you’ll need to prepare meaningful, productive thoughts to share and discuss in class, or to write about in an essay assignment. The fruits of these labors are recorded in a journal. But what in the text prompted these ideas and questions? There’s an important step between close reading and journaled reflections. That important step is good textual annotations. Only by careful scrutiny of specific terms and details in the text could I have generated the paraphrases and questionsMirror-Erised above, ones which could be answered by text-based arguments. So in my next post, I’m going to show you my notes. But it isn’t on the two ideas above. No, there’s another part of the text that I found raised some really big questions about core issues of human experience. It’s in Chapter 12, “The Mirror of Erised.” Below I’ve quoted the passage that I’m going to annotate and share with you, so your assignment is to make your own annotations of the selection, see if you can develop good paraphrases and questions on the basis of your close reading, and then we’ll compare our work.

“So,” said Dumbledore, slipping off the desk to sit on the floor with Harry, “you, like hundreds before you, have discovered the delights of the Mirror of Erised.”
“I didn’t know it was called that, Sir.”
“But I expect you’ve realized by now what it does?”
“It −− well −− it shows me my family −−”
“And it showed your friend Ron himself as head boy.”
“How did you know −−?”
“I don’t need a cloak to become invisible,” said Dumbledore gently.
“Now, can you think what the Mirror of Erised shows us all?”
Harry shook his head.
“Let me explain. The happiest man on earth would be able to use the Mirror of Erised like a normal mirror, that is, he would look into it and see himself exactly as he is. Does that help?”
Harry thought. Then he said slowly, “It shows us what we want…whatever we want…”
“Yes and no,” said Dumbledore quietly. “It shows us nothing more or less than the deepest, most desperate desire of our hearts. You, who have never known your family, see them standing around you. Ronald Weasley, who has always been overshadowed by his brothers, sees himself standing alone, the best of all of them. However, this mirror will give us neither knowledge or truth. Men have wasted away before it, entranced by what they have seen, or been driven mad, not knowing if what it shows is real or even possible.
“The Mirror will be moved to a new home tomorrow, Harry, and I ask you not to go looking for it again. If you ever do run across it, you will now be prepared. It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live, remember that. Now, why don’t you put that admirable cloak back on and get off to bed?”
Harry stood up.
“Sir −− Professor Dumbledore? Can I ask you something?”
“Obviously, you’ve just done so,” Dumbledore smiled. “You may ask me one more thing, however.”
“What do you see when you look in the mirror?”
“I? I see myself holding a pair of thick, woolen socks.”
Harry stared.
“One can never have enough socks,” said Dumbledore. “Another Christmas has come and gone and I didn’t get a single pair. People will insist on giving me books.”
It was only when he was back in bed that it struck Harry that Dumbledore might not have been quite truthful. But then, he thought, as he shoved Scabbers off his pillow, it had been quite a personal question.

HPSS, 213-4.

Mastering the Human Event: Seminar Discussion (IV)

In this final post in the Seminar Discussion mini-series, I have provided a detailed checklist for you to use in assessing your own performance and progress in Socratic seminar discussions.

I use this checklist as a feedback tool for my students. When I assess each student’s performance every other week or so, I return a copy of the checklist with my marks and comments. Students who keep track of their own performance can compare their self-assessments with the Instructor. This gives you a basis to discuss differences in how you and your Instructor evaluate an item, which gives you a clearer understanding of their expectations.

I encourage you to discuss any items on this checklist with your Instructor to find out what their priorities are for assessing your participation. I have not weighted any of the categories so that you can customize it to your specific class.

Preparation / Close Reading

meaningfully annotated the text
journal was prepared with notes, outlines, questions, arguments, and other reflections you had in response to the reading
reviewed post-discussion notes from prior discussions
if focus or reading questions were provided in advance, contributions refer to one or more responses prepared
if focus or study questions were not provided, used analysis and evaluation questions provided in this tutorial
prepared a kickoff question or point with a supporting quotation from the text
brought the correct text to class AND used it

Class Discussion

arrived on time
looked up textual citations when made by others
cited the text correctly
read at least one selection from the text
took notes during the discussion to record important points, questions, and arguments
attentive and engaged behaviors during the entire conversation
regulated contributions: neither silent nor spoke too frequently
initiated discussion on a topic, question, or passage
posed relevant questions and points and appropriate times
offered plausible explications of specific passages whose meaning was debated
grounded claims in specific details from the text and citations
demonstrated synthesis with other texts by suggesting an integrative frame of reference (a theme, question, problem, or theory) and/or grounds for comparison
referenced specific texts or findings from prior discussions to develop in the context of the current reading
engaged in at least one dialogue with one or more students, with multiple turns of questions, claims and counterclaims
challenged or refuted points made by others
tried to involve others who weren’t contributing as much to the discussion


took notes after the discussion to record unanswered questions to be taken up in a later discussion, ideas for essays, and so on

I find it helpful to distinguish between sins of omission and commission. For example, if someone had engaged a point that you had made earlier, but your mind had wandered while your potential dialogue partner was speaking, and thus you failed to respond, then that’s an omission. You failed to do something that would have improved your performance. If one of your contributions digressed onto something superficial or arcane, then that’s a sin of commission. You actively harmed your performance by distracting the class from its focus on expounding the text and its implications. Be sure that you’re honest with yourself so that you can identify any debits in your performance and correct them in the next session. If in doubt, talk with your Instructor.

Your instructor may suggest or provide additional ways to monitor your participation.

This concludes our discussion mini-series. For the next (and final!) lesson in the Honors Seminar tutorial, we’re going to look at the requirement that students often dread most: writing the essays.

Mastering the Human Event: Seminar Discussion (II)

In Part I of this mini-series on participating in a seminar discussion, I introduced some ideas and perspectives to help you get in the right frame of mind for this substantial component of your class performance. In this post, I will summarize these issues and move into some practical tips and suggestions for how to become an excellent discussant.


It is essential that you demonstrate to your Instructor your engaged participation in the class. How?

  • You come prepared for the discussion by having read the assignments thoughtfully, and reflected on the important or significant or difficult questions, issues, points, or theses raised in or implied by the texts.
  • You air out these questions and thoughtful comments for your classmates to hear, think about, and respond to.
  • You respond to the contributions of your classmates through asking questions, clarifying a statement, challenging an interpretation, citing evidence, or supplementing with your own contribution.
  • You use and take notes to help you synthesize what you cover in the discussion to be taken up in a future discussion or in one of your essay assignments.

To gain the utmost from the seminar and achieve all of the course objectives, you must be engaged in these working sessions. Your curiosity, concern, and desire to think about and work through sometimes difficult questions and writings will determine whether the conversations flounder or flourish. As described in the previous post, the distinction between debate and inquiry is key. If you are strongly wedded to an ideology or worldview, that is fine but it is likely to hinder your success and enjoyment of the class insofar as your convictions override your love of inquiry, knowledge, and truth. If you read each text and come to each session with the sincere intention of increasing your insight and understanding into our selection of the great ideas of human thought and imagination, and the big questions implied in them (and the “little,” detailed ones, too!), then you will be mentally prepared to get the most out of the class, both academically and personally.

You can tell when the seminar is working by the level of serious engagement by the participants. I define serious engagement as the patient mining of a text for the insights and other intellectual, moral and imaginative value it holds. If students are just talking without focusing on relevant matters or making sense, then the seminar is not succeeding. If you sense that there are too many superficial observations and remarks in the conversation, with contributions that aren’t very thoughtful, or a mere exchange of unsupported opinions, then help the conversation get back on track by bringing focus on a particular word, phrase, or sentence in the text. It is always welcome to direct the class back to a specific place in the text. Textual citations and references are good ways to keep a session focused on the task at hand and will be appreciated by your Instructor. In fact, this is my Number One piece of advice:

Actively use the text when you’re listening and speaking. READ relevant selections out loud to support your point, explore someone else’s point, or move to another topic or question.

Conversations in a seminar are informal, but serious and polite. Your Instructor will tell you if you need to raise your hand or not for permission to be heard. Some Instructors allow you to courteously enter the discussion or withdraw from it at will. With respect to seminar etiquette, keep in mind two cardinal rules: first, all opinions must be heard and explored, however sharply they may clash; second, every opinion must be supported by reasons—an unsupported opinion does not advance the task at hand or help you demonstrate your engagement. Your participation is a barometer that continuously measures and displays the kind of engagement you’ve had with the assigned readings and the topics under consideration. The quantity and quality of your participation is directly proportional to the preceding completeness and intellectual care of your reading of a text and thinking about it.

Guidelines for Good Seminar Participation

Successful participation in seminars is not easy; it is a skill you have to learn. Most students require a good deal of practice to improve at it. The following guidelines should help you to focus your attention on behaviors directly relevant to good seminar participation. I’ll start with the obvious ones.

1. Arrive on time and stay for the length of the seminar. ASU is a big campus, to be sure, and Barrett Honors College is in a far-flung corner of it. Nevertheless, interruptions are irritating, and missing part of the conversation can lead to repetition.

2. Bring the correct text with you in the proper edition. Working with different translations or with editions having different pagination can make providing references difficult and slow down the process. Attend carefully to what is going on, be ready to contribute at all times, and display interest in the proceedings.

3. Do not use the seminar as your snack break or as an opportunity to catch up on some sleep or to write a letter to your relatives.

4. You’ve heard it many times from me alreadyhedgehog-reading: prepare. Read closely and think about the text. Remind yourself that your reading should be close, not desultory. Bring to each class meeting some considered reflections about the topic under discussion. Where do these come from? (a) Your annotations in the text; (b) Your journal of pre-session thoughts, ideas and questions. It is particularly irritating for those who have so prepared themselves to have to listen to someone who has not read and thought about the material but who wishes nevertheless to deliver a series of opinions on it.

5. Another good preparation practice is to meet with one or two people a day or two beforehand to discuss the material.

6. Make meaningful annotations. Make a note of anything—a word, a phrase, a sentence, a stanza, a paragraph, a chapter—you find puzzling or irritating or exciting, something that might form the basis for a question you would want to ask your classmates to respond to, or a comment you would want to contribute to the conversation. You should not expect to come to the seminar with everything in the text “figured out” or your mind absolutely made up about the questions or points. Worries about getting the text wrong or saying something “stupid” are often the most difficult internal impediments that discussants have to overcome in themselves. If this fear is inhibiting you, memorize this and tattoo it on your palms if necessary: good participation does not depend on the brilliance of everything you say. Again, it would be helpful to internalize the distinction between debate and inquiry I discussed in the previous post. Prepare for and enter the discussion under the presumption that we all lack the brilliant “take” on the reading but that we are going to grapple with it together to win genuine insight and understanding into things that matter.

7. Analyze the text. Try to compose good answers to these questions:

  • What kind of text is this and what is its subject matter?
  • What unifies the text: what is main problem being addressed in this work, or, if it is a work of imaginative literature, what are its themes?
  • What are the major parts of the text, how are they connected to each other, and how do they develop the arguments or themes?
  • What are the key terms used by the author and what do they mean in context, or, if it is a work of imaginative literature, what are the key characters and plot points in the story, and what is significant about them?
  • What are the key propositions advanced by the author?
  • What is the argument or arguments? How has the author organized the theses to be proved? What evidence and reasons support them?

8. Evaluate the text. Try to compose good answers to these questions:

  • What, to your mind, is the most interesting or important point raised in or by the text—and why?
  • What, to your mind, after reading the text, is the most interesting unanswered question which you think is important or even essential to understand and evaluate the significance of the text’s main claim(s)—and why?
  • What themes, topics and/or theses which have been raised in previous texts and class discussions does the present text question, criticize, shed additional light upon, offer a different perspective on, etc.?

9. Listen closely. Perhaps the most difficult and important skills in effective seminar participation are paying attention and good listening. You need to attend carefully to what others are saying. And then you need to learn to respond intelligently and helpfully. A seminar is not just a collection of individual points of view declared ex cathedra one after the other. It develops a context and a rhythm, often an unpredictable rhythm, which is established, above all, by the ways in which the participants respond to each other. If someone’s contribution is puzzling, then ask him or her to clarify the point, taking care to note the specific trouble you have with it. If the contribution is interesting or plausible, but it is not clear what textual evidence prompts it or supports it, then ask for this evidence. If you disagree or have an alternative point, then put that on the table, also citing the relevant textual support. Like any interesting conversation, a seminar discussant has to be flexible, adjusting her participation to what is happening moment by moment.

10. Be patient with each other. Avoid interrupting a discussant before they have finished. While some interruptions are appropriate, impatient and premature interruptions can close some discussants down so that they are reluctant to contribute. Be aware when a discussant is pausing or hesitating because they might be trying to gather their thoughts. By the same token, if you speak reactively to what you hear, you may need to work on developing more deliberative conversational behaviors (see point #12 below). All participants should recognize that they have the responsibility for keeping the discussion focused on the matter at hand. Thus you should, when appropriate, challenge the relevance and the direction of certain remarks. Just because you are required to be civil does not mean you cannot be firm in requesting a return to the main point or to a previous point which has been abandoned too quickly.

11. It is entirely appropriate in a seminar to decline to respond if someone asks you a direct question. If you have nothing relevant to say on the point, there is no need to pretend. Simply decline the invitation with a simple “Pass” or equivalent, and let the discussion continue.

12. Regulate your speech. Good seminar participation does not depend upon the frequency of one’s remarks. In fact, the person who is always ready to jump in at the slightest opportunity can often harm a discussion; first, by excluding other voices, and second, by encouraging others to rely on her to pick up the slack moments. Consider what might be called your conversational “trigger finger.” This phrase describes the time one takes to react vocally to a question or to someone else’s point. Some people react very quickly and are ready to vocalize their views almost immediately, often without sufficient reflection or organization of their remarks. Others need some time to reflect on how they are going to respond. If those with a quick conversational trigger finger take over a discussion, then those who are more deliberate in their speaking rarely get a chance to contribute because by the time they are ready to speak the subject often has shifted to something else. So you need to assess how you, in your keenness to respond, may be closing out someone whose reaction time is slower than your own. Failure to rein in an excessive presence in conversations when it has been pointed out to you will harm your course performance.

13. Encourage each other. Remain alert to the group dynamics. For example, some people find it difficult to speak. You could invite them to state their views on something, encourage them to pursue a point they have just introduced, or induce them in some way to join in. Here’s a real-world analogy: the board meeting. Think of the seminar as a meeting of the CEO and her board of executives. These executives are all well-informed and thoughtful people, but some prefer to listen to everyone else and may only speak rarely or briefly. For the CEO to come to the best decision on some question or point, it is best that she have the considered views of all the board members. Therefore, it is perfectly legitimate and desirable for her to say to the executive who hasn’t spoken at all, as you have probably seen in commercials, TV shows and movies, “Jones! What do you say about all this?!” Since this is a democratic setting, each of you is empowered to don the role of CEO as needed. If this seems awkward or contrived, then make arrangements with each other before the class session begins. The best participants in seminars are those who not only provide interesting and relevant comments themselves but also encourage others to join in. Not only is soliciting the views of each other an implicit sign of respect for the opinions of each person in the room, you should note well the transferable skill involved in being on both the giving and receiving ends of such exchanges. You are likely to be in a position one day where conversational leadership or response to such leadership is an expected behavior and a valuable contribution to the effectiveness of a group’s work and the soundness of a group’s decisions.

14. Evaluate your own performance after every session. Take a few moments to externalize what happened. I’ll provide a checklist for this activity in my next post. Pay particular attention to any habits you are falling into. Are you always sitting in the same chair? Do you always speak up early in the session and then withdraw from the conversation? Do you have one particular form of comment which you always use? Do you use empty words or sounds like ‘like’, ‘um’ or ‘uh’ excessively? What was your body language communicating? And so on. Experiment with different styles. For example, if you like to speak up and generally do so quite early, try for a couple of sessions not saying anything too early on, concentrating on listening to where others take the conversation, reserving what you have to say until later. If you are someone who likes to initiate discussions by putting new points on the table, try for a few sessions being reactive, that is, taking your cue from points others have raised. And so on.

In Part III of this mini-series in the tutorial, I will cover some problems you may encounter as well as a self-assessment tool.