Thursday, August 18, 2005

Making the most of your course outline: University 1

In the first year of my undergraduate degree, I didn’t place a great deal of importance on my course outlines or syllabi. I mean, after I had marked the most important tests or assignment dates in my agenda, what did I really need the course outline for? Unless I had a due date that I couldn’t meet and I had to contact the prof. for an extension, I didn’t really see the point of referring back to the course outline during the semester.

As a result, I did some of the readings in my first year but certainly not many of the readings. I spent a lot of time working backwards by reading and studying only the topics or chapters that my professor told me were important and would likely “be on the exam”. Admittedly, I was pretty stressed out any time a test or assignment date got close.

After taking numerous university courses (I’ve lost count) and eventually taking on an instructor position at the university, I’ve come to realize the value of a course outline. Just as some students find “To Do” lists or grocery check lists useful to get short-term things done, a course outline is a kind of “To Do” list or check-list which your professor has made for you to reach your goals in a particular course.

Still not sure? Think of it this way; if you went to the supermarket with an incomplete list of foods for your breakfast the next morning, you could wake up to find you have five kinds of cereal and no milk. The same is true if you pick and choose the readings (or assignments) to complete from your course outline; you most likely won’t be prepared to face the (test) day and in the end you’ll probably be hungry for a better result in the course.

For me, completing all (or at least the majority) of my course readings led to less stress and better grades at any stage of my university education. Now as an instructor, I tell my students to (aim to) read and review material regularly so that they will be less likely to have holes or gaps in their knowledge of a subject, something critical for many future careers after university.


Friday, August 05, 2005

Close Reading

I read a lot of fiction. Reading fiction allows me to explore reality in a different way; some would call what I do reading for pleasure. However, it is possible that my casual reflection of the books I read follows the process of close reading. Essentially, close reading is critical reading of literary texts. See helpful links at the end of the blog.

Deborah Knott, writing for University of Toronto, identifies critical reading as moving from reading for information to reading for ways of thinking about a subject ( When responding to literature, close reading allows you to actively explore what you as a reader and writer think about a literary piece. English professor Dr. Wheeler offers a process to follow when reading works of literature which I’ve roughly paraphrased and interpreted and then applied to Sunshine.

So in this blog, I experimented on how well the steps suggested by Dr. Wheeler would work on my reading of Sunshine by Robin McKinley and was pleased with the process! You’ll notice I did not include all my responses, but you can see the process works. I wrote down my thoughts as I asked myself questions about:

My first impressions of the passage
What two things stuck out for you, and how are they related?
1. The use of first person narrative pulled me into the character quickly: she’s a baker and has an interest in “Others” (vampires, werewolves etc).
2. The vocabulary is rich, so it makes it sound like this young woman (probably in her early 20s?) is smart.
These two impressions relate in that very quickly in the novel, the author draws the reader into the story with sensual detail through the voice and imagination of a sharp young woman.
What was the mood of the writing?
There’s tension right away. She’s talking about normal things like watching movies with her family, but her first sentence “It was a dumb thing to do but it wasn’t that dumb,” and then other words on the first page like, “crawl home to die,” “warrior cohort,” “high tech blasting gear” allude to bigger problems than fatigue or cockroaches.

Vocabulary and Diction
Which words are noticeable? Why? How do these words relate to each other?
I’ve already mentioned some. Other sensual words would be “clicking” to refer to the cockroaches, “slouching” to refer to getting out of bed, and “Cinnamon Rolls as Big as Your Head” to give me an instant visual and make me salivate.

Look closer: are there other words that have more than one meaning? How do they add to your understanding as a reader?

Broaden your view: think about images in the text. What do they remind you of? (other parts of the text, other pieces by same author, other literary works)
How does the text sound? Are phrases and sentences long, dense, and flowing, or are they brief, abrupt and percussive? What does the sound have to do with the ideas the writer is communicating? Look here to Dr. Wheeler’s original guideline because he offers detailed points you can add to your close reading that will enrich your understanding.

Point of View/Characterization
Who’s speaking? How do you feel about the characters? Why? How does the author get you to feel that way? Through description? Dialogue? Action?

Look for anything that seems to represent something else. What symbols are in the text? Metaphors? If you need help with literary terms, consult your course notes, text, or click on Dr. Wheeler’s link .

Good luck with your own close reading!


Helpful Links on Close Reading
Put together by an English prof, this site offers questions you can follow to read a literary text closely and provides and example of a close reading of a poem.
This website offers a sample of close reading of Bleak House by Charles Dickens.
Patricia Kain, for the Writing Center at Harvard University details the steps of close reading using an essay by an anthropologist as the reading material.