Critical Reading in the Humanities
For each discipline of the humanities, “reading” can entail very different goals, procedures, and strategies. While the term generally encompasses acts of textual engagement, analysis, or interpretation, what we “read” in the humanities can vary widely – from poems to paintings, films to philosophical tracts. Scholarly articles and monographs will require yet another, different set of reading skills.
It can be helpful to spend time early in the semester discussing what “reading” means for your field and what kinds of reading methods and strategies will be necessary for the course. In-class or take-home activities specifically tailored to teaching critical reading will greatly help students in developing these skills. Below are a few ideas and considerations to help you in this process.
Identifying and Contextualizing the “Text”
The way we read a sonnet differs from, say, how we read Hobbes’s Leviathan or how we “read” a contemporary film. To this end, students will need a social, historical, and generic context for what they are reading in your course. Some questions you might introduce and address are:
- Who created this text, when, and where? How was this text disseminated and received by its contemporaries?
- How do we read a text with respect to its historical period or social context? What different views might its authors hold from us and how can we analyze them based on the historical or social situation of that text?
- What formal features define the “text” we are reading as a class? For example: what defines a realist novel, a performance art piece, a documentary film, a philosophical treatise, etc.
- How does this text connect to the overall theme or problems examined in this course? How does it compare to other texts in the course? Answering these questions can help students contrast the different periods, genres, and social contexts of texts.
Overall, such contextualizations help students avoid making anachronistic or personal projections – in turn, defamiliarizing their pre-given assumptions and better equipping them to understand that texts are unique productions of very specific contexts.
Responding to and Analyzing the Text
Every discipline will have a different set of interpretative methods for approaching its “texts.” Spend some time thinking about the kinds of core interpretive methods you want to highlight with your students and how you plan to achieve those methods.
- What forms of engagement and analysis are typical of your discipline? These might be specific interpretive techniques like “close reading,” protocols for evaluating historical documents, or general modes of inquiry particular to your field.
- How might you teach those forms to your students? Can you break those forms down into separate, smaller steps that can be learned as a sequence? How would you explain this kind of reading to a newcomer of the discipline (i.e., your students)?
- For texts written in another century or language unfamiliar to them, how might you help students work through words or phrases that may be totally new to them? How will you help them grasp and absorb specialized vocabulary or concepts? Many authors, artists, philosophers, thinkers, etc., evoke terms and concepts whose meanings are assumed rather than explained because they are responding to others already within a given intellectual context. Your students will need some translation to bring them into conversation with these figures.
Scholarly and Critical Texts
As with critical reading in the social sciences, there is a specialized body of scholarship in each humanities discipline that converses within a critical or scholarly “lineage.” These lineages may be as specific as the disciplinary organization of your field or as general as the intellectual heritage of a philosopher. This idea of critical lineage – as a means to create, renovate, and disseminate knowledge – may be unfamiliar to your students. They may instead tend to evaluate critical and scholarly works as “right” or “wrong,” vetting them for standards of veracity and “truth,” rather than considering them as respondents and collaborators within a wider terrain of constantly-shifting questions, problems, and objectives. To this end, it can help to have very directed conversations about these sources as a group or through assignments to guide their reading:
- What is the main thesis or argument of the article, text, etc.? How does the author marshal that argument and what are the major sub-arguments supporting it?
- What is the major question or problem that the author is responding to? In other words, why would they have written this piece?
- Who are the major interlocutors – past thinkers or contemporaries – that the author is responding to? How does the author reference and respond to these other thinkers? What kinds of interventions might the author be making with regard to this existing intellectual context?
- As noted above (“Responding to and Analyzing the Text”), your students may need help with terms and concepts that may be intuitive to the author’s intellectual context but far from familiar to them.
Select Reading Passages Strategically
The sheer volume of assigned reading can often deter and discourage students. Instructors often assign a large volume of reading material that many students can’t realistically process without some well-informed strategies. This leaves them to come up with “economies of effort” that may derail the instructional purpose of the reading. For example, students may go to the internet to find auxiliary material to supplement (or reduce the challenge of) the main reading, and then become reluctant to engage with the skill building and the terms of discussion the instructor is introducing.
Consider directing students to a set of specific areas to focus on – whether that be pages, passages, themes, or concepts – for each set of readings. You might want to email students ahead of time with a set of questions or directions for reading; or, you can simply flag these areas in the class before you discuss those readings. If you are in charge of selecting readings for your class, try to be judicious in your choice – fewer and more concentrated readings can often yield more generative class conversations. You might also assign reading quizzes to encourage students to do their readings and/or assign required bCourses reading responses.
“Reading Tips” Handout
Provide a handout of “reading tips” for students early in the semester. As a point of departure you may want to look at an example developed by a GSI in English that does a great job orienting students to reading practices relevant to her particular course. Return to these tips and expand on them frequently through the semester. Design class activities that put these tips and skills into action.
Suggestions for In-Class Activities
It can help to begin the first class with a “text” to analyze – whether that be a literary passage, musical piece, image, etc. Try to keep your selected text short (ie: an excerpt). Model the kinds of questions you ask when you analyze such a text or image. Help students begin to articulate what’s curious to them. Guide this discussion in the direction of some important approaches about reading you’ve thought through beforehand.
In other classes, read difficult passages of assigned texts as a group and break down their meaning step-by-step (even sentence-by-sentence). This activity is often very empowering for students, as they can see how small, detailed observations can scale up to a broader, richer comprehension; parsing a single paragraph can lead towards understanding a whole novel, monograph, treatise, article, etc.
You can also break students into smaller groups and assign them very targeted passages or questions that they are responsible for analyzing. After this small-group work, they can then report their summary or interpretation back to the whole class group. Other in-class activities can be found in the discussions section of the Teaching Guide.