Theses Doctoral

Re-opening Close Reading: Literature Education and Literary Experience

Rejan, Andrew

This dissertation is a performance of, meditation on, and inquiry into the practice of close reading as it relates to the teaching, learning, and interpretation of literature. The objects of close reading include literature, the history of literary pedagogy and its relationship to critical theory, and a narrative that recounts my experience as an instructor of a teacher education course centered on literature and literary pedagogy. The seven chapters form a series of interlocking interpretive essays or “readings” that together raise questions about the relationship between aesthetic experiences with literary texts, the practice of literary interpretation, and pedagogical approaches in the literature classroom.

The study is framed by an exploration of John Milton’s Paradise Lost and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, both of which, I argue, dramatize interpretive acts in ways that tacitly cue reading practices that would become familiar in twentieth-century literary and pedagogical theory. These two texts, the latter of which can be viewed as a “reading” of the former, provide a useful framework for conceptualizing literary knowledge as a kind of experiential knowledge, dramatizing Baconian empiricism and Coleridgean imagination in anticipation of twentieth-century theories of participatory aesthetics associated with I.A. Richards, John Dewey, and Louise Rosenblatt. Paradise Lost and Frankenstein also provide a testing ground for my own practice of close reading.

At the heart of this study is a re-reading of the work of Rosenblatt and some of the New Critics: I argue that Rosenblatt and the New Critics, particularly Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, were pioneers of parallel, rather than opposing, pedagogical traditions, informed by the shared influence of Richards and Dewey. I decouple a vision for an authentic practice of close reading—grounded in aesthetic experience and supported by meaningful interpretive discourse—from the narrower version of close reading promoted by the Common Core State Standards in literacy, which have been widely critiqued in ways that invite reductive accounts of literary history. Through a return to Rosenblatt and the New Critics, alongside a discussion of contemporary debates about the place of close reading in the literature classroom, I articulate principles of practice that could unite secondary and college teachers of literature and inform the teaching and learning of close reading in the twenty-first century. I conclude with a narrative in which I attempt to enact some of these principles in a literature course for teachers, offering a close reading of the tensions and discoveries that emerge in my own teaching.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
English Education
Thesis Advisors
Blau, Sheridan
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 6, 2020