Monday, 16 July 2012

The Value of Close Reading as a Research Method

For a long time, close reading seems to have had a somewhat contradictory role in English education.  It is still something which is explicitly referred to by the QAA subject benchmark statements for English (the generic descriptors which define what an English degree should broadly contain), which means that it is something which students are expressely expected to be able to demonstrate in their writing.  Students will be told they need to do it, and downgraded if they don't - but at the same time there has been something of a reticence to explain close reading as anything more than an archaic remnant of New Critical practices which were effectively killed off by structuralism and the more political modes of critical practice which emerged toward the end of the twentieth century.

The value of close reading

Perhaps part of this reticence is born of the fact that it is sometimes difficult to explain the relevance of close reading in an age of transferrable skills and lifelong learning.  Students may ask 'how is the ability to highlight metrical irregularities in a sestina by W. H. Auden going to be useful in my career?'  The answer to this is not easy - but I do believe there is a level of textual discipline and observational accuracy which close reading develops, and which is something most certainly needed in industry today.

I have worked in one large organisation where text - in the form of organisational policy as well as correspondence - was read with a minute attention to detail.  This led to very infrequent misinterpretations, and an ability to rely on decisions which were made.  In addition, there was an almost systematic recognition of the value of sub-text: Managers were adept at recognising not just what was said in correspondence, but the tone in which it was said.  This enabled them to address problems which were often not even acknowledged, and discern the correct tone to use when corresponding with others - leading to greater organisational harmony.

I have worked in another organisation where this attention to textual detail was not common - and in that orgnisation decisions tended to be erratic, management was personality-driven, and decisions were often made in contradiction to organisational policy.  The subsequent lack of consistency in decision-making meant that there was often the impression that decisions made were 'personal' ones, and the lack of tact or empathy in which those decisions were disseminated bred resentment and organisational dischord.

In other words, the disciplines of close reading and attention to the structure and tone of texts can arguably make a huge difference in organisations - and perhaps English courses have not done a particularly good job of either explaining this well enough, or demonstrating it clearly enough.

Close reading as a research method

This is particularly unfortunate when methods of discourse analysis in the social sciences (many of which bear striking similarities with the practices of close reading) seem to have an inherent employability value because they are counted as a 'research method'.

Research Methods has become something of a default standard in many academic disciplines.  It is pretty much a default core component of many degree courses - but it is something which is often conscpicuously absent from humanities subjects.  I have known many social scientists who have (mostly in good humour) referred to the fact that the absence of such systematic methodologies is what makes humanities subjects vague and irrelevant.  Sometimes it is difficult to argue against such accusations, because the diminishing focus on the discipline of close reading over the last few decades has laid the study of English wide open to them.  It has been replaced by a broader proces of applying social theory to textual interpretation - and while this is certainly a fruitful and important function still, it is hard not to think that something significant has been lost when this approach is focused on to the exclusion of the more empirically-orientated practices of close reading.

I teach on a Combined Studies degree, in which English is combined with subjects like Psychology and Sociology.  There is a core Research Methods module on the programme, but often the result of this is that I end up having to dissuade final year English students of the notion that their dissertations have to use one of a specific range of quantitative or qualitative methodologies.  This is largely because specialists in research methods cannot really see that there is any specific, systematic process involved in English studies, and so they fill the percieved gap with those processes which they are familiar with.

Now, such methodologies or processes as those used in the social sciences can (and should) certainly be used to great effect in English studies - but in the same way surely the methods which are used in English studies could add new dimensions to the study of other subjects?  With the exception of a rather splendid collection edited by Gabriele Griffin, there does not appear to have been any serious attempts to define the practices of English studies as research methods as processes applicable to different kinds of analysis.

Perhaps there should be more - and perhaps close reading (in addition to such things as archival research) is one such methodology which can be described?