Eng 104: Climate Change Fiction, Close Reading Assignment

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ENG 104: Climate Change Fiction, Close Reading Assignment
Due date: Email your assignment to me (siperste@uoregon.edu) as a word document attachment (it must be either a .doc or .docx file) no later than 5 PM on Tuesday, October 23. Please save the file as your last name and “close reading.” For example, my file would be saved as sipersteinclosereading.doc. If you would prefer, you can turn your assignment in as a hard copy during class on Monday, October 22.
Format: 3-4 pages (minimum of 3 full pages), typed, double-spaced, in Times New Roman 12 pt font, standard 1” margins on each page, a works cited list and in-text citations in MLA format (see this useful website for info on MLA formatting: https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/747/01/), a title that is specific enough to hint at what your essay will be arguing.
Overview: For this essay assignment, you will choose one short story and in 3-4 double-spaced pages, offer an interpretive argument about that story based on your own close reading of that story. Your essay should make an argument about the short story and use evidence provided by your close reading to support this argument. Please read closely the attached description and explanation of close reading. Close reading is a skill and takes practice; thus, please come to office hours or email me if you would like to discuss it further.
Specific instructions (or how to get started):

  1. You should first choose one of the following short stories to write about: “The Tamarisk Hunter,” “The Siphoners,” “The Weatherman,” “An Athabasca Story,” or “Arzestula” (which we will not be discussing in class). I would suggest choosing a story that a) you are interested in thinking about further; and b) that you are still somewhat confused about or have questions about (this is because if you have questions about a text, that usually means that the text will generate itself to rich and interesting arguments).

  1. Then you should re-read your chosen story multiple times, each time making new observations and thinking about different aspects of the story that seem interesting to you. At this step, you should be considering plot, narration, character, form, style, context, and other elements of the story. You might also be looking for patterns (motifs) in the story.

  1. Next, you should consider your observations from step #2 and, based on these observations and patterns you notice in these observations, think about what questions or problems the story seems interested in addressing. You can also draw from our class discussions or from the other sources we have read in the class such as McKibben’s introduction to the short story collection, etc.

  1. After completing steps 1-3 (and probably doing so multiple times—this process is not as straightforward as these directions make it seem), you can begin formulating an interpretive argument about the short story and drafting an essay that develops that argument and supports it with evidence from the story. The key here is to consider not only what the story is about (its meanings and content), but also how the story works (to create those meanings and to present that content). NOTE: Your own argument about the short story should go beyond what we discussed about the story in class.

At the beginning of the term, I introduced some broad questions to help us think through the connections between literary fiction and climate change. If you find yourself stumped, you could return to one of these questions as a starting point for developing your own interpretation of the particular short story that you are working on, though your essay should go beyond just answering one of these questions:

  • What effects might different fictional narrative texts have on their readers? And what is it about the texts (how they’re put together: style, form, content, etc) that create these effects?

  • How can literary fiction complement or challenge other ways of understanding or thinking about climate change?

  • How does a literary text imagine the future? What does its vision of the future say about the present?

  • How and why does fiction, and specifically literary fiction, matter in the context of climate change?

What Is Close Reading?: A Primer

Close reading is the most distinctive and important tool of the textual critic (i.e. anyone writing about literature, film, or other cultural texts). It is the chief means by which we support our large interpretive claims with evidence. Close reading helps to sharpen, specify, and develop observations about a text’s content and meaning and how that text is put together. Close reading allows us to see how a text works, through its content, style, and through its form. Through close reading we can come to understand not just what a text means but how it generates that meaning. Successful close readings include the following (Note that these bullet points are not an order for how to structure your essay):

  • Description: evocative characterization of what you see as important features of a text;

  • Paraphrase: restatement of textual contents (e.g. elements of the narrative discourse) to show a reader their meaning and ambiguities or to foreground problems they raise;

  • Explanation of an important or difficult component of the text relevant to your discussion;

  • Analysis of patterns or distinctive features in the text (i.e. motifs): patterns of ideas, images, of grammar, word choice, tone, rhetoric, figurative or literal language, of contradictions or other features that subvert expected conclusions or patterns, of repetitions and variation;

  • Quotation AND explanation of what you quote. That underlined “and” is important. Don’t assume that others will understand and think about the words and about the story in the same way you do. We will all understand them a little differently. You must explain HOW you understand the words, tone, terms, images that you quote as working, or your reader may not follow your argument.

Every important claim about a text in a close reading will offer evidence from the text to support it. If you assert that a certain passage in a story “uses imagery having to do with the body as a way to draw attention to the unjust and uneven impacts of climate change,” you should identify and explain how the imagery is in fact focused on the body and how it functions to draw attention to climate change in this way. If you characterize a short story’s narrator as “emotionally closed off,” you must show where in specific passages in the story you think he or she is represented as closed off. (As above, you cannot assume your reader will see things as you do, but must go over your thinking about the evidence explicitly.) Your claims should be presented in this way as debatable: a reader of your paper must be able to evaluate how convincing your argument is by assessing the evidence you present and how well you analyze it.

Close reading takes a general, fuzzy, abstract idea or claim, such as “the story is about nature”—meaningless if left unqualified—and by specifying it, makes it interesting and worthy of discussion: “the story develops an argument that nature cannot be controlled, and it does this by using intense imagery and developing nature itself into an anthropomorphized character in the plot.” The latter is a good thesis statement and even hints at the evidence that the close reading will have to provide. The former is vague and says nothing. Close reading techniques get you to focus on the contents, style, and form of a work at the molecular level, so to speak. Close reading slows down your reading and can help draw attention to noteworthy features of a text—both central ones and minor points of interest. Making as many of a text’s visible and invisible claims and operations explicit as possible can help you get a purchase on a paper topic or an argument, turning a vague claim into a lively and specific one. You are showing your readers how the engine of the text is put together.

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