Close Reading An EmailThis handout is available for download in DOCX format and PDF format.
Close reading can seem like a complicated or specialized academic skill – but the fact is that we all do close reading every single day! We all read “between the lines” of emails, books, movies, and social interactions, and that is essentially what close reading is: reading small details and weighing them in context to arrive at a larger conclusion.
Take a look at the email below and see if you can decode what’s going on:
Good to see you. Thanks for going with me to dinner and the movies. It was interesting overall to hear about your research interests. I’m impressed with the enormous amount of time you spend in the lab and at the library. You are clearly very devoted to and diligent about your work.
But, unfortunately I won’t be able to join you for the Celtics game next week due to a yearly commitment. Good luck with your new experiments. I hope they go well, especially since they mean so much to you.
To illustrate my point, I distribute the email below and have a student read it aloud. I ask what likely happened to initiate the email (i.e., a date)? The email never says there was a date involved, so how do they know? I then ask whether it is likely that Bob will ever get another date with Carol? They all know he will not, so after breaking students into groups I ask them to analyze the letter and tell me how they know. We end up discussing the structure of the email (anyone under the age of 100 would never write to a peer so formally) as well as the content. Carol doesn’t outwardly say anything derogatory about Bob, yet we know that he talks about himself incessantly and is consumed with his work. There are several cases where the words seem to say one thing but mean another, etc.
After we’ve finished with the email, we begin a close reading of the text students will be writing on for their first essay so that the connection is clear between the email and the work they will be doing for the paper.
This exercise works well because it is very accessible and immediately puts students at ease. Yet, it teaches them important skills that they’ll be using throughout the semester. Incidentally, the “secret message” is that the first letter of every line spells the word “goodbye” (this gives new meaning to a “hidden subtext”!).
Good to see you. Thanks for going with me to dinner and the movies. (THE GUY WAS TOO CHEAP TO PAY!) It was interesting overall to hear about your research interests. (WRITTEN IN PASSIVE VOICE) I’m impressed with the tremendous (DOUBLE ENTENDRE) amount of time you spend in the lab and at the library. (CLEARLY, THE GUY SPENT THE ENTIRE NIGHT TALKING ABOUT HIMSELF AND HAS NO LIFE.) You are clearly very devoted to and diligent about your work. (SEEMS LIKE A COMPLIMENT BUT REALLY ISN’T—A CASE WHERE THE WORDS DON’T MATCH UP TO THEIR OSTENSIBLE MEANING.)
But, unfortunately I won’t be able to join you for the Celtics game next week due to a yearly commitment. (VAGUE ANSWER INDICATES SHE JUST DOESN’T WANT TO GO) Good luck with your new experiments. I hope they go well, especially since they mean so much to you. (LEAVES NO ROOM FOR HIM TO ISSUE A FUTURE INVITATION AND PROVIDES FURTHER PROOF THAT HE TALKED ABOUT HIMSELF INCESSANTLY)
Best (COMPLETELY IMPERSONAL),