Sample Strategic Reading: Bringing Forward a Way the Past Is Brought Forward

What follows are a summary and description of reading strategies used to create it such as my students are asked to write for the StratRdg assignment during the Spring 2016 instructional term at Oklahoma State University. As is expected of student work, it treats a document in the writer’s field (in this case, medievalist studies*, with the document itself appearing here), presenting it to first-year students in that field. (The text shows up with a Flesch-Kincaid grade level of 13.2, which indicates an early first-year college student.) It also adheres to the length requirements expressed to students (they are asked for a 300- to 500- word summary and a 700- 1,000-word description of reading strategies used, exclusive of heading, title, and page numbers; the sample below has a summary of 376 words and a reading strategies description of 1,000 words when judged by those standards), although its formatting will necessarily differ from student submissions due to the differing medium. How the medium influences reading is something well worth considering as a classroom discussion, particularly for those students who are going into particularly writing- or design-intensive fields.

Bonnie J. Erwin’s “‘Is This Winning?’: Reflections on Teaching The Two Noble Kinsmen” appears in the 2014 issue of The Year’s Work in Medievalism. In the article, Erwin asserts that teaching students about the medieval through the early modern that engages with the medieval is particularly effective, citing a reading of Shakespeare’s The Two Noble Kinsmen against its source in Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale as a useful case study of how such teaching could work. Following an epigraph from E. Talbot Donaldson and the presentation of the thesis, the article lays out the context of teaching: an introductory literature survey broadly treating the distant past and arriving at the idea that peripheral figures allow closer interrogation of the past. Erwin notes the self-positioning of the play as outsider to the medieval antecedent before glossing the in-class contextual materials given her students, namely chivalric literature and explications of its ideologies. She notes also that her students largely focused on the Shakespearean Emilia, using her as a means of entry into the work. Her contrast with her Chaucerian counterpart is noted, as are the differing narrative attitudes towards the characters. The article comments on the lapses in Chaucer’s Knight’s narrative control over Emelye and its contrast with the seeming self-actualization of Shakespeare’s Emilia, with prior student discussions references to illuminate assertions.

Afterwards, Erwin lays out a series of classroom activities she conducted with her students. They initially divided into five groups, each treating one of the characters most prominent in discussing love in the play. Groups were asked to interpret the assigned character’s stances on love and friendship, interrogating the particular position and its supporting evidence; the group focusing on Emilia receives special attention in the article, with comments from students related. Students were subsequently redivided into discussion groups and asked to debate from characters’ perspectives about the preferability of courtly love or early modern friendship; the latter was valued over the former, with Emilia held up as offering the exemplary critique of the former. Problems students identified in Emilia are also noted in the article, which concludes with note of an extension activity and the idea that the medieval and other pasts are still in dialog with modern ideas of the self, offering a conversation well worth investigating.

Selecting a medievalist text to summarize took a bit of doing. Most scholarship in the field is expansive, displaying both the interdisciplinarity common to the field and the attention to detail that bespeaks long-tended love of the subject. Neither makes for the most accessible text, although both do much to enrich prevailing understanding of how what has gone before works with what is going on now. The Year’s Work in Medievalism, however, tends to offer reasonably easily treated pieces, such that an article from the journal can be used to demonstrate how to approach scholarly reading, generally, and medievalist scholarly reading, in particular.

Before selecting the text, I knew I would be using it to draft a summary and description of my strategies for reading. Having an understanding of the uses to which a given scholarly text will be put helps inform the reading done, as it shapes what the reader will look for in accomplishing the reading. Since I knew what I would be doing with the text, I knew that when I looked through it, I would need to point out the thesis of the work, as well as indications of the major points of discussion and the ways in which those points were treated. I also knew that I would need to point out any paratextual features–that is, those parts of the article not necessarily included in the text proper but still necessarily related to it. With such ideas in mind, I plunged into the reading.

I quickly noted not the title, which seemed to my eyes a standard piece, but the epigraph from E. Talbot Donaldson. Its placement on the page, markedly different from that of the main text, attracted attention. Its source, one of the major critics of medieval literature, also attracted attention. Donaldson’s words carry weight with medievalists, so his deployment before the article even begins situates the article as engaging with some of the major threads of medieval studies. It also serves to position the article in tension with commonly received wisdom, identifying the context in which Erwin’s discussion takes place.

Pressing onward from the epigraph, I scanned the first paragraph, looking for the article’s thesis in one of the traditional places: the beginning of the first paragraph and the end of it. I found it in the latter, noting its presence in the margins and underlining it to call visual attention directly to it. I also underlined a few sentences earlier in the paragraph, sentences that bridge from the epigraph to the thesis and which seem to correspond to my own other interests; highlighting them will prompt later recall.

As I continued reading, I noted that the next paragraph serves to contextualize Erwin’s discussion. That is, it articulates the circumstances in which Erwin came upon the idea her article explicates. I highlighted a few key sentences that describe that context, but I largely passed on from the paragraph. Context is useful and necessary, certainly, but for my immediate reading purpose, it sufficed to note the presence of the context and a cursory image of it.

The article continues with a description of how The Two Noble Kinsmen situates itself as a medievalist text, something I underlined as being of interest to me as a medievalist. When it returns shortly after to a discussion of the class from which the article arises, it offers something else of interest to me as a medievalist: a comment about the lapse of a major medieval construct. I highlighted it and appended a bit of marginalia, connecting it to a conference paper I gave some time ago. Building the connection to my own prior knowledge helps me to place Erwin’s work in context, as well as to broaden my understanding of materials with which I was already familiar. Additionally, the simple act of writing helps cement the connection through engaging multiple means of recall. (Underlining does, too, if not as specifically and therefore less powerfully.) I also highlighted the citation embedded in the paragraph and its related footnote; the source referenced appears to be one of interest to me, so calling attention to it serves as a reminder of my ongoing need to read.

Erwin presses on to relate her students’ progress through the exercises associated with the reading, and I underlined the major assertions she makes in the piece. The specific support for those assertions I left unmarked, having skimmed over them. I need to know that there is support, and I may need to know what that support is later, but the immediate purpose of my reading does not demand that detail, so I let it lie. It results in some of the pages of my copy of the article being less heavily marked than others, to be sure, but that is not a problem now.

It had been, though, as I had skipped over more than I ought to have done, something I realized as I came initially to Erwin’s summation of classroom findings. They had not made sense to me on first reading, prompting me to recognize that I had glossed over vital details. At that point, I made a note in the margins indicating how far back I would need to read, and I re-read the text from that point. As I went through again, I paid closer attention, underlining details that illuminated the summation I had earlier failed to understand. The reading made more sense in the repetition, as is often the case, and I moved into the conclusion, underlining again the major points Erwin makes.

My own reading methods are idiosyncratic, certainly, developed over years of reading and reading in my field. They pull upon substantial background knowledge in determining what is important to highlight for the purposes I am about at any time. Knowing those purposes , though, is a useful first step; even reading slowly with “Does this inform what I am doing?” in mind helps make the reading go better, and practice helps with speed later.

*The term denotes studies of how the medieval is mis/used and mis/appropriated by later periods. Study of the medieval itself is necessary to study of the medievalist, but the medievalist study also has to encompass knowledge of the receiving period. More information can be found from the International Society for the Study of Medievalism and the Tales after Tolkien Society. Return to text.

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