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Reading, Analyzing, Asking Questions

Professor Sinowitz designed the following tips with his First-Year Seminar in mind, so you'll find examples drawn from Tolkien and J.K. Rowling. The advice he gives here about reading, analyzing, and asking questions will be helpful to you in any of the literature courses you take at DePauw.

Tips for Reading, Developing Analytical Points, & Asking Discussion Questions

Be an active reader.  One of the keys to both learning to think deeply about your reading and to retain the key elements of that reading is to directly engage with the material.  I find that one of the best ways to do this is to read with a pen in hand so I can write and annotate.   I underline key passages, but I also write notes about why I think they’re key.   I mark passages that don’t make sense.  I try to identify passages that seem to suggest a pattern or, sometimes nearly as importantly, a clear break from a pattern.   These patterns can come in the form of character behavior, narrator descriptions, dialogue, or interactions among characters.   

Sometimes I just write down a brief note that is a kind of crib sheet detailing what’s happening (something as innocuous as, “another dwarf arrives.”).  While I don’t always revisit such notes, they can prove helpful in two ways--if you are trying to find a passage later that you didn’t realize was important at first or as a means of simply remembering what happened in the story or how an argument was being developed (some people like to write a shorthand summary at the end of chapters or articles to do the same). 

If you are reading online or electronically, use sticky notes or other text marking options.   

Why use a pen and not a highlighter?  The simple reason is that if you only highlight important passages, you may not remember why you did (I have also seen examples of people highlighting everything, which doesn’t prove very useful if you have to return to the text but it is colorful).

Don’t rush and be awake.   You cannot comprehend or digest texts that you rush through.   Read patiently.  Look up words or concepts you don’t know.   It’s hard to read well when you’re nodding off, so be sure to read in an environment where sleep isn’t so inviting.  It’s also hard to follow the meaning of a sentence that contains words you don’t comprehend. 

Consider keeping a reading journal or at the least use these guiding questions to help you develop your analytical comments or discussion questions.   I’m going to pass along several bits of advice from the scholar David Mikics in this regard.  Simply taking the time to summarize the main elements of the reading can have its uses, as it can also point to places where you have confusion (‘what exactly did happen?’) and help you remember it.  However, he strongly encourages—and so do I—that you push past summary.   Instead, try to consider “where the text has led you, the spur it has given your mind” (both in terms of its story and your own thinking about it); “the author’s stance and style” (what is the “basic idea” or point of view of the author; what is the style by which the author tells her story?), and to carry on a “give-and take between author and reader.”  You can, of course, also record your responses to moments in the story and particular characters: if you like or don’t like something or someone, however, try to get at why (and whether you think the author intends you to react as you are). 

What is the difference between an opinion and an analytical comment?  I would consider opinions to often fall into the category of quick, personal judgements.   Examples of those would be: “I didn’t like the part with the Ents.”  “That Draco Malfoy is so nasty.”  “I just couldn’t get into it.”  

So, what would be a good analytical comment?  I think perhaps more than anything readers need to try to read with the grain and to read sympathetically to start.  So rather than relying on your likes and dislikes, try to think about why the author may have made the choices she did.   For example: “Perhaps part of Tolkien’s point about the Ents is that they are supposed to be difficult to relate to because they represent an older way of thinking that has been lost.”  Reading with the grain or with an eye towards trying to figure out what Mikics calls the “big idea” doesn’t mean that you cannot criticize those ideas.  However, your criticism will be stronger, more effective and more persuasive if you have first tried to read with the author’s apparent views in mind (that said, we often spend a lot of our time reading fiction trying to figure out those intents because they are not always self-evident; however, it can also sometimes be a challenge to do that same thing with critical essays by academics).   A few more examples:  “I have been trying to figure just why I struggled to understand the Lothlorian section of the novel.  I think it has to do with how much the novel becomes strangely mystical at that point.”  (The key here and in the last example is that the writer actually built from that initial personal reaction).   

How do I develop a good discussion question?   You can see that this comment might lead to one, for example: “ “I have been trying to figure just why I struggled to understand the Lothlorian section of the novel.  I think it has to do with how much the novel becomes strangely mystical at that point.”  The next step might be to ask: “Why did Tolkien make this section so mystical and dream-like?  What might he have been trying to say through that approach?”   So, good discussion questions can be about the meaning of the texts.    At their best, they are often genuine questions--perhaps one you have ideas about in terms of answers, but not necessarily ones you are sure about.  “Are we supposed to view the Dwarves as greedy?  If so, why?”   “Why don’t Elves seem to treasure immortality?”   “What is Rowling saying about celebrities through Harry?”  Some good discussion questions might not be fully answerable, but still intriguing to readers: “Do Orcs have inner lives and complex personalities?”  Even though we might not be able to answer those, we could use that question to consider another one: “Why doesn’t Tolkien show us the inner-lives of Orcs?”   

Professor Michael Sinowitz / August 2020