Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Reviving the Art of Close Reading

Perhaps the greatest challenge for instructors of large courses (100+ students) is being able to move beyond the delivery of textbook facts and engage in the careful analysis of primary sources.  In my discipline, Classics, the close reading and analysis of literary texts or material artifacts is what we do.  In Latin class, we translate passages, we parse forms of nouns and verbs, we talk about the nuances of specific words.  My own research methods are very dependent on the skills of close reading of literary texts.  I write about big ideas, but my arguments regarding those big ideas are based in the careful analysis of ancient written sources (most of them in Latin).  Yet, in our large introductory courses on Greece and Rome, it is a challenge to get students to engage deeply with ancient primary sources (in translation).  My colleagues who teach our Intro to Ancient Greece course do a splendid job of incorporating primary sources into their classes.  In the Intro to Ancient Rome course, however, we have a more difficulty finding primary sources that are student-friendly.  There is no Latin Plato or Sophocles or Herodotus.  Roman comedy is dense and culturally specific.  Vergil is moderately accessible as is the ancient historian Livy; Sallust has some fun bits.

In the Intro to Ancient Rome, I always assign several selections from Livy to the students during the first section of the course.  Livy is pretty accessible when he talks about Romulus and Remus and the foundation of Rome; and then the regal successors to Romulus.  When he gets to the Tarquins, however, things start to get a bit tricky--in large part because this is when Livy's own historical biases become especially prominent.  His presentation of Tarquin the Proud, Tarquin's son Sextus, Sextus's rape of Lucretia, the expulsion of the Tarquins by Brutus and his followers, and the foundation of the Roman Republic is dense, complicated, full of unfamiliar characters and places and, overall, very difficult for students to understand.  In previous incarnations of the course, I did my best to highlight the major events and characters and one or two themes (e.g. Sextus' violation of guest-host relations), but did not say much about the complexities of the scene.  I had too much basic content to deliver and no time to linger.

In the current flipped class, I don't have to worry about content delivery--it's already done.  This week, the Monday and Wednesday class meetings focused on this episode, with the aim of analyzing the ethics of Brutus's use of Lucretia's rape and suicide to inspire a rebellion against the ruling family, the Tarquins.  In order to begin to evaluate Brutus's actions, it is necessary to engage in a careful reading of Livy's report of the events.  On Monday, we went through several key bits of Livy's account in order to highlight elements of the "case" that might bear on their analyses (e.g. that both Brutus and Sextus engaged in acts of deception, but to different ends).  We did a bit more of that on Wednesday, but then jumped into serious discussion of Brutus's behavior and the arguments that might justify his actions.  We chatted a bit as a class and then I had them "talk to a neighbor".  In order to elicit justifications, they had to be able to know and have some understanding of Livy's account.  That is, they had to engage in the careful reading of a primary source--a kind of reading that went well beyond mere plot summary.

If I needed any confirmation that my current students are learning to read Livy at a depth that I've never seen before in a large, introductory level course, it came shortly after class when a student posted a question on our discussion board.  He was confused about an i>clicker question I asked near the end of class about Brutus's display of Lucretia's body in the forum (i.e. town square) of her hometown of Collatia (15 km Northeast of Rome).  He thought the forum was only in Rome itself.  I quickly answered that most cities had a forum.  He then followed up with a thoughtful and very detailed question about a passage in the Livy text.  He offered his own interpretation and then asked for other opinions.  By the time I saw the follow-up question,  three or four students had already offered various (correct) answers and added useful information.  I was then able to add a couple of links to outside sites.  What struck me was how, in a matter of a few hours, these students hanging out on the Piazza site were able to use this passage to open up a very interesting perspective on the very question we had been considering a few hours earlier in class.  Close reading at its best!


  1. I was curious about which passages of Livy you were using for the close readings. I will be covering ancient rome in a few weeks and wanted to use the close read approach.

    1. I use an excerpt from the beginning that starts with Aeneas and the Trojans and goes through the foundation of Rome; then do Numa. Skip ahead to Tarquin the Proud and the Rape of Lucretia. Do the opening of Book 2, up to Valerius's speech trying to calm the people down. And then do the indebted veteran in the forum, looking for tax relief and how the people respond with secession during the war vs the Volscians. I teach the class with an ethics "flag" so we use the rape of Lucretia and Brutus' use of her body and death to found the republic as our first case study/opportunity for close reading. The key in my large class is giving them assignments like worksheets and a discussion board that require them to read closely, interpret, and then defend a position based on evidence from the text. The discussion board (Piazza) has been an especially good place for working with these large ##s on close reading skills.