Hands-down, the thing I loved most in college was studying with Thomas Keenan, a professor in the English department who knew how to teach close reading.
For us, this meant reading a six line Aesop fable and then discussing it for three rigorous hours in a seminar. And not a moment of that time felt wasted or misdirected. We were refusing to ignore the “weirdness” of phrases from the text; but instead, tried to “unpack” them to see what else they revealed.
My classmate, Dylan, was a kind of Keenan prodigy. For his senior thesis, he wrote 150 pages about the phrase “Taking Leave”, as it occurred in three primary documents of early American history. Most of the tension of the paper was around what people “take” when they leave and why “leaving” was something that had to be taken, rather than just enacted. This kind of study is akin to deconstructionist literary theory, but we didn’t use those terms and I never got hung up with those larger definitions. Instead, I just loved taking sentences apart, just as I had always taken apart clocks, wagons, radios, and walkie-talkies at home.
I took as many courses as possible from Keenan, worried that I would lose the habit or knack of reading his way. I had one other undergraduate event, which might have otherwise been forgettable, that also figured significantly into my concept of “how one is supposed to think, when one is reading rigorously.” As part of a liberal arts requirement, I enrolled in a History of Science course. During one of the first weeks, the instructor surprised me with a unique assignment: we had to look at an object and provide historical analysis of its design.
Reading a bike, then, might lead to this kind of analysis: what was the contemporary bike design saying about its component architecture? What was possible and what was not possible when it was constructed? I needed to consider the manufacturer’s ability to produce a light carbon, so that a frame could be constructed using, say, one brace, rather than three. I needed to think about the weight of hydraulic disc brakes and whether they were lighter or heavier than previous brakes. And if a difference existed, how did the design shift towards some new capability or idea?
This is a long way of saying that I have a resounding belief that if you read things closely enough, you don’t always need copious amounts of data. You just need to be willing to turn the gem in your hand until you see multiple facets.
I’m also challenging myself to think about teaching and learning in smaller, discrete phrases. Phrases that I can deconstruct with questions and track with tenacity. If you see me stumbling around, you’ll know what I’m doing, as I try to relearn those habits.