Academic journal article ARIEL

Close Reading, Teaching the Conflicts: Reading Reflectively in Korea

Academic journal article ARIEL

Close Reading, Teaching the Conflicts: Reading Reflectively in Korea

Article excerpt

Abstract: My most striking realization while teaching in a liberal arts college in Seoul has been the need to teach students close reading. The difficulty they find in performing detail-oriented textual analysis is, in part, a product of their prior literature training which is significantly inflected by colonial history. Their resistance to the method, moreover, can be traced to issues of neoliberalism and globalization, most concretely in the mismatch they perceive between "liberal learning" and the job market awaiting them. For students to determine for themselves the value of close reading, I argue, they need to be trained to reflect on their modes of reading. My most sustained effort in this regard has been a seminar called "Literature and Pedagogy," inspired by Gerald Graff's call for "teaching the conflicts." In focusing on the critical debates that have shaped the discipline of English, most students gain significant appreciation for the virtues of active and reflective learning while adopting a more critical stance vis-a-vis their prior literature learning and the university itself. Such a metacritical approach to English does not resolve the tensions impacting their educational lives, but it does give them the capacity to more critically and reflectively negotiate them.

Keywords: close reading, English literature, liberal arts, globalization, postcolonialism

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My experiences in the English literature classroom of a liberal arts college in Seoul have continued to reveal the need to teach students the skill of close reading. As far as I can tell, this has little to do with the fact that English, for most, is a second or third language. Instead, the lack of facility in performing close textual analysis seems to be a function of their educational backgrounds, both in terms of a system "dominated by the pedagogy of information transfer" (Grubb et al. 67) and the rigid historical approaches to twentieth-century Korean literature most have learned in secondary school. At the same time, the resistance many students demonstrate when asked to pay close attention to form and detail, to proceed inductively in generating claims about the literary work, is reflective, as Susan Bruce suggests, of much wider "constructions of 'value' outside the discipline of English" (134). For one, the time and attentiveness close reading demands runs against the grain of their high-tech, information-rich environment, but, more fundamentally, the open-ended nature of the method does not align with the larger narratives of national and economic development that surround them. In Korea, politicians, education officials, and some business leaders have been promoting American-style liberal learning in higher education as a means to produce more innovative and entrepreneurial graduates to bolster the country's "creative economy" (Fischer). But even as these educational reforms have gained momentum in recent years, few efforts have been made to explicitly articulate to students how courses in Enlightenment philosophy, Chinese history, or postcolonial literature will make them more marketable job candidates. (And it appears that even less energy has been expended elucidating the non-instrumental values of such an education.) Most students are familiar with the rhetoric of acquiring transferable skills like creative and critical thinking; (1) in my experience, though, when it comes to trying to develop these skills in the English classroom, many, at least initially, do not see the point of directing their attention to "the words on the page."

While my concerns with close reading are pragmatic--how it enables students to generate more critical and persuasive interpretations--the issue of reading literary works is enmeshed in a much larger matrix of postcolonialism, nationalism, globalization, and neoliberalism. South Korea has been subjected in the past century to Japanese colonization (1910-1945), American military occupation (1945-1948), civil war (1950-1953), and a series of dictatorships (1961-1987) before becoming the democratic republic it is today. …

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