How to Engage With a Text

It is simple for one to turn over a page of any text and start reading, however, how do we know that despite turning over the pages, are we actually engaging with the text within these pages? There are many different ways for readers to read a piece of text closely.

Some of my close reading techniques involve:

  • Highlighting passages
  • Looking up terms
  • asking questions within certain scenes
  • looking through the imagery within the text in order to understand the tone, theme, and setting of the text

Close reading and properly engaging with the text does not only mean that we should just be able to identify the tone, theme, plot, and setting of the text. There are many ways to properly engage with a text without just considering these basic literary factors and aspects.

As noted in the text Using Digital Humanities In The Classroom by the authors Claire Battershill and Shawna Ross, in chapter five of the text “Designing Classroom Activities”, they provide several ways to engage with a text and give it purpose. Some of the suggested activities are as short as ten minutes, some are half-hour exercises, some are whole class exercises and some are weeklong exercise.  I would just like to point out the exercises that I would use in a classroom if I had wanted my students to engage with Mary Shelly’s prominent fictional piece Frankenstein.

To get my students engaged with the Frankenstein text, I would actually use the suggested ten minute and half hour exercises.  The ones that I saw would benefit the class more are the Word Cloud ten minute exercise since looking for important keywords in the text and finding different words used in the text to explain that keyword, actually helps the student understand the plot, theme, and setting of the text. It also gets them thinking about finding other themes that may not have been discussed before. By using this wordplay, it engages a larger discussion and has the students going back within the text to search for passages to help relate them to the word they are currently looking at and defining, based on how the text defines this keyword. For instance, ‘justice’ has a broad definition, yet the students through this word cloud will understand how Frankenstein defines the word ‘justice’.

Another activity I would use is from the half-hour exercises which is the “In-depth most frequent word analysis” on page 85. This is a more in-depth version of the word cloud but instead of just focusing on words, they will be looking for passages and similarities along passages and giving them more analysis. For instance when we did this in our class discussion to understand frameworks within the Frankenstein text. This analysis helped us understand the different frames in the text and when they start within the text and who is speaking in each frame. This does not only apply to frames. One of the themes of the Frankenstein text was the difference between male and females in the text and how females sacrifice more and are just listeners to the males in the text, so just by this theme alone, the students can look at sections of the Turkish female, Safie, and what voice she has to her life, We can compare that with how this entire story is told to R.W’s sister who has no voice in the text, she is just a listener. So this engages the students with looking for passages related to these themes and analyzing them.

One final exercise I absolutely enjoyed and believe would engage the student with any text, not just Frankenstein, was the whole class activity of “Character Role Playing”. I did something similar to this for one of my undergraduate courses as a final project. We were divided into groups and had to choose from one of the texts we read and play out one of the scenes, but the twist was to change the scene and explain how the story would change by the twist that we had created. My group chose the American play “The Children’s Hour” by Lillian Hellman, and the activity itself helped my group actually better understand the text, since we had to go back and read over the play, choose the scene we thought that if we change it up, it would cause the most significant change to the conclusion of the play. This whole process made us very engaged with the text because even though we acted out one part, we were aware of the previous scenes and had knowledge of how the rest of the scenes would change after the scene that we had chosen. (779)

Original Post

2 thoughts on “How to Engage With a Text

  1. It seems like the first two activities you mentioned would work well in conjunction. The quick WordCloud activity can give students a starting point by which they can perform a deeper analysis of word choice/language using more sophisticated tools. Not only can we track word frequency, but we can then use that list of frequent words to to do a co-word analysis. For example, once we know that “justice” is a frequently used word, a co-word analysis can pick out surrounding words that can provide insights on Shelley’s attitude toward “justice” or what she believes is its true meaning.

  2. Hussah,
    I think that all three activities sound very promising for the classroom. The first two are easier for me to think about in terms of DH. Several of us talked about different online programs to do that type word mapping and word analysis — I suspect that for many of our students, those would be new activities and would be beneficial in terms of analyzing whatever specific text they were working on in class, but also be things that they could add to their proverbial academic tool belt that they then apply in the future to other texts and/or incorporate into other classes. I am intrigued by the third activity that you mention though, the idea of role-playing an excerpt from the text and then adding a “twist” to it. I think that gives students a great deal of agency in relation to textual ownership and would deepen their understanding of the text. I would love to see this enacted in a classroom! I still grappling with how to do this within the framework of DH (it could certainly be “old-school” and non-DH!), but would like to think about what and how this could be done. Perhaps as simple as having a student video the performance and upload it to the class Canvas page? Other people talked about Twitter, YouTube, and other forms of social media. I’m interested in if others can think of how else this can be done…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *