This has happened to all of us in high school, in college, even in graduate school. You did the reading but then the questions the instructor asks don’t make sense to you or you can’t answer questions about details she seems to think you should know.
- Sometimes the questions, whether asked aloud or given on a quiz, are things you can’t remember and you wonder: why is that important?
- Sometimes the class seems to be arguing about something that you simply accepted.
- Sometimes everyone seems to think something has occurred in a text that you missed.
What can you do to get yourself at the center of that discussion and ace the quiz?
After you read the story for the first time, have a little pre-discussion with yourself—in your notebook. If you were completely carried away and loved the story and feel like you understood it with every fiber of your being this will get you to take a step back and see how all its parts work together. You’ll have things to say about it that aren’t just about how it made you feel or how brilliant the message was. If you were bored by the story (or hated it) seeing the same parts may not make you like it, but you will have things to say about it as a piece of creative art rather than just calling it names.
So what goes into the notebook?
Well first, read through once without doing anything! Then get out a notebook and read it again more slowly.
1) Begin by making yourself a rough sketch of the plot (what happens).
You can go chapter by chapter or section by section or however seems natural to you. Don’t repeat word for word—imagine you are telling your friend what happens. This will help you remember it and the notes are good for reviewing for tests or papers.
2) Now look at some of the details AROUND the “what happens” and ask yourself why it matters that they are there.
For instance here’s a plot from the beginning of Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser:
Young Carrie leaves a small town outside Chicago to move to the big city and live with her sister and brother-in-law. On the way she meets a handsome sophisticated man who flirts with her. When they arrive in Chicago he suggests he might see her again at her sister’s. He waits till her sister arrives to meet her and then leaves.
Now of course, if it were written that way it wouldn’t be a famous American novel!
3) Next, note some interesting details
Different readers will choose different things to concentrate on. For instance, you might notice that the train ride section is so long because Dreiser describes the man’s clothing (but not Carrie’s) and the contents of his wallet and her purse in great detail. Also the detail on his clothes seems to be very excessive, more like what you’d expect when describing a woman’s clothing.
Noticing this or something like it is the first step. Write it down. Then do some scribbling around it. Her purse only has three things in it: her ticket, a piece of paper with her sister’s address, and some money. His “fat wallet” has many more things and she is very impressed by it. You might at this point list some of his clothes (or the things in his wallet): white and pink striped shirt and cuffs, big gold cufflinks with agates, several rings (“one, the ever-enduring heavy seal”), watch chain with Order of Elks insignia, suit is tight, highly polished shoes, fedora hat.
4) Great. Now write yourself some questions.
Write your first immediate answer but then try to come up with a different one—or two! Question the details you don’t know because the text is an older one and bring them to the teacher. Do you know what “the ever-enduring heavy seal” would be? Your teacher will likely be thrilled that you wondered! Ask yourself a question that goes beyond your first impression of the man as overdressed—what does this outfit say to Carrie? What do you think it is supposed to say to you, the reader as someone looking at both of them? What does the comparison between her purse and his wallet do?
Doing this will make you think about HOW you know what you (think you) know about the story. Noticing details may even make you question your own first assessment of what the main points of the story are.
As the class goes week by week, noticing details about each story will help you compare and contrast the way different authors write or the way fiction changes in different historical eras.
If you have already had some discussions about literature in your class, try to write down one or two of the questions your instructor has asked in the past about other texts and answer them for this one. “How does the author describe the city as compared to the country?”
5) Take note of things that make you react strongly and question your reactions.
—is this really in the story or is it personal to you? For instance: “I hate the character.” OK, try to take some notes on why. Then also ask—does the author hate the character? What does the author value vs. what you value? What in the words of the story tell you this? Remember, the author does not necessarily have the same moral values you do.
The home reading notes you take may be different from the ones your friends take—that’s OK. The point is to get you thinking deeply about the story. This will help you with discussion the next day!
Pat is part of our incredible team of English tutors, who teach everything from academic content, to expositiory writing, to standardized test preparation. Pat went to college at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and majored in biology and English and then worked as a paralegal in Washington, D.C. while she decided whether to go to law school or graduate school in English. She eventually went to the University of Chicago and received an English literature Ph.D. She learned to love Boston while teaching at Brandeis University and has returned to the city after some years teaching at the University at Albany, State University of New York and a fellowship at Amherst College’s Center for Humanistic Inquiry. She is the author of Race, Nationalism and the State in British and American Modernism (Cambridge University Press) and is at work on a second book.
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