This dialogue between Steve Portigal and Dan Soltzberg about how to notice has gotten a lot of links since Jason Kottke linked to it(I also ran across it at Austin Kleon’s tumblelog). It’s good stuff:
Someone showed me a great user research training activity: circulate through an environment and note everything you observe, but using only one sense. First, observe from a distance—say, from on high—so you can’t hear what people are saying. Then sit in the middle of an active zone, but close your eyes. Students have told me how rapidly one sense fills in for the other. Of course sometimes that filling in isn’t accurate, so it also illustrates the importance of triangulating observations from a few different perspective.
This idea of mixing up your sensory inputs in a situation is excellent. In the context of teaching literature, it’s a particularly good way to find your way into a text, and potentially even to find paper topics. I’m frequently asked how to identify bits of a text that are likely to be fruitful for interpretation, or even what to do when faced with a difficult work.
My basic sense of how many students prepare for class is that they cast their eyes over the page once or twice. If the reading’s particularly engaging, they will read it more closely as time permits, but always in the silent theater of their minds.
Then, in class, we usually spend a fair (one colleague called it “startling” after observing a class) amount of time reading aloud. In part, we do this to focus our attention on that chunk of text. But we also read aloud because, if you do it right, you begin to notice more and more how the details of a text start to work together. You might not yet have the technical vocabulary to analyze the passage, but successfully reading a passage aloud (i.e., not in a flat, hurried monotone) represents a significant step toward producing a close reading.
Students so frequently say that they didn’t understand a passage until they heard it read aloud that I’ve stopped keeping track.
That’s my low-tech advice for honing one’s noticing skills when reading literature: Try reading some aloud. (Matthew Kirschenbaum once pointed me to this essay by Jerome McGann, which proposes “a commandment forbidding students (and anybody else) to talk about ideas in literature until they show they can sight-read fifty lines of verse without sending everyone howling from the room.” It’s a bracing strategy.)