How To Read A Paragraph

In How To Read a Paragraph, the authors illustrate a strategy for “active” reading; a form of reading in which, while you read, you attempt to critically “over-read” the text. What does this mean? In any text, be it a newspaper article, a biology textbook, an historical essay, a philosophical screed, or even an obituary, there is a structure or scaffolding of assumptions and viewpoints put forward and used by the author. Some of these are obvious and some less so. Some are intentional and some not even the author is necessarily aware of, kind of like a subtle “freudian slip.” (I use here Freudian slip in the popular sense of the term, though incorrectly.)

When we over-read a text, we look at these structures to give meaning to the words and the information offered. This method allows us to enter into the context of the text, to experience not just the passive reception of information, but to also experience or sense the world in which the text exists.

We must ask when was the text written (is it historical and if so, are the meanings of the words the same now as when it was written?) What was the intention of the author (was she a revolutionary or a conservative, did she write from the perspective of those in power, or those excluded from it?) What assumptions does she put forward when she presents her case? What interpretations does she draw from the information (and what do you draw from the information?)

While the authors lay out five separate levels of reading, we should, at least for this exercise, concern ourselves with the first two; learning to paraphrase and creating a thesis statement.

  • For the paraphrase section, look at each sentence of the paragraph and attempt to put it into your own words. (This is nicely illustrated on page 22 of “How to Read…”) The point of this exercise is to learn how to take unfamiliar concepts and translate them into ideas that you can understand. (You could even try to place them in a new context by making them contemporary to your life, as in, how does an idea put forward apply to you, now, in 2011.)
  • For the second part of the exercise, try to explicate the thesis statement that the author is making. This should be done in four parts. First, state the main point of the paragraph in one or two sentences. Second, elaborate on what you have paraphrased. (This can be sone by starting your sentence with “In other words…”) Third, try to have the thesis mean something by tying it to a concrete example of something that you know in the world, as in by using the phrase “For example…” Fourth, try to give a metaphor or an analogy of what you, translating the author, are trying to explain.

For the exercise, please choose from one of the five examples given in How To Read a Paragraph and parse it using the two techniques discussed. Also, and arguably more important, please apply the techniques to Jean-Luc Nancy’s What Is To Be Done?

This exercise is due Wednesday, 7 September.


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