E 316 K Masterworks of American Literature skip navigational links and go to contentCourse

The Reading Journal

PLEASE UNDERSTAND AND REMEMBER THAT THIS IS A CRITICAL READING JOURNAL, NOT A PERSONAL RESPONSE JOURNAL. THIS JOURNAL IS DESIGNED TO HELP YOU DEVELOP CRITICAL THINKING AND READING SKILLS SO THAT YOU CAN BOTH DEVELOP AND ARTICULATE LEGITIMATE READINGS OF A TEXT. Using reading journals, we hope, will make your reading and learning personal. And as you attend carefully to how you read and to what you personally make of your reading, we believe you will be surprised to find that such things can improve your enthusiasm for reading and your participation in the classroom. By watching your own reading move from puzzlements through approximations and misreadings to more and more satisfying readings you will gradually develop a more realistic sense of what valid and legitimate readings of texts are, and in class discussion you will more readily share your readings and build on each other's perceptions instead of worrying about who is right and who is wrong.

The core of your work in the course will be composed in your reading journal. We'd like you to get a separate spiral notebook just for this purpose and keep it together over the term (If you want to try and keep your journal on your computer, click here). It is essential to the course that you do the reading before the class/lecture in which it will be discussed, and that you make entries in the journal on the readings as you read them. You can add entries to the journal from lectures or classes. There is one rigid rule about the format of the journal--I want you to use the facing pages in a special way. Take all of your reading notes on only the right hand pages. Leave the opposing pages blank for later. (you might want to reverse this if you're left-handed.) The basic difference is that the right-hand pages are for comments on the reading. The left-hand pages are for comments on the right-hand pages. Keep the difference clear and make use of it--don't write continuously from front to back of the sheet.


More specifically --

When you read a work of fiction, you want to think about the following:
  • what is this story about?
  • what happens first, second, third . . . ?
  • what’s the significance of what’s going on?
  • what details were particularly important to the story (in terms of plot, character, mood, etc.)?
  • what details, actions, or events confused you?
  • what are some of the problems (conflicts, contradictions) in the story?
  • what are some of the problems (conflicts, contradictions) you have with story?

When you read an essay, you want to think about the following:

  • what is this author’s argument?
  • how does he or she go about making that argument?
  • what details seem particularly important?

Other things to put on the right-hand pages:

  • You see something you didn’t see before.
  • You recognize a pattern – images start to overlap, gestures or phrases recur or get repeated, some details seem to be associated with each other or bring to mind other works.
  • The work suddenly seems to be about something different from what you thought.
  • You discover that you were misreading.
  • The writer introduces a new idea.
  • Times when you are surprised or puzzled.
  • Something just doesn’t fit.
  • Things just don’t make sense – pose explicitly the question or problem that occurs to you.
  • Details that seem important and that make you look twice.
  • Your first impression of the ending.
  • What you think is the most important point in the work (and why)

When writing in the journal, use full sentences instead of phrases. The demands of the sentence will help you draw out your thoughts fully. Be explicit about the nature of your surprise or change or puzzlement--what caused it in the text? The journal will seem less of an intrusion into your reading if you follow the natural rhythms of reading. Sometimes we're carried along by the flow of a work, but the things I've asked you to note are all signs that it's time to pause and reflect. Nobody reads a work straight through or at a uniform speed. Only machines work that way. The journal is a device to help you make more of the moments of reflection and to preserve them for later reconsideration.

NOTE: Because your journal is such an important part of your performance in this course, it is vital that you KEEP A BACK-UP COPY of it in case it gets lost.

What to put on the facing pages (left side):

While the right-hand pages involve your direct reactions to the text--your first gestures at making meanings out of it--the left hand pages are for a completely different activity. When you finish the reading for a particular author, or after we've discussed them in lecture and class, go back and use the facing pages to comment on your original observations and to make something of them. Is there a pattern to the changes you experienced? Does the end of the work tie them together?

Were there instances where you discovered that you were misreading the text? Can you discover what you did that led to your misreading? How do you account for the differences between your answers to the right-hand page questions and the answers given in lecture and discussion section? What did they they do that you didn't? What changes will you try and make for your next reading assignment?

Then reflect on yourself as a reader--
what do you focus on? What do you most care about? What do you disregard? When do you have the most trouble staying with a work? Finally, as you make these reflections on your reading experience, discuss your emerging sense of what the work is about.

Ideas adapted from Toby Fulwiler, University of Vermont Writing Program Director;
Ann Berthoff, Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Boston;
and Gary Lindberg's "The Journal Conference: from Dialectic to Dialogue,"
in The Journal Book, ed. by Toby Fulweiler (1987)

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