Close reading, PBL, and tensions

A tension that has arisen often in conversations between my co-instructor and myself as we prepared for an upcoming course in life science, gender, and race, texts… – by tension I don’t mean something that is a disagreement or even something that has to be resolved, indeed perhaps the essence of co-teaching is that there are tensions to be played out in real time. The tension is that she understands that we cannot assign hundreds of pages to be read each week and still follow the project-based learning (PBL) process of the course, yet she knows how much her scholarship and her teaching revolves around very close reading of texts.

Close reading makes me think about tensions in my own work. I know how much I get by puzzling out the structure of arguments. Sometimes this is drawn from examining the scene setting at the start of an article and the actual conclusion that is arrived at—close reading, but not so much of words or phrases, and certainly not the entire text. Yet I am keen about the PBL process in part because it allows me not to try to teach my puzzling approach. That puzzling-out approach is not something that fits in any curriculum I know of, with the exception of a biology-in-society course I teach very occasionally now. In any case, not in a curriculum that keeps students working with me for long enough to train them, if “training” in this were possible.

Still, this semester the PBL course asks students to keep a personal learning journal so that they take an active role in articulating and developing their own approach to learning that does not simply accept the boundaries of their formal discipline – and I intend to do the same journalling (starting with this post). So, I want to articulate an approach to writing, if not also to teaching, that does value my puzzling approach more. At the same time, I am co-teaching with a professor of English to be challenged to look and think more about the totality of texts. Yet – and the two of us are agreed on this – we will be spending a lot of time in class on activities other than close reading of texts, even as the course title and the projects encourage students to approach science with the sensibility of literary analysis.

To be continued…There are lots of tensions here to be explored and assertions to be elaborated on or revised.


About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor is a Professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston where he teaches and directs undergraduate and graduate programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society. His research and writing focuses on the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context, incl. Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago Press, 2005) and Nature-nurture? No (2014, On reflective practice, see Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research & Engagement (with J. Szteiter, 2012,

2 Responses to Close reading, PBL, and tensions

  1. Teryl Cartwright says:

    Is your post a case study for PBL or an invitation to puzzle out by close reading of it?
    If PBL through journaling doesn’t have formal boundaries, can you incorporate or at least spend some time on close reading? Is there a way to make PBL more hybrid in form or make it go in collaboratively or in tension in multiple directions?

    (I get to interview an artist next week so I am trying to learn how to think and build like he does: ) One of the interesting ideas is engineering shorter and longer arcs in what’s happening to keep the reader going..

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