Meaning in Contiguity

These assignments are designed to help students pay attention to contiguity: Why does
one image follow another in a sentence? Why does one sentence follow another in a
paragraph? Why does one event follow another in a chapter? What relationship is
suggested between two images/sentences/events, simply by putting them side by side?
I spread these assignments out over the course of the semester. As each new assignment
comes up, I point out that we’re applying the same close reading skills we’ve used
before, just expanding them to larger chunks of the text.
Within a sentence
Choose a series of complicated sentences from the reading. Ask students to spend 5
minutes in class writing about one sentence. Describe the architecture of the sentence:
how does it move from clause to clause, image to image, idea to idea? How are the
various elements connected to one another? How does the sentence make meaning? After
students finish writing and discussing their ideas with the class, I usually ask them to find
a sentence from the next night’s reading, and write a one page response to the same
“He was ten inches long, thin as a curve, a muscled ribbon, brown as fruitwood, soft-furred,
alert.” (Annie Dillard, “Living Like Weasels”)
“What used to concern me greatly about leaving was the awkward impression you can sometimes
have, say when you find yourself on an everyday street, or in a store, or in what would otherwise
be a shimmering, verdant park, and you think not about the surroundings but about yourself, and
how people will stop and think (most times, unnoticeably) about who you may be, how you fit
into the picture, what this may say, and so on and so forth.” (Chang-rae Lee, A Gesture Life)
Within a paragraph
Choose a series of complicated paragraphs and ask students to spend a few minutes
writing about them in class, or talking to one another about them in small groups, then
presenting their ideas to the group. I ask students to find a paragraph on their own from
the next reading assignment, and write one page about why apparently unrelated things
are grouped together in a paragraph.
“Adelaide had unfolded in the center of the bed, a starfish, a cross: she’d forgotten to take
off her watch, and its round face beamed on her wrist. He wondered where she’d heard the story
she’d told about the woman next door. Perhaps it wasn’t true. Perhaps it had been exaggerated.
He lifted his bathrobe from the hook behind the door and went downstairs to the kitchen, where
he drank apple juice straight from the carton. He realized, for the first time, that he could hear the
interstate winding through the valley, over a mile away. So much for a country setting, he
thought, and suddenly he ached with disappointment. Perhaps they should not have bought this
house. Perhaps, if they’d waited just a little longer, something better would have come along.”
(A. Manette Ansay, “Neighbor”)
Within a chapter (or short story or even novel):
This assignment obviously works only for chapters/stories/novels that are told out of
chronological order.
For homework, ask students to choose any chapter we’ve read so far. They need to draw
two timelines: one to illustrate the chronological order of important events in the chapter
(this means they will have to decide what constitutes an important event), and a second to
illustrate the order in which these events actually appear in the chapter. Then, they write a
brief (1-2 page) explanation of why the events are ordered the way they are. How are
they connected? What is it about one event that triggers a memory of the next? What does
this suggest about the events themselves/the narrator’s understanding of them?
Between chapters:
For homework, students choose any two neighboring chapters. They re-read the last page
or so of text at the end of one chapter, and the first page or so of text at the beginning of
the next chapter. Then, they write a brief (1-2 page) response to the following questions:
What’s the connection between the end of one chapter and the start of the next? What
changes? What stays the same? Is there a shift in time/setting/narrator/mood? If so, how
are the end and beginning connected? If not, why make a chapter break?
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