Writing and Communication Center

Integrating Reading: Creating Conversations Across Texts



After students have been given ample opportunity to work with close-reading and interpreting texts, they can situate their interpretations within larger conversations and contexts surrounding the text—ongoing conversations into which they enter, or conversations that they initiate by making connections. The conversations may engage, for example, different literary texts of the same period or literary texts of different periods. Or you may want students to cross disciplines by placing a literary text in conversation both with another kind of text from the same period, and a historian's writing about the period in which the text was published. Or you may adapt this to different historians' texts about the same time period, or different sociologists perspectives on a similar phenomenon. The possibilities are endless.



The following guidelines/exercise can apply to other kinds projects besides the literary interpretation, however, for the sake of clarity and illustration, this specific exercise places a literary text (Edith Wharton's 1901 novel House of Mirth), in conversation with another primary source (Frederick Law Olmsted's 1870 treatise "Public Parks and the Enlargement of Towns") and one secondary source (Alan Trachtenberg's The Incorporation of America). This exercise assumes that students will have completed House of Mirth and, ideally, have written one interpretation essay or have done plenty of close-readings in class so they are sufficiently familiar with the text. This exercise can feed directly into research projects in which they find additional or different sources or final interpretation essays that ask students to deal with the different texts from the course.

  1. After students are familiar with the novel, assign a primary text from the same period in which the novel was written. In this case, assign Frederick Law Olmsted's "Public Parks and the Enlargement of Towns." Ask students to write down a list of quotations from the essay that they find of interest and that resonate with specific moments from
    The House of Mirth. Ask them to write down page numbers from the novel where they find relevant passages.
  2. Ask them to repeat this process with Trachtenberg's chapter, "Mysteries of the Great City." (You may want to assign this chapter after you have discussed the connections between the first two primary texts in class). In this case, they should write down quotations that resonate with the connections they have already made between the first two texts.
  3. In class, draw three columns on the board for each of the three texts. Ask students to volunteer and brainstorm connections they made among the different texts, providing page numbers and reading from specific quotations from each text. As students offer their ideas, jot down notes under each column. For now, do not worry about the depth of the discussion or analysis, just let students experiment. For example:

"The Gilded Age:" Conversations Across Three Texts



House of Mirth


Talks about how realist writers attempt to make the city visible—cleanse the city of mystery. This is a reflection of the fear and anxiety related to the growing and industrialized city.

The characters of Mrs. Peniston, Gerty, and Seiden are fearful and vigilant in some way (ex. p. 126). Wharton is displaying characters that want to cleanse the city of mystery, but for them it is fruitless.

Writes about the fear of sidewalks as public spaces, relatively unstructured and non-segregated (p.338).



  1. After you have generated a list of four or five possible sets of connections, ask students to choose one of these topics and write a paragraph that asserts the relationship, by describing the conversation, among the texts. For example, they may want to address the question: Do the two primary texts refute, reflect, and/or somehow deepen Trachtenberg's historical analysis? Tell them to practice proper methods for quoting from texts in their paragraph.
  2. If time permits, ask a couple students to share their paragraphs in class. Collect them.

Instead of, or in addition to, doing this exercise in class and on the board, you might have students do the exercise in their reading journals. They may write down a quotation from one of the sources that they found compelling, pass their journal to another student who would then make a connection to a passage from another source, pass to a second student, etc.