As you may have already realized, senior literature will be a little different than your previous courses. While the larger focus on language use instead of literary analysis is an obvious difference, you may have also noticed that the readings for this class reflect the fact that it is your fourth level English course. Gone are the days of ‘reading over’ your assignments, ‘skimming’ the required text or just reading over it once and being ‘good’.

As your text become more layered and complex, your reading style needs to change to reflect this. Often times you may need to do one, or all, of the following:

  1. Reread the passage multiple times.
  2. Take notes over the passage while reading it to help you understand.
  3. Look up additional helpful information online if you get stuck.
  4. Study and talk to classmates about the readings before coming to class.
  5. Reading any footnotes or supplementary information included in the text.

These are skills that you will need in many different situations – most definitely if you plan on attending a four year college, but also in technical school and training or certification programs, on-site job training and the military. These skills are also not unique to ‘English’ or ‘Literature’ – in fact, I used them most often in my science courses in college.

Steps one through four above should be familiar to you, but footnotes may be new.

While reading a book or article, have you ever noticed little numbers placed at the ends of some sentences?

These numbers usually appear as superscripts and correspond with numbers placed at the bottom of the page, next to which appears further information that is both necessary and supplementary. Sometimes this information will come in the form of citations, but sometimes it will simply present additional notes about the topic at hand.

These citations and explanations are called footnotes (because they appear in the footer of the page).

Long explanatory notes can be difficult for readers to trudge through when they occur in the middle of a paper. Providing this information is necessary, but doing so in the main text can disrupt the flow of the writing. Imagine if every time an author wanted to provide a citation, the entire citation had to be written out at the end of the sentence, like this (Anthony Grafton, The Footnote: A Curious History [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999] 221). Books would become much longer and reading much more tedious. That’s why footnotes are so useful: they allow authors to provide the required information without disrupting the flow of ideas.

Footnotes can include anything from a citation to parenthetical information, outside sources, copyright permissions, background information, and anything in between, though certain style guides restrict when footnotes can be used.

Inc, S. (n.d.). What Are Footnotes and How Do You Use Them? Retrieved from

Footnotes can actually save you that extra step of looking up outside information, depending on how detailed or well written they are. But why should you care about the footnotes? The video below looks at the importance of footnotes from a historical perspective, while the article after that examines the importance of footnotes from a literary perspective. You will be encountering both types in the course, so please review both of these resources.

Click here for Jeff Sommer’s article “Consider the Footnote: Why Don’t More Author’s Use This Powerful Tool?”.

Ultimately, footnotes are there to help you and enrich your reading and understanding of a text, its historical context, the related scholarship and research surrounding it, or to add an additional narrative layer to a work of fiction. Know that it may take some time to get used to reading with footnotes – rereading a text at least twice, first to read the text along and second to read the text and incorporate your reading of the footnotes – can be an effective way to adapt to this new reading style.