Reading in the Information Age. On Hayle’s “How We Think”

If hyper-reading involves jumping from a text to another one, I’m guilty. The moment I read that a group of students had created a project where they gave the characters on Romeo and Juliet a Facebook profile, make them friends and created an event for the party where the lovers met, I stopped reading Hayles and moved to Google to search for this awesome idea: Romeo and Juliet: A Facebook Tragedy.

So my close reading of How We Think by N. Katherine Hayles -an insightful look about the ways digital texts are affecting or benefiting reading in young audiences, as well as the role Digital Humanities can play in developing new methods in which new hyper- and machine-reading can be implemented to resemble the tradition close reading in the Humanities – got interrupted by the end of the chapter “How We Read.” But I must admit that I found it interesting enough to stop and think about where I find myself, and my students, in the tryptic she proposes: close-reading, hyper-reading, machine-reading. First, I would give a brief description of the three to see how they intertwine or detach themselves.

Close-reading, belonging to the field of literary criticism, is “the careful and sustained interpretation of a brief passage of text. Such a reading places great emphasis on the single particular over the general” (Wikipedia). Practised by the Humanities, the method is becoming outdated, deficiente, and, at the end of the day, slow-moving. Hayles indicates that close-reading, though still needed as to ensure literacy and critical thinking, is no longer applicable for it leads to formulated results or the same conclusions. Moreover, given the great amount of published literary works that we can now explore, the method proves unfruitful. Also, until digital text is understood as an instance to be studied in the close-reading technique, this kind of text is going to be marginalized by the academia. And so an additional method has to be used.

In the age of information a new type reading arises for those who spend their time on a computer: hyper-reading. Defined as “reader-directed, screen-based, computer-assisted reading” (167), its basic mode of operation is a fragmentary reading by which the reader pecks the text, looking for keywords, gathering the main idea in a short time, and moving on to another text usually by a hyperlink. This has become an imperative. However, the need to skim over texts that fast is enacting changes in our brains – leading to an impossibility to pay attention in a close-reading manner. I’ll discuss this point later.

Finally, machine-reading is “the automatic, unsupervised understanding of text” (70), according to Etzioni, Banko and Cafarella (2006). It provides the opportunity to explore larger amounts of texts, along the construction of new knowledge impossible to gain before. Though many scholars have yet to twig the relevance of this type of method, it usually takes researchers from their first intuition to new questions to examine the texts. A good example would be Franco Moretti, who by getting data on a large corpus on British novels then asks questions to further explore the development of the genre.

These three reading  cannot be separated. They intertwine in that the hyper-reading looks for certain passages that can be close-read. Machine- and hyper-reading can identify unknown forms or structures that can later on be also studied by asserting a close-reading on the writings.

Now, how do I read? I do a lot of hyper-reading when searching for information to analyse or write about specific novels in my literature classes. Books that I have first read, closely, and found some particular issue I want to analyse. Right now, I’m also moving on to the third realm. I am learning how to use R language and environment to analyse texts that I might have not read before. How do I think, though? As Hayles points out, I usually know what I am looking for before I begin to hyper- or machine-read, then I interpret what I find. Given my ability to multitask, I wonder if those modes of reading are changing my brain…

…are my students’ brains also changed and unable to perform one activity focusing all their attention to it? I don’t teach literature – maybe in a couple of semesters- but Spanish. I have sussed that students like to have different tasks or modes of reading while learning new vocabulary, for instance. Memorization of a list of words never worked for me either. So I have pictures, games, videos, or sentences ready for them to learn new words. Usually I don’t ask them for a close-reading the day we have a text on culture – they have to hyper-read various texts in order to get the main idea for a new concept. Unfortunately I haven’t yet tried machine-reading with them. So far, it has worked for my classes. Is it negative? Would they be able to later on move on to a close-reading mode when they get to 400 level classes on literature?

As Humanists, Digital Humanists, and teachers/profs, I believe we have to understand the technogenesis Hayles talks about. Technology and humans develop by adapting to one another. Digital media is moving human beings to a faster and miscellaneous mode of communication. It is shaping new patterns of knowledge and research. I guess that we cannot avoid the change. So we have to adapt it and take full advantage of it. 

Works cited:

Hayles, N. Katherine. How We Think. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2012.

Sosnoski, James. 1999. “Hyper- Readings and Their Reading Engines.” In Passions, Pedagogies, and Twenty First Century Technologies, edited by Gail E. Hawisher and Cynthia L. Selfe.