Hayles, N. Katherine

Assigned: Hayles, N. Katherine. “How We Read: Close, Hyper, Machine” (2073-94). Also read the editors’ introduction (2071-73).

“How We Read: Close, Hyper, Machine” (2010)

1. On 2073-75 (“The evidence is mounting: people…”), N. Katherine Hayles runs through some depressing modern pedagogical facts: print-reading is down, screen-reading is up, and reading skills have suffered. (2073) She does not, however, think the news is all doom and gloom. How does Hayles frame the “crucial questions” (2074) about literacy and the advent of electronic reading? What does she make of Mark Bauerlein’s study The Dumbest Generation…, which insists that digital reading fails to improve print-based reading and doesn’t even “lead to strong digital reading skills” (2074)?

Close Reading and Disciplinary Identity

2. On 2075-77 (“To explore why this should be…”), Hayles considers the history of “close reading” as well as the basic assumptions underlying that longstanding academic practice. How, then, at least in the period that Hayles is examining (the 1970s and 1980s) did close reading come to be so closely associated with English departments across America? In particular, how did close reading come to be taken as perhaps the main guarantor of the social value of literary study? (2075) According to Hayles, what constitutes the actual practice of close reading, and what is the assumption that grounds the “dominant” practice that Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus (Leitch 2603-19) have called “symptomatic reading” (2076)? Why, in Hayles’ telling, are many literary scholars falling away from this kind of reading practice? (2076-77)

Digital and Print Literacies

3. On 2077-78 (“If one chapter of close reading…”), Hayles turns to “new possibilities” (2077) that may stem from the recent increase in digital reading. What does L. S. Vygotsky’s “zone of proximal development” (2077) concept suggest educators should do now that they are confronted with a shift in students’ relationship to printed texts? What is “hyperreading” (2078), and how, according to Hayles and the authors she cites, might it provide insight into models of reading that could prove useful in literary study?

4. On 2078-80 (“As a strategic response to an…”), Hayles examines some precursors to what she has called “hyperreading.” In what way, for example, have scholars long (and necessarily) engaged in a version of that kind of reading? (2078) Why is hyperreading necessary in a time of “information explosion” (2078 bottom)? At the same time, why should its advent trouble scholars who want to hold on to our ability to read texts closely? (2079) According to Jonathan Crary, whose work Hayles cites, how does “Web reading” (2080) challenge people’s ability to concentrate in ways that go beyond the levels of “distraction” that have been noted as long ago as the nineteenth century?

Reading on the Web

5. On 2180-82 (“What evidence indicates that these…”), Hayles explores some arguments about the effects of hyperlinks on comprehension and retention of reading material. What evidence does she cite as gravitating against hyperlink-rich reading experiences and instead favoring “linear” reading of the sort one does with a print article? (2180-81) With regard to print reading and writing systems, what conclusions does Stanislaus Dehaene, as cited by Hayles, reach about how these systems have developed  over time and how they reflect and use the brain’s already existing neural structure or “circuitry”? (2081-82)

6. On 2182-84 (“Current evidence suggests that we…”), what evidence does Hayles explore regarding the proposition that people’s neural circuits are rapidly and substantially “rewired” as a result of the reading and searching experiences they have on the internet? On what grounds is Hayles skeptical of studies done by, for example, Gary Small of the University of California, Los Angeles that use fMRI scans to study the effect of internet experience on the human brain? (2083-84) Moreover, what criticism does she make of Nicholas Carr’s negative assessment of internet reading’s effects on the brain based on his recounting of Small’s UCLA study? According to Hayles, what counter-evidence or mitigating factors does Carr ignore? (2084)

The Importance of Anecdotal Evidence

7. On 2084-85 (“Faced with these complexities, what…”), Hayles discusses the significance of anecdotal evidence; that is, of teachers’ experiences in assigning readings of various lengths mostly to children and young adults. What “shift in cognitive modes” (2084) does this evidence suggest is occurring among students and impacting their ability to deal with longer, in-depth reading material such as literary classics? How does Hayles characterize the cognitive modes called “deep attention” and “hyperattention” (2085)—that is, what tasks can a person accomplish with these respective modes?

8. On 2085-87 (“Yet hyper- and close reading are…”), Hayles reflects on the current use of another relatively new kind of reading: “human-assisted computer reading” (2085), also called “machine reading.” In what ways does machine reading go well beyond the simple “keyword” searches that the phrase “machine reading” no doubt conjures in the mind of many literary scholars? How does the scholarly work of Italian critic and theorist Franco Moretti (see Leitch 2252-77) serve as an example of the deeper uses of human-assisted computer reading—what kind of questions does Moretti pose for his computerized searches among vast bodies of texts, in a practice he calls “distant reading” (2086)?

9. On 2087-88 (“I now turn to explore the interrelations…”), how does Hayles describe the productive ways in which close reading, hyperreading, and machine reading can be employed alongside or together with one another? What reflections does she also offer with respect to the nature and role of “patterns” and “meaning” (2087) in such investigations? What different kinds or ranges of “context” apply to the search for meaning in and across literary texts with close, hyper-, and machine reading? (2087-88)

Synergies between Close, Hyper-, and Machine Reading

10. On 2088-90 (“Starting from a traditional humanistic…”), Hayles explores what she considers the “synergies” achievable when close reading, hyperreading, and machine reading are used in conjunction. According to her, how has Professor Alan Liu of UC Santa Barbara managed to achieve such synergies by teaching “literature+” (2089) instead of teaching literature in the conventional “deep attention” mode? How has Lev Manovich of UC San Diego found synergies in his “Cultural Analytics” projects (2089-90)?

11. On 2090-92 (“Of course, not everyone has access…”), Hayles describes an experiment in teaching literature that she herself tried with her honors students at Duke University. What did that project entail, and how did it combine the strengths of close reading with computer-assisted reading and organization? On the whole, what kind of “transformed disciplinary coherence” (2091) does Hayles foresee as literary studies shift from a purely conventional model to one that acknowledges newer modes of attention and embraces evolving technologies? (2091-92) Does her vision (published in 2010) seem to have come true? Has literary study indeed moved towards this hybrid approach in the intervening decade or more, or do you find that at your school, the traditional “close reading of hard-copy texts” model still prevails? Explain.

12. General question: In “How We Read: Close, Hyper, Machine,” N. Katherine Hayles begins with a discussion of trends in print culture. In your view, what is the appeal of hard-copy books? Do you have a favorite non-hard-copy way to read books? How do you try to process most efficiently the online texts you read, texts which may include many hyperlinks or (thanks to surrounding items of interest) invite you to sample and “skip around” on the web before you make it through the primary material? Do “links” distract you, or do you treat them as purely optional reading to be done later if time permits or interest leads, or perhaps even as a “works cited” feature? Do you find online reading a distraction or a blessing, or some combination of the two? Explain.

13. General question: in “How We Read: Close, Hyper, Machine,” N. Katherine Hayles mentions Walter Benjamin’s call in “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility” (Leitch 973-96) for more artworks that the public can enjoy in a “state of distraction” since that state suits modern consciousness and daily experience. Are those who insist on the superiority of older ways of experiencing literature (“close reading,” etc.), as Benjamin would probably suggest, privileging a mystified, bourgeois form of consciousness that keeps the experience of art “pure,” distanced, and hieratical, or is their demand worthwhile? A further question: when we posit a deeply reflective practice of “close reading” to which we must return, are we positing a nostalgic myth, or an actual, prior way of experiencing literary texts? Explain.

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

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