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Sunday, June 05, 2005

From Danny to Raisin -> Student Explorations -> Close Readings

Everything starts with close reading. Whether we are exploring the vision of technology included in these texts ourselves or we are asking students to analyze the technology, the process begins with asking specific questions about how technology is presented in the book.

To start, readers might consider such questions as the following:

  • What are the features of the technology mentioned in the text? What does the technology do?
  • How does the technology compare to the real-world equivalents?
  • Who would use the technology? What assumptions are made about the characters who would use the technology?
These questions can lead to relevant observations even in texts that do not foreground the technology. The young adult novel Geography Club (HarperTempest, 2003) by Brent Hartinger, for instance, tells the story of a group of students who form a geography club—"a club that's so boring, nobody would ever in a million years join it" (63). Discouraging people from joining the club is actually a goal for the characters in the novel. "Geography Club" is code for a budding Gay-Straight-Bisexual Alliance, a society so secret that not even its advisor doesn't knows what it's about.

As the naming of the club demonstrates, the novel deals with the much more serious issue of when the characters can name themselves. As the book begins, Russel, the protagonist hides who he is from his family, his friends, and other students. It is only online that Russel can identify himself, but even then he must hide his name:

  There was only one other person in the room, which made sense to me, since I figured there was only about one other gay person in my whole hometown. His handle was GayTeen, which wasn't the most original name I'd ever seen. Mine was Smuggler, for no reason I can explain. (13)

The technology mentioned in this text is never described explicitly. It's a simple, generic chatroom, much like any other chatroom. What is significant is not the technology, but how it creates a social space for the characters. It is in this online space that they are first able to identify themselves to others. Even though the technology itself in Geography Club is fairly generic, then, its ability to create a social network is important to recognize.

In texts that include details on more prominent technologies, closer reading is often an important way to discover underlying meanings in the text. The ReadWriteThink lesson plan Paying Attention to Technology: Exploring a Fictional Technology demonstrates one possible method for structuring such deeper readings. In this lesson plan, students complete a short survey to establish their beliefs about technology then compare their opinions to the ideas in a novel that depicts technology (such as 1984, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, REM World, or Feed). Class discussion focuses on the overarching question “What is the author of this story saying about technology?” By exploring the fictional technology, students are urged to pay attention to the ways that technology is described and used.

Arthur's Computer DisasterPicture books and other texts with visual representations can also lead to interesting close readings. Questions such as the following can be the basis for deeper conversations:
  • How is the technology pictured?
  • What relevant details are present, and what details are missing?
  • What is the relationship between the pictures of the technology and what the way it is described in the text?
  • How do the characters in the images interact with the technology?
  • What text appears? What relevant information is missing?
  • What assumptions are made about the characters who would use the technology based on the image?

Even without knowing the plot of the story, readers can learn much by simply looking at the cover of Arthur's Computer Disaster (click on the thumbnail to see a larger image). The computer featured on the cover is a generic PC with a color monitor. Readers with more technology experience may recognize that the machine is dated—more modern representations would probably show a flat-panel monitor, a CPU with a smaller footprint, and at the very least a two-button mouse (if not a three-button or scroll-wheel mouse). Young readers approaching this book, however, probably see only the computer.

The relationship between Arthur, the pictured character, and the technology also reveals details about the book and the character's understanding of technology. Arthur's face and the book's title reveal that there is a problem, and the visual details of the technology contribute to this message. The colors on the screen and the highlight in its middle mimic the look of an explosion, but more importantly, Arthur doesn't seem to know how to use a mouse—the mouse is backwards, and the character is holding it up in the air (like a remote control) rather than sliding it along on the desktop. Readers can conclude from this image then that Arthur may not understand much about technology, and they can therefore predict that Arthur's misunderstandings lead to the disaster that the title warns them about.

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