tension in texts

by SPIngram http://www.flickr.com/photos/simon_ingram/6301872610/in/photostream/
I want to give students more freedom to develop their own readings of texts (both literary and otherwise), but I also want them to reach deeper into those texts, and they seem to need a fair amount of guidance to do that. What I've been looking for is a concept that will invite them to look more closely at a text and think of the questions that will drive them beyond the superficial.

I thought of this one day as I gave some grade 10s a quick look at this:
You Fit Into Me by Margaret Atwood
You fit into me
like a hook into an eye
a fish hook
an open eye
They laughed and thought it was interesting, but had trouble explaining why. Their language of literary analysis didn't explain it adequately. What makes this interesting? Yes, there is a surprise, but the real issue is the tension between the first reading and the second -- the opposition between the ideas developed with the ironic rewriting of the metaphor.

I believe that tension is at the root of all good art, either at the level of technique or theme. It might take the form of an internal conflict for a protagonist, pushing the plot along, but it can also be tension in contrasting images, paradoxes, foils, ironic narrative voices, and the list goes on. Many times, a piece of literature has several layers of tension, and the attempt to identify them and try to explain them leads to a deeper, more nuanced and more critical analysis of a text.

Case in point: my Language and Literature students have been working on advertising and marketing, and many of them did the analysis of an ad or other type of branding (website, packaging) as a practice for the 'final' oral. They enjoyed doing this, and they produced quite good explorations of the ads. However, I felt that they could have gone deeper, and we talked about the concept of tension in advertising: that ads often present images and language that involve tension between the values they are expressing. Take this Nike ad for instance:

http://www.runnerspace.com/members/photos/181/1610_full.jpg
The written text offers a sort of manifesto that seems to be about empowerment and the rejection of the objectification of women. On the other hand, the image is of just a body part, and the student correctly identified that as objectifying the woman, disembodying the complete woman. However, she was unable to do anything with that fact and just let it be. In the second round, after looking at tension as an element of the ad, the student determined that Nike was having its cake and eating it too: they focus on a body part and let the skin speak for itself without the distraction of an actual person, which sells the product (look at the logo placement) -- and at the same time they claim to be a champion of female empowerment. And students found this again and again: in Pepsi's claim to be diverse, a hair dye's claim to be natural yet exciting, and even President Obama's desire to be an average American and at the same time a massively successful Harvard graduate.

Tension has become a basic part of my class's conversations about texts: poems, ads, films, novels, and blog posts. As students go through the elements of a text, when they've exhausted their list of techniques and features, we always ask the question of tension, and it challenges them to reach a little deeper into the text and get a sense of what is driving the text forward or making it more interesting. It requires some real critical thinking, and while I won't be giving them any answers, it is a tool to help them reach deeper into a text.

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