T Sale's Blog

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Reading, However

After wading my way through a number of blog entries (e.g., I read 90 comments from my AP Lit class, about King Henry IV, Part 1, every week), I began to wonder just how much reading our students do online, aside from what they have to read for school assignments. When I was a student teacher in California in 1975, I asked my sophomore students how many of them would have read a book in the last year if they hadn’t been assigned one for class. Only a couple raised their hands. Ever since then I’ve assumed that (1) unless they’re required to, high school students (on the average) don’t read very much, and (2) with all the added distractions in the last 30 years, students probably read even less now than those kids I talked to in 1975. (And I guess I’m also assuming that, as those 1975 sophomores are now about 45 years old, adult reading has declined, too.) But it occurred to me that kids might read more now than ever before, even if they’re not reading books. With the advent of email, text messaging, and blogs, I wouldn’t be surprised if teenagers actually read more text every day than their parents or grandparents did. I’m not sure how one would check this (though the text messaging section of my own kids’ Verizon bill would certainly support the idea). I’m thinking about discussing this up with my students.

I was thinking about this along with the English department’s current discussion about how to spend our curriculum money. (Those who have visited Maura’s blog will have seen some of the discussion. In one department meeting Kristin and I jokingly dubbed the debate “Books versus Laptops: The Final Battle.”) Like Kristin, I don’t think this is necessarily an either-or debate. I do think that buying books gives us more bang for the buck (if the money would provide for no more than one classroom set of laptops), but my bigger concern is that we maintain a focus on reading literature, whether it’s on the printed page or online. And here’s why…

(But first a digression that will further complicate the book buying issue: I became curious how much literature was actually available online, and in 20 minutes I found literally a hundred sites that offered FREE literature downloads, and not just fan fiction written by some disaffected loner sitting in his/her basement. Check out Bartleby.com, where I found the complete text of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. What if we bought a bunch of laptops and never had to buy print books again, because students could read them online? Of course, that would require reading everything on a computer screen, at least until the invention of SmartPaper, and that would drive me to retirement in a remote location.)

The reason I think that teaching literature is more important than ever is that, if indeed kids are reading more than ever online, what they’re reading is probably short and fragmented. (I was about to add “shallow,” but that’s my inner fuddy-duddy speaking {and I’d like to note that Spell Check actually recognized the word “fuddy-duddy,” for what that’s worth}.) I believe the world would be a better place if people spent more time in quiet, slow contemplation and thought, like they do when they really sit down to read a novel. Ok, Ok, the history of the world before the Internet, before TV, when people still read three-volume novels, was full of war and conflict. But when I read The World is Flat (slowly), the message seemed to be that the modern world is all about commerce and efficiency (e.g., turbo meetings) and making money and beating other nations in the realm of science. I didn’t see much about enriching your soul with beautiful language and the wonder of an original insight about human nature.

Well, this Take 5 has gotten out of control. Sandi Boldman will probably feel a chill run up her spine when I post this, and I’m not even considering the “to be” verbs. But I don’t think I’ll go back and edit this much, because I’ve been writing from the right side of my brain, Lary, and here I’ve gone and done it, I’ve created the kind of rambling blog entry that I accuse the blogosphere of fostering.

Anyway. I wonder, with the availability of the Internet, are today’s students post-literate, or ultra-literate?


  • At Thu Sep 28, 08:54:00 PM 2006, Blogger Phil E said…

    It is very interesting the survey of the students in 1975. The problem today is that we live in such a fast pace world that we never really have a chance to relax and take time to read a book. That is just a stupid excuse and not an answer, I know. The horrible part about this is that it is the dumbing down of America. Im actually afraid that maybe some time in the future, Fahrenheit 451 will no longer be story that we have to read for English class it will be reality.

  • At Thu Sep 28, 09:17:00 PM 2006, Blogger Karl Fisch said…

    I think the answer to your first question is fairly easy - most of our students read and write far more now than they did in 1995 or 1985 or 1975. IM, text messaging, email, blogging, multi-player games, etc. are all forms of reading and writing, albeit very different than what you were thinking of in 1975. But do they read more "literature"? Doubtful. But I also doubt that they read less literature if that's any consolation.

    I also think we are not very far from a technological solution to reading text on screen that will make it a much more "satisfying" experience - whether that be some form of e-paper or e-book. If you had asked five years ago if people would be going gaga over playing music (mp3's), listening to narration (podcasts), and reading information about those items on a tiny screen that you carry around with you (iPod) - most people would've laughed.

    Ahh, the history of the world before [fill in the blank]. Do I need to make you watch "What If" again? I'm sure that not long after Gutenberg created his infernal printing press, people were lamenting the lack of "social interaction now that people are reading all the time. What a solitary, lonely, depressing activity." Hmmm, sound familiar?

    I don't know if they're post-literate or ultra-literate, I just know we need to think really hard about what being "literate" means in the 21st century.

  • At Tue Oct 10, 08:40:00 PM 2006, Blogger Lary Kleeman said…

    I rather like hearing from the right side of your brain, Terry! I think that you express it well in that perhaps there is more of a certain kind of reading going on with this generation than previous but overall, it devolves around instant gratification and not, as you put it, the slower, more reflective form of thought. I, too, believe in teaching literature now more than ever before. To immerse ourselves in the other--be it setting, character, conflicts--and to stay there in order to grow to understand the other is essential, I think, to fostering a healthy society, a healthier world. It surprises me how often some of my AP students respond to characters in terms of like/dislike. Somehow, (and I'm referring to Henry IV which we just finished)it seems to me that this kind of response is not appropriate for good readers of literature. Instead of like/dislike we should be working more at the level of trying to understand these characters. If we consume literature in the latter method, I can't help but think that we would be better people in that we would consider where others come from, what their needs are...in short, that we would recognize how complex and confusing it is to be human.

  • At Wed Oct 11, 06:27:00 PM 2006, Blogger C. Makovsky said…

    Bravo Terry. Bravo Lary. And Karl, do you read great literature? Did you love to read when you were in school? Do you love it now? You write very passionately—so I suspect you’re someone who has immersed himself in the written word.

    What is sad to me is that it’s been years since I’ve taken a literature or a writing class. What I loved most about college and graduate school was reading, discussing, and writing about literature. During my first 10 years of teaching, I would take a philosophy course, or a creative writing course, or a literature course to renew my teaching certificate. For the past 15 years, all that I’ve taken are computer courses. When I retire, I plan to study literature again. I plan to write again. I’m sad that English teachers are spending so much time learning technology. We should be reading and writing more!

  • At Thu Oct 12, 09:11:00 PM 2006, Blogger Karl Fisch said…

    I'm confused about why learning technology and reading/writing have to be an either/or choice. Why can't you do both? I think that's a false - and possibly dangerous - dichotomy. (not sure if I'm using that word correctly, but it sounds right) After all, books are surely a form of technology - as are paper and pencil - hence the earlier reference to Gutenberg. I don't think we should view technology as the adversary of literature - far from it. It's simply another means to discover literature, to explore literature, to revel in literature.

    Lary, I'm curious - does it surprise you when your non-AP students respond to characters in terms of like/dislike?

  • At Fri Oct 13, 05:02:00 PM 2006, Blogger C. Makovsky said…

    Karl--I'm not sure why, but there is such a dichotomy....

    I use technology every day--and it's great for research. But when I read for pleasure or when I read difficult texts, I want nothing to do with the computer. It hurts my eyes and busies my fingers. I just can't stop fussing with the buttons and clicking the links. When I'm on the computer, I simply can't focus on lengthy, complicated text.

    I love to sit in a class of avid readers and discuss novels or poems with them. At our English Department retreat, Steve Miles led us through a discussion of a Shakespearean sonnet--and it felt so good. I know I could probably find an on-line group of book geeks and blog about books with them, but it just isn't the same as sitting in a circle, holding the book, reading passages to each other, and uncovering the richness of the text. I can't get that feeling on line. Can anyone?

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