Recently I read a commentary by Cory Doctorow
in the March edition of Locus
magazine titled “You Do Like to Read Off a Computer Screen
,” and it rekindled in my mind an old debate I have with myself about teaching language arts. (Ironically, the article doesn't seem to be online yet.) The thrust of Doctorow’s article was that technology determines the packaging of media, and therefore drives how
we read or listen to material. The part of the article that struck me most was:
Basically, what I do on the computer is pleasure-reading. But it’s a fundamentally more scattered, splintered kind of pleasure. Computers have their own cognitive style, and it’s not much like the cognitive style invented with the first modern novel (one sec, let me google that and confirm it), Don Quixote, some 400 years ago. The novel is an invention, one that was engendered by technological changes in information display, reproduction, and distribution. The cognitive style of the novel is different from the cognitive style of the legend. The cognitive style of the computer is different from the cognitive style of the novel.
It took a long time and the influence of many factors (the invention of the printing press, the rise of the middle class that made it OK for ordinary people to become literate) to move society from an oral tradition to a print tradition. I imagine it won’t take nearly as long to shift from a print tradition to a digital tradition; the factors are already in place (the rising cost and declining availability of paper, the universal availability of computers), and the shift has begun. (Witness the report on last Sunday’s Sunday Morning
show on CBS, which explained how some newspapers are ceasing publication and some are moving to primarily digital publication.)
All this got me thinking about the fact that most of our language arts classes center around literature in books
. Traditionally, we require our students to read and pretend to appreciate stories and novels. Yet the novel, along with being an “invention,” as Doctorow suggests, is an art form. We don’t require all students to take art appreciation classes, or study music theory, or attend the ballet. But aren’t those forms as viable and important as literature? I tout novels as explorations of the human condition and windows into other eras and cultures…but don’t paintings and operas and films do that too? Is reading The Kite Runner
any more enlightening than watching Babel
? And if the goal is an understanding of universal human nature, how does an hour of reading a novel compare with an hour of reading off a computer that’s connected to Google, YouTube, and The Fischbowl? If you want to get a glimpse of medieval Scotland and Elizabethan England, and at the same time contemplate the dangers of unbridled ambition and the possibility of supernatural influences in the world, you could read Macbeth
, at an uncomfortable desk in a white-walled classroom, or you could spend some time on the computer looking at colorful, moving images and text. It usually takes my sophomore class six weeks of class time – 30 hours – to thoroughly read, study and discuss Macbeth
. Imagine what a 16-year-old could learn about witches, regicide, poetry, betrayal, King James I, loss, and the effects of violence if she spent 30 hours on the Internet, or even 20 hours on the Internet and ten hours discussing what she found with classmates.
Well, whoa. Do we really believe that students can google “ambition” and get the same depth of understanding as they would by experiencing Macbeth’s bloody, tortured, hallucinogenic, poetic journey from acclaim to perdition? Of course not. Don Quixote was a pretty auspicious debut for the “invention” of the novel. I don’t think the Internet has spawned its Miguel de Cervantes yet (though if Karl Fisch keeps going the way he is…). The novel has been around for 400 years (Don Quixote was published in 1604, about the same year Hamlet was written), and for close to that long our paradigm has been that books are the repository of our best thinking and use of language. But if Doctorow is right – and I suspect he is – we may well see the Guttenberg Age transmogrify into the Google Age in our lifetimes, and instead of dragging our feet and griping a la the “What If?” presentation (“Kids never just sit and listen to the bards any more, they’re all off sitting alone, reading those ‘books’”) we need to prepare.
In the language arts area, it may be time to shift our paradigm from literature-centered classes to reading-centered classes, and to acknowledge that much of the material on the Internet is still text-based. Right now, our only college prep classes for “regular” students are American Lit (juniors) and English Lit (seniors). But perhaps literary study should be like Music Theory or Watercolor or C++ Programming – available to those who are interested, but not the mainstream expectation for college bound students. We should still expose kids to the wonders of literature in their 9th and 10th grade years, and show them what the best of literature has to offer, but as they segue into higher education, we need to give them other options.
What would those other options be? Doctorow suggests what future reading and writing will look like:
But I know what you mean. You don’t like reading long-form works off of a computer screen. I understand perfectly – in the ten minutes since I typed the first word in the paragraph above, I’ve checked my mail, deleted two spams, checked an image-sharing community I like, downloaded a YouTube clip of Stephen Colbert complaining about the iPhone (pausing my MP3 player first), cleared out my RSS reader, and then returned to write this paragraph.
I derive from this that instead of being handed a long, unified text, future readers will have to piece together ideas and information from a variety of “texts.” There’s a wealth of info out there, but it has to be selected and synthesized. Right now we emphasize analysis in our lit classes, and according to Bloom’s Taxonomy synthesis is a higher level of thinking than analysis. Assembling disparate pieces into a coherent whole (i.e., synthesis) requires a certain amount of creativity. It also requires discriminating between valuable material and junk. Right now the language arts paradigm is: “Here’s a great novel. Study it so you can explain to me why it’s great.” We need to shift to: “Go find some great things. Assemble them into something greater.” Literature has a place in that pursuit. Before you can find or make great things, you have to understand what great things look like. But right now, we tend not even to ask our students to recognize great things – we tell them what’s great and stop there.
Within the next few years we need a class for juniors that’s a viable alternative to American Lit. It should involve reading and writing and discussing, as all language arts classes do, but it should also involve scanning a variety of poetry blogs and justifying why this one is great and that one is tripe; finding five different video clips that portray obstacles to achieving the American Dream and adding an audio commentary that links them; writing a critique of a web site that connects to a theme under class discussion. And our 9th and 10th grade classes must help students develop the skills that will lead them to this new class. I don’t know if I will learn enough about electronic media to develop such a class before I retire, but there are language arts teachers at AHS right now with enough computer savvy to rewrite the Pathfinder.
Meanwhile, classes like American Lit will and must survive, because the multifarious playground of the Internet hasn’t learned to be profound. It’s a fount of information and opinions and video clips, but it hasn’t engendered its Cervantes yet, let alone its Shakespeare. We always invoke the name of Shakespeare as if he’s the only profound author we can think of, but there are a number of living authors who offer poetic, deeply felt insights into society, metaphysics, and the human condition: Toni Morrison, T.C. Boyle, Margaret Atwood, Michael Chabon….Until someone like that decides to use the cyber world as his or her primary medium, the Internet will be just a communication tool and lite entertainment medium. But some day, a wired John Keats will create his electric “Endymion
.” It will be interactive and multimedia; it will use sound bites and text files and embedded video clips; it will be linked to 50 other creations on the web; you will download it to your iPhone; it will make your heart pound with wonder whenever you play it. Maybe that 21st century Keats is sitting in one of our classrooms right now. We need to give him the tools to be wonderful.
As for me, I’ll be happy to teach the old fashioned lit class (especially now that it will be filled with book lovers like me). I’m happy turning the pages of my books, and no YouTubing, blogging, skyping, podcasting, IMing wikiphile is going to change that. But neither can I change the multitasking mind of next year’s teenager by telling her to read a book.