T Sale's Blog

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Electric Endymion

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.


  • At Wed Mar 14, 10:10:00 PM 2007, Blogger Karl Fisch said…

    Holy *&$%!, Terry.

    I'm home with Abby for a couple of days (sick) and unfortunately left my copy of the article at school, so I'll have to confine myself to trying to respond to what you've written and what I remember thinking when I read the article - have you copied and distributed it to the LA department yet? :-)

    I, of course, was also struck by the reminder that the novel was itself a fairly recent invention. I'm certainly glad you wrote about it, because I might have been crucified if I had. It reminds me of a recent NPR story I heard that talked about how early recording technology determined the length of today's songs and albums - it all goes back to how much audio could fit on those first records. I think a similar argument could be made (by someone smarter than me) about our current definition of "reading" and "writing" - that at least some of how we think about reading and writing is actually determined by the technology that was/is available to produce/consume it. From chapters to page numbers to references/footnotes to length - all are at least somewhat an artifact of the technology of paper and books. If the computer had been around instead of the printing press, would Cervantes have come up with something different? I don't know, but I think it's a question worth pondering . . .

    I just want to take a break in my higher level thinking here to mention that I'm pretty sure this is the first - and last - time that anyone will write "an understanding of universal human nature" and reading "The Fischbowl" in the same sentence.

    While I agree with you that googling "ambition" is not the same as experiencing Macbeth, I would qualify that with the word "yet." I would still argue that we don't have any good frame of reference for what it's going to be like 15 or 20 years down the road. I'm not so sure that googling ambition and Macbeth and a few other search terms - combined with a global "book club" to discuss it with - might not lead to a better understanding than "limiting" yourself to "just" reading the book in 20 years time. Imagine a holodeck (Second Life, anyone?) where you can be Macbeth, immerse yourself in Macbeth, share Macbeth with millions of others simultaneously . . . I think it's going to change the very nature of what writing is, of what being an author is (in fact, I would argue that's already happened to living authors). Just like the printing press changed writing and being an author - but most folks today don't have a frame of reference for that either.We may not all like that change, but that won't stop it from happening.

    Once again, break time. The first and last time Miguel de Cervantes and Karl Fisch will ever be linked in such a way in the same sentence.

    I'll have to think much more about shifting from "literature-centered" classes to "reading-centered" classes. On the surface, that sounds like something I would say, but I need to think about it a lot longer than I have so far (and hear from folks like Marlys and Cheryl). But as I was reading that paragraph I wondered (good reading strategy, right?) why you focused on "text-based." That seems too limiting to me, why did you choose to include it? Shouldn't "Language Arts" extend much beyond that . . .?

    Do you know there's a revised version of Bloom's Taxonomy now? Guess what's on top? Create. I've been suggesting for the last couple of years that we have to stop thinking of our students as "only" consumers - we need to think of them as producers (creators) as well. "In times of change learners inherit the earth; while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists." Eric Hoffer. I'm not saying we ignore all the "greats," but I think you nail it when you say, "Go find some great things. Assemble them into something greater." Can't (shouldn't) we all strive for greatness?

    Are you sure that the Internet hasn't "engendered its Cervantes yet, let alone its Shakespeare?" How would we know? I would bet that the first "Great Internet Writer" is already on the scene, we just don't know it yet. And that might at least partially be because we don't have the criteria yet to categorize it.

    "the Internet will be just a communication tool?" While I think I understand what you're getting at (transformative, universal human experience literary stuff) with that statement, I wouldn't be so quick to dismiss "communication." I think that's why the "great" writers of the 21st century will have to use the medium of the Internet - it's going to be the best way - the only way - to reach humanity.

    Your concluding paragraph confuses me. I don't see how the same person that posted the rest of this blog entry could be "happy" - which I'm interpreting to mean "content" - with teaching the old fashioned lit class. Please note that I'm not saying that those things aren't worth teaching, they definitely are. But why can't they be "book lovers" and "net-writing lovers?" If you think we can do better, if you think we can help our students understand their world better, then aren't we compelled to utilize all the resources at our disposal to try to do that? One last question to gently ponder - for whom is lit class for?

    Terry, as always, your blogging makes me think. Really hard. Thank you.

  • At Thu Mar 15, 11:55:00 AM 2007, Blogger lgaffney said…

    I had this same conversation with a friend a couple of weeks ago. We were flipping through the channels and a rap music video came on. I shared how my students had done a better job dissecting this music video in 20 minutes than they had dissecting a piece of literature we had been reading for weeks. He posed the question, "Then why not just watch and analyze music videos?"
    I guess there is some balance to be had between multi-media and literature; students will watch music videos on their own but probably won't read Macbeth. I realize this thought gets tired, but I do truly believe part of our job is indoctrinating, or trying to at least, a love of literature. They already love music videos.
    I wonder, though, how much more easily our students would analyze literature if we taught them analysis by starting with, for example, music videos. Kids struggle so much with understanding, for example, symbols in literature, but they don't even have to think about it with song lyrics.
    I tell my students that if they don't read a piece of literature all semester, that they can still do extremely well in the class. Although that isn't ideal, my most important objective is that they think critically about their world and in the information that they take in, that they don't just watch a rap video and think, "Man this song's cool," but rather, "What message does this artist communicate about male-female relationships?", for example. If they think critically about the world around them, is it important to us through what media this objective is achieved?

  • At Thu Mar 15, 01:33:00 PM 2007, Blogger Karl Fisch said…

    Yes, isn't it interesting how our students - and frankly many of us - check our critical thinking skills at the door when we are watching/listening to something we view as "entertainment?" There is so very much in rap music - as just one example - that is interesting and relevant and meaningful and poetic, yet also so much that makes us cringe and wonder how somebody could ever say something like that.

    I would question, however, Lauren's use of the word "indoctrinate." My trusty dictionary in Word defines indoctrinate this way: to teach somebody a belief, doctrine, or ideology thoroughly and systematically, especially with the goal of discouraging independent thought or the acceptance of other opinions (emphasis added by me). Maybe "instill" would be a better word choice? Although sometimes I wonder if indoctrinate might be more accurate . . .

  • At Fri Mar 16, 08:41:00 AM 2007, Blogger Terry Sale said…

    Note: Since I posted this rant, the Cory Doctorow article I mentioned has indeed appeared online. I've added a link to it in the post.

  • At Sat Mar 17, 12:59:00 PM 2007, Blogger C. Makovsky said…


    Your post made me think of one of my favorite passages in Fahrenheit 451, where Beatty describes modern media:

    “Speed up the film, Montag, quick. Click, Pic, Look, Eye, Now, Flick, Here, There, Swift, Pace, Up, Down, In, Out, Why, How, Who, What, Where, Eh? Uh? Bang! Smack! Wallop, Bing, Bong, Boom! Digests, digest-digest-digests. Politics? One column, two sentences, a headline! Then, in midair, all vanishes! Whirl man’s mind around about so fast under the pumping hands of publishers, exploiters, broadcasters that the centrifuge flings off all unnecessary, time-wasting thought!”

    A funny thing happened to me when I tried to find the above quote, however. My copy of Fahrenheit is at school, and I’m writing this at home, so I looked for an on-line text of the novel. I couldn’t find anything. I googled, “Click, Pic, Look, Eye.” Only a few sites popped up. At the top of the list was a link to “Keira Knightley Sex Tape.” Intrigued, I clicked in. I was met by orgasmic grunts and a page that contained a passage from Fahrenheit 451. Inserted randomly in Bradbury’s text were the bold words “Keira Knightley naked,” again and again. In the right hand margin were some thumbnails of Keira doing very naughty things. So, what started as an attempt to respond to your brilliant blog led me to something raunchy and disgusting.

    And guess what? I have completely forgotten what I was going to say about Bradbury and your blog and Doctorow’s article and Karl’s response. Keira flung off all that “unnecessary, time-wasting thought.”

    Ah. The wonders of cyberspace……


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