Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Friday, April 24, 2009


About ten years ago James O’Donnell published a provocative book called Avatars of the Word: from Papyrus to Cyberspace. The latter chapters of the book turn towards the changing role of teachers in an unprecedentedly information-saturated environment. There’s a good deal of material in these chapters about tenure, credentialing, teaching vs. research, “experiential learning” — a whole range of issues that have been debated ever more hotly over the past decade, and about which O’Donnell has interesting (and in some cases prophetic) things to say. But today I just want to emphasize his belief that that teachers — especially on the college level — are less and less needed to be sources of information, and more and more valuable as instructors in the fine art of discrimination.

O’Donnell doesn't use the word “discrimination,” but it’s the appropriate one, even though its reputation is lower than it should be. When we hear the word today we are likely to have negative associations, since for the past fifty years it has been used primarily with the adjectives “racial” or “gender.” Discrimination in our context is usually something one is guilty of. But older senses of the word are more positive. Some of them still survive: we occasionally hear of “discriminating collectors” of this or that, for instance. But it was once a great compliment to say of someone that he or she possessed discrimination. It meant that that person had a general but acute facility for assessing the value of objects, or works of art, or books, or even arguments.

Articles like the one by Steven Johnson I commented on the other day make me think about discrimination. Technologies that identify identical or similar strings of characters cannot assess the relative value of those connections. To what extent, then, is that my job as a teacher? To what extent should I think of myself as an instructor in the arts of discrimination?


  • He also makes that comment about librarians, which I think even more accurate than his comment on teachers.

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