Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

the inevitable, part deux

Following up on yesterday’s post about inevitability, here’s another statement along the same lines:

Teaching without digital technology is an irresponsible pedagogy. Why? The future is digital, love it or hate it. We can argue later about whether or not this is a good or a bad thing. (Hint: the answer is both.) But to educate students, or to attempt to educate students without developing their digital literacy is to leave them ill prepared for their futures. You wouldn’t think of educating a student and not teaching them how to read, digital literacy is this crucial.

(The writer of this blog, David Parry, is a media professor, but he writes terribly: run-on sentences, incoherent use of commas, etc. I sometimes think he’s doing it on purpose. But I digress.) Now, I think I’ve made it clear over the years what my views are on these pedagogical matters: while I take a great interest in technologies of knowledge myself — else I wouldn't be writing this blog — I don't think pursuing those technologies is the most important thing I can do as a teacher of literature. My focus, rather, is on making my students more thoughtful and creative users of the technology of the book. When I look at my students, I see people who need more instruction in using books than in using computers, and I apportion my pedagogical time and energy accordingly. I do this also because I think the book is a superb technology of great intrinsic and instrumental value; and because I think that students who become skilled users of (paper) books will be equipped to make a pretty smooth transition to the use of non-paper books and various text-based media. I also think that it’s easier to go from mastering paper books to mastering digital media than to move in the opposite direction.

Now, I do teach some classes in which the emphasis is on the various technologies of reading. But I don't see those as absolutely central to my calling — important, yes, but not as important as focusing on the reading of great books. Am I “irresponsible”? Would I be irresponsible if I didn't teach about the various technologies of reading? Well, I don't think so. But if I am irresponsible, it’s not because of some vague nostrums along the lines of “The future is digital, love it or hate it.” I don't know what “the future” is going to be, but I do know what I think valuable for people to know in order to flourish. I’ll keep going with that.

4 comments:

  • My focus, rather, is on making my students more thoughtful and creative users of the technology of the book.

    I'm not a professor, but I am a grad student in English lit, and I tend to think that my focus is mostly on teaching students to think—and teaching them how to think. The question for me is always, "What is the most effective means of accomplishing those ends?" The answer, at least in my limited experience so far, has almost never been technology, which seems to be better at distraction in the classroom than in enabling deep thinking.

    The whole teach naked issue reminds me of a post I wrote on why I ban laptop in the classroom: http://jseliger.com/2008/12/28/laptops-students-distraction-hardly-a-surprise which has many tangential but relevant issues, including some research and essays regarding how hard it is to concentrate. For that matter, David Ulin has another essay on that very topic as it relates to novels in today's L.A. Times: http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/arts/la-ca-reading9-2009aug09,0,4905017.story .

  • I would agree with you, Jake, except that I want to say that our thinking is usually technologically mediated — that is, we use different technologies to think with. For me it's the book first and foremost; once I met a major theoretical physicist whose whole career was built using pencils and legal pads; for others it will be other technologies. It's hard for me to consider "thinking" in the abstract, as something separate from these technologies.

    I've actually already written a post on the Ulin essay — it's in the queue and will show up tomorrow morning.

  • Here is the critical observation:
    "When I look at my students, I see people who need more instruction in using books than in using computers ..." Whether fully recognized as such, the book is the flagship carrier of information and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future. Not knowing how to sit and read, which has become a problem of restraining one's diverse appetites as much as anything, is a far more serious educational liability than not being quite so digitally savvy. You're also entirely correct that thinking is heavily mediated by technology, including language. Further, the digital environment doesn't begin to offer many significant advantages over traditional media until one reaches the last couple years of high school. In fact, the computer is frequently a more distracting tool than an instructive one.

  • Michael Straight said...

    "When I look at my students, I see people who need more instruction in using books than in using computers, and I apportion my pedagogical time and energy accordingly."

    Yes. You're a techno-savvy guy, but your real field of expertise is English literature. If I'm paying $40,000/year, I don't want the professor to spend half his time nattering about his hobby.

    From Academhack's about page:

    "I am by no means an expert."

    Perhaps he should stick to teaching within the fields in which he is an expert?

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