Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Friday, January 22, 2010

new world, potentially brave

I’ve written elsewhere, once or twice, about the experience of homeschooling my son Wesley. We’re still at it, and now, in the humanities portion of his curriculum, studying Dirty London — sanitation and social class in the Victorian era. He finished reading Dickens’s Bleak House last week, and today will be wrapping up Steven Johnson’s terrific account of the conquering of cholera in London, The Ghost Map.

I read The Ghost Map last year on my Kindle, but thought I had bought a paperback copy for Wes. However, it appears that I forgot. No problem: I handed him the Kindle, re-read the book via the Kindle app on my iPhone, and then prepared a reading quiz for him that he’ll access in Google Docs. When he writes about The Ghost Map and Bleak House later, I’ll show him how to find some useful sources online, especially through Google Books, and I’ll show him how to find searchable texts of both books, for instance via Amazon’s Look Inside the Book feature. As I was writing up the quiz last night, it struck me how recently this way of doing things — teaching with these particular technologies — would have been unimaginable. And yet to both of us it all seems perfectly natural.

No big deal, I guess, and nothing original here. But sometimes the obvious suddenly strikes home, if you know what I mean.

(Off to Baylor this weekend, back on Wednesday. Light or nonexistent posting until then, but it’s possible that fascinating things will show up via the Twitter feed.)

5 comments:

  • It's rare when the obvious suddenly strikes home, but I don't think being gobsmacked that you're doing things now with media tools that were formerly arduous if not impossible quite fits the bill. It's merely future shock.

    Within the context of education, I've always thought a preoccupation with tools misses the opportunity to develop understanding. For instance, finding a detail via keyword search isn't the same as understanding the flow of and relationships among arguments and presentation that used to be necessary to find a piece of text. Obviously, it's a blend of skills, but technological skills are simple compared to the hard-won research skills they have replaced. The implications for future scholarship are pretty clear.

  • I think you're right, brutus — thus the move in my field, literary studies, to "distant reading," which involves have your computer run a great many brute-force text searches and compiling the results. So far, this is even less interesting than it sounds. Perhaps a post about this at some point in the future. But there is a place for keyword searches — a relatively small one, to be sure, but a place.

  • One of the other uses I have found for kindle is that I have sent them to missionary friends. So I have four friends in three countries sharing books with me on one account. They buy what they want, it gets charged to my account. I both enjoying supporting them as missionaries and the ability to share books across countries. Yet another activity that we couldn't have done just three years ago.

  • Reading the words "prepared a reading quiz" in conjunction with "Dr. Jacobs" sent a shockwave through my brain - not in a scared way, but having graduated, in a fond way :)

  • I remember the moment an older Sikh professor of Engineering told me about the approaching advent of the fax machine, and attempted a rudimentary explanation of how it would work.
    I no longer have the same capacity for wonder, in the realm of technology, that I had back then.

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