Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Friday, January 29, 2010

the non-digital classroom

Mark Bauerlein is making a prediction:

As more kids grow up writing in snatches and conforming to the conventional patter, problems will become impossible to overlook. Colleges will put more first-year students into remedial courses, and businesses will hire more writing coaches for their own employees. The trend is well under way, and educators will increasingly see the nondigital space as a way of countering it. For a small but critical part of the day, they will hand students a pencil, paper, dictionary, and thesaurus, and slow them down. Writing by hand, students will give more thought to the craft of composition. They will pause over a verb, review a transition, check sentence lengths, and say, “I can do better than that.”

The nondigital space will appear, then, not as an antitechnology reaction but as a nontechnology complement. Before the digital age, pen and paper were normal tools of writing, and students had no alternative to them. The personal computer and Web 2.0 have displaced these tools, creating a new technology and a whole new set of writing habits. This endows pen and paper with a new identity, a critical, even adversarial one. In the nondigital space, students learn to resist the pressures of conformity and custom, to think and write against the fast and faster modes of the Web. Disconnectivity, then, serves a crucial educational purpose, forcing students to recognize the technology everywhere around them and to see it from a critical distance.

I hope he’s right, because this is already what I try to do in my classes. Though (as you can see) I blog, I tweet, I tumbl 4 ya, I set up blogs for some of my classes, I receive and respond to student writing electronically, and I even use Wikipedia, during class I focus almolst all of my attention on the reading and annotation of paper codices. Because I think those are technologies worth knowing — not the only technologies worth knowing, but important ones, ones with which all college students need considerable facility.

But will educators come to recognize, as Bauerlein predicts they will, the value of these tools and the power they yield of achieving a “critical distance” on other, more recent, technologies? I would like to agree, but I doubt it. Educators by and large equate “technology” with “very recent electronic technology,” and passionately believe that all problems have technological solutions. I can't imagine many of them doing what they would call “turning back the clock.”

But I devoutly hope I’m wrong. The people best equipped for navigating our world are those who have knowledge of multiple technologies, and multiple kinds of technologies. The Luddite and the techno-celebrant alike are crippled by the narrowness of their technological equipment.


  • I agree fully with your final two paragraphs. I often wish "thinking outside the box" meant achieving a critical distance, but instead it's just a buzzphrase for creativity. So for the foreseeable future, I expect everyone to use the tools at hand while being largely innocence of their implications, which is what we have always done. The only brakes on adoption of the newest fad tech are economic, not philosophical or even pragmatic.

  • To introduce students to diverse technologies, take them to your library’s archives and special collections. There they can see, touch, and work with material artifacts that will enable them to understand and interact critically with both the past and present.

  • You know, it's amazing how many successful authors compose using the old, non-digital technologies. And I'm not just talking about fogies like Cormac McCarthy, who use what they grew up with.

    Neal Stephenson, quite a cutting edge sci-fi guy, wrote his Baroque Cycle in longhand.

    And, according to the recent New York Times profile, James Patterson of all people writes his books in longhand, and keeps the manuscripts in piles in his office (he generally works on a whole bunch at once).

Post a Comment

[Basic HTML tags can be used in this comment field.]