As digital and wireless technologies proliferate, writing teachers can understandably feel overwhelmed by the steep learning curves they pose as well as the sometimes negative impact they seem to have on our students. We worry about their distraction and decreasing attention span, and rightfully so, but these are not the only, nor are they the inevitable effects of using these new tools. If we dive in and experiment with pedagogical applications, modeling an eager curiosity and ongoing critical discussion about language and other technologies, we can maximize their value in teaching and move students towards a more thoughtful and engaged use of communication in all forms.
Do your students sometimes arrive to class like this?
Whether distracted by digital devices, discouraged by poor teaching, few job prospects or simply misled by a culture that often undermines significant promotion of reading and writing, our students can arrive in our class alienated from language, incurious and expecting little to engage them. It is clear that reading of traditional typographic texts significantly enhances our ability for sustained, focused attention but it is equally clear that, in spite of the dominant authority of (not so) New Criticism , the “lineal uniformity and fragmented repeatability” of typographic text is not the only representation of consciousness.
As Marshall McLuhan notes in Understanding Media: the extensions of man, though we favor the linear and are comforted by sequence, “there is nothing lineal or sequential about the total field of awareness that exists at any moment of consciousness" and he reminds us (from a pre-Web perspective) of the tremendous increase in the flood of information due to advances in electronic communication. What was a flood in the 1960’s is now a digital multimedia typhoon for which a traditional, step-by-step, linear approach to reading is no longer sufficient. The linearity of alphabetic literacy will always be a necessary foundation, but it cannot be our our only tool. When we are trapped between the lines, we can be blinded to the richness of human consciousness.
Instead, we can re-contextualize language for our students with some brief reflection on the history of our species and the huge impact that language, writing and subsequent technologies have had on human evolution. With a fresh perspective we might have a chance at reviving some genuine interest and increased appreciation for the practical value and relevance of writing courses. More than this, by acknowledging the technological nature of writing, we can more naturally move to discuss new tools of reading and writing in their most recent forms.
To do this, we also need to redefine “reading” and “writing” in a way that is not only relevant to our students but that also stimulates them intellectually and encourages prolonged, focused attention. Reflecting upon Jacques Derrida‘s controversial and multivalent claim “there is nothing outside the text”, we might expand our definition of what constitutes a text and what reading means in order to promote close attention to detail and curiosity about signification in a variety of contexts – a critical consciousness. Students often show increased engagement when they realize that “text” does not only refer to alphabetic communications but also to movies, TV, music, faces, crowds, weather, architecture and a galaxy of other organic, material and cultural forms. These redefinitions are not meant to dismiss or substitute these forms for the alphabetic text, but to demonstrate the necessity of close and prolonged attention to detail and the value of curiosity about meaning. Careful analysis of media images can inspire a closer, more nuanced reading of a complex text as well as equip students with a critical attention that does not switch off when the book is closed.
As with alphabetic or typographic texts, the introduction to a movie is as carefully constructed as are the first few paragraphs of an excellent essay. The first 10-15 minutes of a celebrated film offers a bounty of visual cues and details (text included) as well as sonic content and compositional moves that students can be taught to read and consider. Fricke’s Baraka is excellent for this purpose and a comparison of Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 with Lucas’ THX-1138 including intro credits and audio yields a rich field of clues in a variety of forms. There are also excellent clips available on YouTube, a site that is not only handy for quick reference, but that also presents us with a completely new and evolving mode of communication in conversations that are a hybrid of text, audio and image.
Just as in the paper text world, there is plenty of useless crap and incivility on YouTube, but there are also fascinating and thoughtful conversations about crucial issues that elicit various responses in text and video offering us another complex text for analysis. One favorite is a masterful re-mix of Fritz Lang’s silent classic Metropolis composed by contemporary British artist Wax Tailor. In its brief two-minute span the video “Que Sera” provides a good opportunity for close reading and listening that engages students and gets them thinking about reading and writing in new, more complex ways that can awaken a curiosity that leads to a useful and satisfying attitude of lifelong learning – the ultimate career preparation.