Monday, July 30, 2007


I finished up my grades and comments for the summer school session last Monday, and for the last week I've been having what is probably the closest thing to a real vacation I've had in a long time. I've been reading a lot, walking a lot, napping a lot, and letting the reptile part of my brain work through its slow processing of everything that has been going on in the last year and everything that is lining up for when the new school year begins in the third week of August. This summer ritual of retreat and reconstitution is something that's hard to talk about, because a lot of what goes in is preconscious or subconscious. It's not something I can direct; I just have to allow the time for it to take place. My brain needs time to let go of some things and to turn its attention, warily at first, to others.

One of the themes of this blog, and my teaching life, is a concern for the threads or connections that weave in and out of consciousness over time: not just a week or a month, but a year, an era, a career. The throughlines are not always or most frequently continuous. They come to the surface of consciousness, resubmerge, reappear. Sometimes when they go into hiding, there comes a point when I have to go seek them out.

As I think about what the new school year is going to be like, and try to prepare myself for starting over with new students, and a dizzying array of new tech tools, my concern is to try to find a balance between the traditions that I still honor—as for example, the reading of books and the slow, thoughtful appreciative engagement with the real world—and the opportunity for innovation, which may very well be technology-enhanced. I don't want to let go of what has always worked, and I don't want to give short shrift to what might be even better.

One of the books I've been returning to all summer, which I've written about before and am coming back to now once again, is Sven Birkerts The Gutenberg Elegies. In the passage that follows, Birkerts begins by talking about a thread of concern that arises with some frequency in discussions of Web 2.0 and School 2.0: the implications of the displacement of print culture by electronic culture, and then continues by speculating about how this particular trend matches up with, reinforces, and is reinforced by other parallel trends in media, politics, art, and education:

The order of print is linear, and is bound to logic by the imperatives of syntax. Syntax is the substructure of discourse, a mapping of the ways that the mind makes sense through language. Print communication requires the active engagement of the reader's attention, for reading is fundamentally an act of translation. Symbols are turned into their verbal referents and these are in turn interpreted. The print engagement is essentially private. While it does represent an act of communication, the contents pass from the privacy of the sender to the privacy of the receiver. Print also posits a time axis; the turning of pages, not to mention the vertical descent down the page, is a forward-moving succession, with earlier contents at every point serving as a ground for what follows. Moreover, the printed material is static—it is the reader, not the book, that moves forward. The physical arrangements of print are in accord with our traditional sense of history. Materials are layered; they lend themselves to rereading and to sustained attention. The pace of reading is variable, with progress determined by the reader's focus and comprehension.

The electronic order is in most ways opposite. Information and contents do not simply move from one private space to another, but they travel along a network. Engagement is intrinsically public, taking place within a circuit of larger connectedness. The vast resources of the network are always there, potential, even if they do not impinge on the immediate communication. Electronic communication can be passive, as with television watching, or interactive, as with computers. Contents, unless they are printed out (at which point they become part of the static order of print) are felt to be evanescent. They can be changed or deleted with the stroke of a key. With visual media (television, projected graphs, highlighted "bullets") impression and image take precedence over logic and concept, and detail and linear sequentiality are sacrificed. The pace is rapid, driven by jump-cut increments, and the basic movement is laterally associative rather than vertically cumulative. The presentation structures the reception and, in time, the expectation about how information is organized.

Further, the visual and nonvisual technology in every way encourages in the user a heightened and ever-changing awareness of the present. It works against historical perception, which must depend on the inimical notions of logic and sequential succession. If the print medium exalts the word, fixing it into permanence, the electronic counterpart reduces it to a signal, a means to an end.

Transitions like the one from print to electronic media do not take place without rippling or, more likely, reweaving the entire social and cultural web. The tendencies outlined above are already at work. We don't need to look far to find their effects. We can begin with the newspaper headlines and the millennial lamentations sounded in the op-ed pages: that our educational systems are in decline; that our students are less and less able to read and comprehend their required texts, and that their aptitude scores have leveled off well below those of previous generations. Tag-line communication, called "bite-speak" by some, is destroying the last remnants of political discourse; spin doctors and media consultants are our new shamans. As communications empires fight for control of all information outlets, including publishers, the latter have succumbed to the tyranny of the bottom line; they are less and less willing to publish work, however worthy, that will not make a tidy profit. And, on every front, funding for the arts is being cut while the arts themselves appear to be suffering a deep crisis of relevance. And so on.

Every one of these developments is, of course, overdetermined, but there can be no doubt that they are connected, perhaps profoundly, to the transition that is underway.

Certain other trends bear watching. One could argue, for instance, that the entire movement of postmodernism in the arts is a consequence of this same macroscopic shift. For what is postmodernism at root but an aesthetic that rebukes the idea of an historical time line, as well as previously uncontested assumptions of cultural hierarchy. The postmodern artifact manipulates its stylistic signatures like Lego blocks and makes free with combinations from the formerly sequestered spheres of high and popular art. Its combinatory momentum and relentless referencing of the surrounding culture mirror perfectly the associative dynamics of electronic media.

One might argue likewise, that the virulent debate within academia over the canon and multiculturalism may not be a simple struggle between the entrenched ideologies of white male elites and the forces of formerly disenfranchised gender, racial, and cultural groups. Many of those who would revise the canon (or end it altogether) are trying to outflank the assumption of historical tradition itself. The underlying question, avoided by many, may be not only whether the tradition is relevant, but whether it might not be too taxing a system for students to comprehend. Both the traditionalists and the progressives have valid arguments, and we must certainly have sympathy for those who would try to expose and eradicate the hidden assumptions of bias in the Western tradition. But it also seems clear that this debate could only have taken the form it has in a society that has begun to come loose from its textual moorings. To challenge repression is salutary. To challenge history itself, proclaiming it to be simply an archive of repressions and justifications, is idiotic.(122-24)
One of the things that impresses me about this piece is its prescience. Birkerts was writing this fifteen years ago, in 1992. That's fifteen years ago, and yet the questions and concerns he raises feel completely relevant to my own situation as I turn over in my mind how I am going to approach the 2007-8 school year. How much reading can I ask students to do? How much of my mission as a teacher is to provide them with a sense of history, of context? How much of the time that we spend together should be given over to the excavation of the past (close reading, historical and cultural studies); how much to exploring the ever-expanding range of present options (blogs, YouTube, social networking, Google docs, Powerpoint, iMovie, Skype, Twitter, Second Life, and so on and so on and so on and so forth); how much to planning for or strategizing about the future (sustainability, environmental awareness, service learning, etc.). If we are, as Birkerts suggests, "a society that has begun to come loost from its textual moorings," should our role as educators be to try get the ship back into safe harbor and re-tie the hawsers, or to catch the rising tide and head out to open sea?

Those are just a few of the questions that are moving through the back of my brain as I doze on my metaphorical blanket under the seductive Hawaiian sun. No worries: I don't have to come up with the answers for at least another two weeks.


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