Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Information Age!

As my little bio says, I teach California Culture at San Francisco State University, and I'm currently reading student essays. It's not as fun as it sounds, especially since the enrollment is sizable (about 70 students), I teach two other courses, and I have no teaching assistants or graders for any of them. In short, almost 2,000 pages of student writing per semester plus other prep, and you don't want to hear about the money.

But the purpose of this post is to report a shift in student norms when it comes to reading and writing. The unspoken assumption seems to be that books are yesterday's news, even in humanities classes. Everything you need is at your fingertips, so why read anything else?

The way this plays out in the essays is instructive. I typically ask students to come up with their own paper topics so they can decide what matters to them. Several chose to focus on Chester Himes's novel, If He Hollers Let Him Go. The protagonist's name is Bob Jones, but two of the essays I read yesterday called him William Clinton. Curious, I googled the book title with that name and found that the Wikipedia page for this novel does indeed list William Jefferson Clinton, our 42nd president, as the novel's hero. Which means that at least two students wrote entire essays about this book without reading or even consulting it.

I'm not in the mood to scold or draw sweeping generalizations from this little sample, but three things come immediately to mind. First, not everything reduces to its information value, and novels are an obvious reminder of this. The whole point is to enter an imaginary world and see what happens in it--and to you. No reading means no reading experience.

Second, attending a state university is like a trip to Yosemite. Both places are public resources that offer potentially rich experiences, but everyone has the right to a shallow one. Taking a humanities class and refusing to read any books--I can only imagine how glancingly these students regarded the books they DIDN'T write about--is a little like going to Yosemite and hanging out by the snack shack.

Third, of course, is the lesson provided by the gag itself. Someone thought it would be funny, I suppose, to place President Clinton's name in that slot, and Wikipedia's editors haven't corrected it yet. I'm sure they will, but there's a larger cultural issue here. Having decided to privilege information over imagination, we also neglect to check the quality of the information. This isn't a shot at Wikipedia, which I often use and have contributed to, but rather a comment on the bargain we've made as a culture.

When the emphasis falls on free, fast, and easy, we often get cheap. Lots of people I know understand this concept when it comes to food, but their digital utopianism is as unexamined as ever. Maybe we should all read You Are Not a Gadget, which considers this question in more depth. I think the author's name is Chester Alan Arthur. (I just used Wikipedia to check the correct spelling.)


At 9:35 AM , Anonymous Mark Long said...

Jaron Lanier . . . ha! Read the book last fall and while the ideas are better than the writing itself, it was a good read.

Anyway, the corollary to much of what you say is that free and easy information has seemingly, in the minds of many college administrators, lead to the conclusion that "facilitators" who teach students to "teach themselves" are far superior (and ultimately cheaper to provide) than actual "teachers" who are subject matter experts themselves.

At 7:22 AM , Blogger Peter Richardson said...

Hey Mark, good to hear from you. Yep, you can see the gears grinding through the holes in their heads. Let's use technology to teach the kids! But we would never say, "Sit down with the Encyclopedia Britannica, take four years to read it, and we'll give you a diploma." Somehow it's all good if you replace with books with a computer--the latest romance with the machine. That's what happens when you think it's all about information and not transformation.


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