Cara Hagen passed along a provocative kernel the other day, something she picked up at a presentation on teen technology use, social networking, and privacy issues. It went something like this: Students aren’t interested in blogging. It’s too slow, too formal, too ponderous, too dinosaur—like email. Twitter is more their style: the commitment extends no further than 140 characters.
Is this true? Are we, with digital immigrant naivete, getting all fired up about blogging as a learning modality just as it begins an ugly slide into obsolescence? Are we out of pace and out of step?
About the same time as Cara’s comment, I ran across a Chronicle Review article by Lindsay Waters arguing that we’re in the middle of a worldwide reading crisis. Waters’ thesis seems to be that, in a misguided effort to keep up with 21st century information overload, reading teachers are teaching kids to speed-read, to indiscriminately hoover information with no appreciation for literary nuances like style, character, and sentence structure—that the next generation will lack the skills to read in depth with appreciation and sensitivity. As a panacea for this crisis of superficial, assembly-line reading, he proposes a "slow reading" movement.
I already had the notion of pace in reading and writing on my mind because of Cara’s comment, so Waters’ article caught my attention. Slow reading; fast paced communication—is there a connection here beneath the apparent conflict? There’s much about Waters’ thesis, and how we develops it, with which I fundamentally disagree. The closest Waters gets to actually citing any evidence of the supposed reading crisis is this:
Report after report testifies to declining literacy in America. Some of
the decline is due to the neglect of our least-advantaged children, but
some of it is due to the willful embrace of methods for teaching
reading that are inimical to reading in depth.
He goes on to finger whole language instruction as the dastardly culprit, the usual inimical suspect. Whole language? Are you kidding? The pendulum on that debate swung hard in the other direction when NCLB went into effect. Implicated by Waters as an accessory to the crime is Franco Moretti‘s "distant reading," which he characterizes as nothing more than outsourcing of reading.
Moretti is now promoting what he calls "distant reading," which seems
to me to suggest that scholars of literature outsource reading of books
to lower-level workers. . . . It is impossible to understand the rationale
for such a relegation of reading to graphs and charts except as a way
of institutionalizing large-scale bureaucratic analyses of literature.
That is poison.
Moretti himself, in a January 2000 New Left Review article, comes across as infinitely more measured, reasonable, and coherent. He discusses the vastness of world literature and the concomitant challenges of its critical scholarship:
Reading ‘more’ seems hardly to be the solution. Especially because we’ve just
started rediscovering what Margaret Cohen calls the ‘great unread’. ‘I work on
West European narrative, etc. . . .’ Not really, I work on its canonical
fraction, which is not even one per cent of published literature. And again,
some people have read more, but the point is that there are thirty thousand
nineteenth-century British novels out there, forty, fifty, sixty thousand—no
one really knows, no one has read them, no one ever will. And then there are
French novels, Chinese, Argentinian, American . . .
Good point, and it raises the old depth vs. breadth debate. Given more literature (and related criticism) than one person can possibly read, digest, synthesize, and intelligently write about in a lifetime of dedicated work, what is a scholar to do? Waters advocates depth, and the close reading and re-reading of quality work; he’s apparently not so worried about the great unread. Moretti suggests a different approach to the problem of the great unread: understanding world literature as a manifestation of patterns and trends across national literatures by aggregating the work of the many readers and critics with "local" expertise. In other words. . . breadth. Moretti’s aim is to address the great unread. In acknowledging the
limits of the individual and searching for a collective solution, he
gently rebuts Waters’ cartoonish accusations that he’s anti-reading or trying to create some kind of nightmarish automated
reading-function. He’s after the abstract, the theoretical, the grand pattern; Waters is after the specific, the rich individual experience. Moretti is willing to sacrifice the individual experience because he’s interested in bigger fish:
If we want to understand the system in its
entirety, we must accept losing something. We always pay a price for
theoretical knowledge: reality is infinitely rich; concepts are abstract, are
poor. But it’s precisely this ‘poverty’ that makes it possible to handle them,
and therefore to know.
Well. As fascinating as this little foray into the tempestuous world of lit-crit has been, how does this relate to the questions originally raised by Cara? Does Twitter’s staccato what’s-up terseness signal a death knell for any writing longer than 140 characters? Beyond literature, what other great unreads are out there? What does all this mean for real students?One answer is that it depends on purpose and audience. Students need to be able to read and write in slow and fast modes. They need to address both depth and breadth. To assume that kids who Twitter aren’t interested in blogging misses the mark. Isn’t it possible they’re interested in communicating in both modes—the immediate shorthand of Twitter and text-messaging, and the more expansive, reflective writing afforded by a blog—but choose to tailor their messages for different audiences in different spaces? And to assume that kids who Twitter can’t write in a reflective mode misses the mark completely.
Another answer is that we simply don’t know. We’re too busy coping with our own great unread: the overwhelming amount of information and innovation that keeps transforming the landscape upon which we’re trying to build School 2.0. And we don’t know what competencies students will need to make sense of their great unread. Reading, writing, collaborating. . . yes. But what else haven’t we even imagined yet? How do we begin to prepare students?
Actually, confused rhetoric and reactionary politics aside, I do agree with what Waters says about slow reading and the joys of cultivating a lasting relationship with a work of literature.
Instead of rushing by works so fast that we don’t even muss up our
hair, we should tarry, attend to the sensuousness of reading, allow
ourselves to enter the experience of words.
Absolutely. That’s beautiful and valuable advice for any student. Our lives are experienced only by us. We’re around for too short a time not to pay close attention to every experience, and reading good literature ranks right up there in richness. But the great unread will keep expanding and will be a defining feature in our students’ lives. Our challenge is to prepare them to manage their relationship with it. Slow reading and spoonful of phonics aren’t going to cut it.