I recently discovered Teaching as a Subversive Activity by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner—or, rather, it found me—thanks to Bud Hunt’s recommendation. The book’s famous hallmark is the intentional blankness of page 61. In a chapter on “What’s Worth Knowing?”, the authors invite readers to engage in inquiry-driven marking-upĀ  by writing their own questions on page 61.about what’s worth knowing. For most people who grew up thinking of books—BOOKS!—as repositories of authoritative, received, vetted, static knowledge, as things to be handled with respect, the idea of writing in one, even when invited, feels like vandalism. Even though Postman would say the reader’s act of writing on page 61, of modifying the text and becoming a flash-collaborator, is an act of higher respect.

Page 61 is a subversive—even magical—space, a prescient glimpse ahead of its time at the read-write revolution that would come 40 or so years later.

First, it challenges our traditional, comfortable notions of book and reader by changing both into something new. By inviting alteration (you could even say requesting or demanding it), the book stops being a book in the way we usually think of it, or at least the way a 1969 reader thought of it. It stops being a static repository of received knowledge and becomes something more fluid, harder to pin down. Even the structure changes—where we expect a bunch of text, we suddenly have this space we’re not quite sure what to do with.

And second, by writing in the book, the reader changes from passive consumer to active participant and content producer. Whatever’s written on page 61 alters the meaning of the book and the next reader’s learning. Page 61 is a built-in invitation to engage in inquiry, to act, to learn and change. But in most copies, that blank page is still blank 40 years later. The subversive potential goes unexplored, and we remain stuck in our old familiar patterns.

I checked out my university library’s copy. Yep. Blank. Gotta do something to remedy that.

At roughly the same time, Alec Couros and Dean Shareski posted a “call for insights” for their Educon 2.2 presentation about the changing role of teacher education.

The topic: “(Re)Imagining Social Media and Technology in Teacher Education.”

The questions:

  1. What are your general views on the status of teacher education in preparing teachers, especially in regards to innovative teaching? What positives, negatives, or general views can you share? Please do pull in your own experiences if applicable.
  2. What is the ideal role of teacher education in developing teachers who are media literate and technologically savvy?

Their prompt got me thinking that Postman’s subversive Page 61 might serve as a compelling metaphor for the kinds of conversations and disruptions happening in, around, and about teacher education. Here’s my rambling attempt at a response. Don’t be distracted by the stunning production values and Clooney-esque delivery.


Back in the dark ages when I was an undergrad, all budding English majors at my university were required to take a course called Foundations of Literature. The class was part
Cliffs Notes, part literary boot camp, and our affable drill sergeant was Laird Barber, an English professor in the classic mold: tweedy, ruddy, portly, well-traveled, and equipped with a pipe. His generous intelligence and deep-as-marrow grasp of the world’s great literatures were sometimes derailed, at least in his lectures, by…yes, you guessed it…absentmindedness.

Foundations of Lit was predicated on the simple idea that reading classic literature is a dependent-clause, networked experience. Understanding literature is only possible when the reader can navigate and make sense of mazy thickets of references to other, earlier works of literature which the work in question draws from, is based upon, satirizes, winks at, offers wry commentary about, worships, excoriates, or otherwise mentions. Works of literature don’t exist in splendid isolation; they’re built on the spines of everything written before them. Deep reading means getting the context set up by cultural, historical, and literary references embedded in the text. It means getting the inside jokes, hopefully even enough to laugh when the punchline rolls around. It means knowing that Shakespeare drew liberally from Holinshed for the history plays, based Julius Caesar on Plutarch, and used the Decameron as source material for All’s Well That Ends Well. More importantly, it means being able to glance and glide through allusions to biblical stories, Greek and Roman mythology (O Edith Hamilton, you bookish vixen!), and plots, characters, settings, and assorted story-furniture culled from thousands of years of storytelling and culture. It means having the skeleton key that unlocks literary puzzle-doors. It means reading and appreciating all of those earlier works, or at least MacGyvering together a rough understanding of their significance by taking a crash-course like Foundations of Lit. E.D. Hirsch took a stab at articulating this idea of collective “core” knowledge back in 1987 with Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, and recommending a more systematic approach to teaching it; we’re all pretty familiar with the firestorm of controversy that followed and continues to smolder.

Unlike footnotes, which seek to elaborate and explicate off to the side—think of them as literature’s scenic detour (unless you’re David Foster Wallace, in which case the detour is the destination)—allusions are a kind of literary shorthand, where spartan economy of language is coupled with instant edification. An allusion evokes the whole previously-lived, previously-read package all at once. Like a memory suddenly brought to the surface (madeleine, anyone?), an allusion arrives in a rush, plops down on your lap, grabs your ears like handles, and demands attention. An allusion springs out fully armed and ready for action, like Athena popping out from Zeus’ cranium. You don’t get that from a footnote.

And you don’t get it from a link. Bud Hunt set up a sweet grammatical thought-puzzle the other day, asking whether hyperlinks might be adjectives. The jury’s still out on that one (you can still join in a lively debate on meaning, modification, and the permanence of parts of speech), but it made me wonder how the same linguistic litmus test applies to allusion. Might hyperlinks be allusions?

Allusions are like hyperlinks: They deliver a fully-absorbed story in a flash.

Hyperlinks are not like allusions: They deliver a story, but it still has to be absorbed (by reading from start to finish, by browsing, by skimming).

Allusions and hyperlinks are like each other: Their substance and meaning, and our ability to access them, may change over time. Websites change, are rewritten, disappear. Links break. Readers reread works of literature, suffer memory loss, experience life, alter their schema.

Allusions and hyperlinks are not like each other: Allusions function seamlessly within and are integral to the context of the text in which they reside; they modify without slowing you down. Hyperlinks don’t change the context until and unless you click on them, or mouse over them, or interact with them in some other way. Hyperlinks modify in the same way that a roadside historical marker does: by making you stop, get out of the car, read the thing, and maybe have lunch on that picnic table over there.

Set aside the fascinating English major wonkiness for a moment. This forking garden path leads right back to the 21st century literacies debate. One could argue (I’m not, but one could) that Google searching and the emerging semantic web render Hirsch’s idea of cultural literacy obsolete. Why do I need to know the story of Sisyphus? I can just Google it. If literary background knowledge is partly or entirely replaced by just-in-time hypercontextual linking, is a new kind of literacy at work? If so, what is it? Does it go beyond information literacy and critical reading? What do you call on-the-fly knowledge construction plugged in just in time to modify whatever you were reading in the first place?

And how do you teach it?