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Sharon Marcus, in “How to Talk About Books You Have Read,” labels the work done on the online review Public Books as being “Janus faced, attuned to the academy and to those outside it who are interested in scholarly ideas and research” (476). Before I decided to go to college in my thirty-somethingth year, I was one of those “outside it” yet still interested in the literary world. I’ve always possessed the desire to at least know what the world of literature is focusing upon or what philosophical thought is being bandied about amongst the life-of-the-mind crowd. You know, has anyone figured out this human-being business yet, that sort of thing.

As Marcus and her fellow contributors at Public Books seem to be furthering, the proliferation of public intellectualism and the Digital Humanities is filling a very specific void in the world, one that arguably has existed for quite some time. When we ask ourselves about the efficacy of the Public Humanities and the shift to readily accessible scholarly work, aren’t we being a bit short sighted? As Marcus notes the “fantasy of an indefinitely free and open Web,” sites that promote public interest in the Humanities already pull advertisers while being perused by hundreds of thousands of visitors (479).

A common myth of our atavistic society, a myth that is a symptom of our adoration of the wealthy above all, is that those that work with their hands, blue and gray collar workers, are chained to rocks they call jobs in purgatorial mind-numbing wastelands. This simply isn’t true and amounts to logical fallacy. The educated/enlightened man standing above the barely literate grunt, the vocational school certificate holder suffering from a disastrous choice, is also more stereotype than truth. In fact, we know well what miniscule percentage of the population could benefit from a little horizon broadening. The success of sites like Public Books reflects the truth about those outside of the super book-geek crowd and their need for knowledge and willingness to look in the direction of the Humanities. The human being is a curious animal, always attempting to dissect instinctively whatever can be pulled apart or pondered over, and this movement of scholarly work from the relatively small circulation of specialized-and expensive-academic journals into cyberspace underscores this willingness to learn, or at least look.

 

Works Cited

Marcus. Sharon. “How To Talk About Books You Have Read.” PMLA 130.2 (2015): 474-480. Print.

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The Difference Between Life and Extinction of Academic Writing

As some critics have pointed out, the academic pool is shrinking. Joshua Rothman argues that “Academic writing is the way it is because it’s a part of a system,” a system in which scholars and professors live in, but did not necessarily make themselves. He claims that this system peaked in the seventies, and has since changed, “making academic work more marginal.” Thus, the audience for academic work is shrinking as well.

Nicholas Kristof argues a similar point, but instead blames the academics themselves for such marginalization, instead of the “system.” While on the the farthest end of the spectrum, Ian Bogost claims that there is marginalization because people do not want centrality, to the extent that “We masticate on culture for the pleasure of praising our own steaming shit.” Thus, there is a wide debate in circulation on the actual cause behind academic marginalization. In this light, one might ask , shouldn’t our efforts be on fixing this marginalization, rather than trying to point blame?

A handful of critics attempt to find possible solutions to the situation. For example, Rothman concludes that only if we make academic writing more expansive can we then fix the problem. Kristof goes along the same lines and urges that professors become more accessible by using blogs, Twitter, and Facebook. Finally, Bogost only offers a handful of metaphors in which multiple interpretations can exist.Therefore, as it turns out, if we want to expand the academic members pool as well as it’s audience, we must expand as Rothman notes; however, one of the most efficient ways in expanding is through the digital world, as Kristof suggests. Professors, academics and scholars need to live in the present and take advantage of the tools they are given in the twenty-first century. This does not mean that we need to completely disregard the traditional methods; however, having both traditional and modern forms can be the difference between life and extinction. If we don’t, it could be the end of academic writing as we know it.

Works Cited:

Bogost, Ian. “The Turtlenecked Hairshirt”

Kristof, Nicholas. “Professors, We Need You!”

Rothman, Joshua. “Why is Academic Writing so Academic?”

 

Mindfulness: Creating Space in a Digital World

mindful

As we become more and more steeped in a technologically connected world, scholars are turning their attention and work toward understanding both the benefits and challenges with reading on the internet. Much of the conversation revolves around distraction, as noted by Nicholas Carr and Tony Schwartz. In the New York Times article “Addicted to Distraction,” Schwartz calls attention to “[t]he brain’s craving for novelty, constant stimulation and immediate gratification [which] creates something called a ‘compulsion loop.’ Like lab rats and drug addicts, we need more and more to get the same effect” (Schwartz). Ultimately, Schwartz sets out to break the compulsive cycle that he has attributed to constant connection to the internet.

Many of us can relate to the sentiments Schwartz expresses in his article, the compulsive checking emails, and clicking from article to article on the internet. We may even justify these behaviors, that we are reading something and it is entertaining, or informative etc. Schwartz, though, is concerned with the ways it shapes our life, and those of us who are compulsively using the internet have actually developed a sort of addiction to it.

As people we might have a difficult time acknowledging how the internet shatters our focus, as Carr deftly points to in his article. He writes, “[d]azzled by the Net’s treasures, we are blind to the damage we may be doing to our intellectual lives and even our culture.” Because it is often instantaneous, and always available, it is difficult to move out of that space, or that ‘compulsion loop.’ Ultimately, Schwartz commits himself to a detox ritual in order to shift his habit of mind toward a more healthy relationship with the internet.

Schwartz reveals that this was not an easy task. In fact, he did not immediately succeed in his internet detox. Eventually, he reveals that he has “retained [his] longtime ritual of deciding the night before on the most important thing I can accomplish the next morning. [Promising to work] for 60 to 90 minutes without interruption. Afterward, [he takes] a 10- to 15-minute break to quiet [his] mind and renew [his] energy” (Schwartz). This is a deliberate moving away from the allatonceness that the digital humanities often considers a strength. This shift toward technological mindfulness moves the scholar, the professional, the technologically engaged person into a slower paced environment. This new space allows for an active engagement with the digital world, but a more balanced and healthy one. How might we, as educators, incorporate some of Schwartz’s into our course objectives, activities, and teaching philosophies?

 

As a fledgling English instructor, I immediately began thinking of how I might adapt the ideas of Lynda Barry’s Syllabus, those of repetition and the construction of groups of images. How can Barry’s ideas be be adapted for an English class, for the creation-spurring, understanding of text’s constant presence in our world? This has been on my mind for quite some time now.

Here I’ll present a loose idea for a composition notebook for strictly textual items and the subsequent writing about these found instances of text in our daily lives. Students will be urged to choose from texts they know well, so well in fact they’ve probably overlooked their very existences, as well as favorite instances where text itself is used as a design element–logos and trademarks, for instance. Some texts will be replicated and others added to the notebook permanently. One objective of having students build a book like Barry’s is the physical act of seeking the text and the conscious choice to engage with the words and the writing, as well as the juxtaposition of the imagery of their fonts and the hidden power of the word-as-image.

This idea is still under construction, and I am still working toward activities based around text in our environment, and the commentary or meta-commentary of the journal writing. Now the list consists of texts, tweets, facebook posts, advertisement text, packaging, instructional texts and owner’s manuals, descriptions of youtube videos and google site descriptions, favorite Bible verses photocopied, song lyrics, the list literally grows larger the more one simply looks at his or her environment.

Having students interact with texts that have, in one form or another, been produced by human beings, may better show those who have never given any thought to what exactly writing is, cause to reflect.

 

What does the way in which we use the vast resources of the internet say about us as a species? According to web lore, the internet was created for the purposes of sharing research material and data across impossible distances. From this need, the ability to transmit binary code across phone lines was eventually refined, and today we skype, Tweet, and rack up credit card debt at the speed of light.

As I attempt to refrain from engaging in “cursory reading” while moving through Nicholas Carr’s “The Web Shatters Focus, Rewires Brains,” I find it difficult to not ask this larger question, to in a sense deconstruct Carr’s issue with focus, the internet, and the human brain (1). What does this choice we have made toward frivolity, with the help of the greatest pedagogical and educational resource ever known to mankind, say about our core desires and needs? Do we need information and efficient minds, or distraction from our condition?

At the center of Carr’s argument lies the “highly plastic” human brain, and, in turn, his message becomes one of speculation. It is not a question of the path we have chosen to push our collective grey matters down, but the path we have avoided, the reasons being what they may. The computer has changed our world, changed the abilities and personalities of the common man born and raised with the world at his fingertips. Furthermore, as Carr reports, this new world is one of “skimming and browsing,” even with matters that need thorough attention. And provided the medium of perspective, this discovery and consequent change is akin to man finding fire, protein, the ear of corn, the wheel. The difference being we have no model of the pre-fire, pre-agriculture neural map to reminisce about and bemoan the lost attributes that we cannot fathom and do not miss.

The truth is that we only understand the way our brains were through our lens of being the current technological masters-of-the-universe, and we are far too close to ourselves, too self-examining of each detail, too locked into staring down our bleak futures to fret for our lost attention spans. The internet’s negative effect on the human brain is a topic for future generations to evaluate, but we do have the power of choice. For instance, what do you think the ratio is between things you have discovered through the internet versus things you have yet to discover? And, are not all studies such as this subject to those chosen to participate? Somewhere, at this very moment, someone is working to cure cancer, to discover or construct garbage-eating microbial life-forms, or building models to de-carbonate our atmosphere, using both the computer and an internet connection.

 

Works Cited

Carr, Nicholas. “The Web Shatters Focus, Rewires Brain,” Wired 2010. Print.

 

Learning to Focus: Reading Literature and Resisting Distraction

If you love the smell of the library stacks, the look of a leather-bound book, or the feel of crisp paper as you turn pages, you probably prefer physical text to reading on the web. Although there are several advantages to digital technologies that enable you to read from your computer screen, including the quick links made available by hypertext, there are also negative aspects to reading on the web. As Nicholas Carr, Christina Lupton, and Tony Schwartz note in respective articles, digital reading can quickly turn into distracted reading.

Continue reading “Learning to Focus: Reading Literature and Resisting Distraction”

Robert Scholes devotes an entire book-length study on the importance of literary theory in the classroom. He argues that, when it comes to understanding and using theory, “It is the great aim or end of liberal education and therefore not something we can assume to be already developed in students just beginning their college education. But we must start working on the development of critical skill in our introductory courses” (62). Due to the fact that “theory instruction since the mid-1960’s has mostly been experienced in graduate, not undergraduate, classes” Scholes argument from 1985 has yet to influence reality (Chambers 69). Thus, we must incorporate theory into undergraduate classes, rather than wait until the graduate level to teach it.

 

Works Cited:

Chambers, Ellie, and Marshall Gregory. “Teaching Literary Theory and Teaching Writing.” Teaching & Learning English Literature. London: SAGE Publ., 2006. 63-90.

Scholes, Robert. Textual Power: Literary Theory and the Teaching of English. New Haven: Yale UP, 1985.

Why Theory should be a part of Undergraduate Study

From Teaching & Learning English Literature, Ellie Chambers and Marshall Gregory discuss the topic of teaching theory in literature courses. The question of debate in regards to theory is not whether or not it should be taught in the classroom, but rather, “how much/what” theory to teach, as well as “when, and how, should it be taught?” The authors note that theory has mostly been reserved for graduate study, and left out of undergraduate work since the mid-1960’s due to the ‘core’ requirements that do not entail the need for theory in undergraduate education (69). As a result, the “purpose” of literary theory during this time is in debate, where most view it as too arduous to present in an undergraduate classroom. However, they admit that “what undergraduates need to understand is that all literary interpretations and judgements derive from certain presuppositions” (68; emphasis in original). Thus, an argument can be made that in order for students to obtain such an understanding of literature and the proceeding interpretations of it that Chambers and Gregory impose, theory must be woven in to the curriculum.

Just because there is not a blatant example to show an undergraduate student how one can use new knowledge, it does not mean it is not beneficial or cannot help make future decisions. How do we know if a student finds a specific subject interesting unless they are introduced to an array of possibilities that subject has to offer? For example, a student who excels in math during high school becomes eligible to take more challenging math courses that are not necessarily a requirement of their high school education, such as advanced algebra and trigonometry. Without specific career choices set, a trigonometry teacher cannot explain to his or her students as to why knowing how to identify the asymptote of a line, or figuring the triangulation of an object is relevant to learn. However, because the students have trigonometry as a part of their skill set, they become more knowledgeable in making those future career choices that are inevitable for all of them. As a result, the familiarity of asymptotes, or trigonometry in general,  may result in a student finding interest in the subject and as a result, choose a major or career choice that is math or trig based such as engineering or architecture. The same applies to Literature. How can an undergraduate student know if his or her personal interests lie in literature if they are not working with theory – one of the main aspects of literature as a discipline?

Chambers and Gregory acknowledge the possibility of including theory as a part of undergraduate work, noting that, because most beginning students have not read or dealt with theoretical works before, “we should surely just accept that they will find it difficult” (73). However, just because something is difficult, does not mean that it should be excluded, especially in a university environment where students should be challenged in order to learn and grow. As a possible solution to the challenging aspects of theory, the authors suggest that theory be placed in its own genre and that teachers specifically show their students strategies on how to read theory proficiently. In addition, teachers are also encouraged to reduce student confusion by either narrowing down the theoretical approaches they teach, or narrow down the text in which they are all applied (76-77). Not only will undergraduate students be more prepared for theoretical graduate work, if they should choose to embark in higher education, but they will also be more aware of what is to come in graduate school. Theory may in fact be the additional tidbit of information that allows undergraduate students to choose literature as their future career choice. Moreover, if a student realizes in undergraduate study that they do not personally find theory compelling, then they are able to skip over the stressful and overwhelming step of realizing it later in graduate work.

Works Cited:

Chambers, Ellie, and Marshall Gregory. “Teaching Literary Theory and Teaching Writing.” Teaching & Learning English Literature. London: SAGE Publ., 2006. 63-90.

Framing the Literature Classroom

In Teaching and Learning English Literature, Ellie Chambers and Marshall Gregory discuss the importance of literary pedagogy as a framing system. Pedagogy not only encourages learning and growth, but it can also affect and frame course content to invite different types of understanding (14). The teaching of literature needs to better adapt to the modern world, addressing issues like postcritical thought, different student experiences, the corporatization of education, and the potential for personal transformations.

Continue reading “Framing the Literature Classroom”

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