Friday, September 3, 2010

"I can't read this book . . . it's long and boring"

Randall Stephens

Are we awash in a rising sea of idiocracy? Or, are things just different today; no better, no worse than yesterday? Is short always sweet? Perhaps anything worth saying can be pared down to 140 characters (twitter) or 160 characters (SMS). I don't believe that. And I think that "pithy" and "tweet" probably shouldn't go in the same sentence.

Still I'm not above assigning portions of a longer book. Maybe students do get less from the whole. I know that some students are paralyzed with fear at the thought of reading a 250-page work of non fiction. It's like asking them to scale a mountain and then paraglide down into a briar patch.

So, I was intrigued by Carlin Romano's sign-of-the-times essay in the August 29th Chronicle: "Will the Book Survive Generation Text?" (It's part of a series of essays on what the future of the profession holds.) He summarizes the work of academic forecasters and doomsayers--Derek Bok, Jennifer Washburn, Frank Donoghue, Mary Burgan, Louis Menand. Romano proposes a funny sort of idea, "extreme academe," to sum up what might take place in our near future. "Extreme academe, as a vision, ups the ante of such concerns. It adds flash and cynicism to mere trepidation," says Romano. "According to it, college students in 2020 will use plastic cards to open the glass security doors installed at each entrance to campus. On special occasions, the sole tenured faculty member at every institution will be wheeled out, like the stuffed remains of Jeremy Bentham at University College London, for receptions."

Romano worries that, "Destructive cultural trends lurk behind the decline of readerly ambition and student stamina. One is the expanding cultural bias in all writerly media toward clipped, hit-friendly brevity—no longer the soul of wit, but metric-driven pith in lieu of wit. Everywhere they turn, but particularly in mainstream, sophisticated venues—where middle-aged fogies desperately seek to stay ahead of the tech curve—young people hear, through the apotheosis of tweets, blog posts, Facebook updates, and sound bites as the core of communication, that short is always smarter and better than long, even though most everyone knows it's usually dumber and worse."

He also takes aim at a kind of cult of "interactivity.": "Another cultural trend propelling the possible death of the whole book as assigned reading is the pressurized hawking of interactivity, brought to us by the same media panderers to limited attention spans. It's no longer acceptable for A to listen to B for more than a few minutes before A gets his or her right to respond."

Not so encouraging. Certainly worth considering as the job market continues to shrink and as the culture of the academy undergoes radical change.


Lisa Clark Diller said...

I've taken to starting my semesters (especially my surveys) with a mini-talk on the fact that this is a "reading" class. They take writing and speech and math for their Gen Ed and they know that they have to do that. But there aren't official "reading" classes, although that is one of the reasons why the university wants them taking history classes. I explain that the standardized tests they take as college seniors (at least our school requires them--national comparative scores for the purposes of accreditation are thus generated) evaluate their ability to "think critically" based on how good they are at analyzing something they've read. There might be other ways to think critically, but so far that is how things are being measured--by reading.

I don't know if it really helps, but it cuts down on the whinging over having to read 60 page a week in World Civ. They've been suitably warned.

I am terrible at being efficient in assigning reading, especially in upper division classes. I want them to read so much--I am getting better at only assigning parts of books, though.

Randall said...

It's always wise to have that reading talk with them. I also try to make it crystal clear that I expect them to do quite a bit. No way around it.