Monday, January 21, 2008

Dear Readers -

This is the title of Jim Carmin's excellent essay in yesterday's Oregonian about the sad decline of the art of letter writing. Carmin seems nostalgic and sad that email has overtaken the hand-written letter for correspondence, especially as the speed of email and the apparently small window have changed the content from long rambling meditations in one's characteristic (if often illegible) handwriting (heavy on the pathos and ethos) to quick exchanges of data (heavy on the logos) -- little "snippets of prose"stored not in pigeon holes above our writing surface or in drawers, tied with blue satin ribbons and bundled with sprigs of lavender, but kept on "electronic desktops" if they are even kept at all.

And for manuscript librarians as Carmin is -- as my grandfather was at the Library of Congress -- even a hard copy print out of a letter lacks authenticity. Sure, handwritten letters can be (and at times were) forged; but in cyber space, it is much harder to be sure of the original author or words. Much too easy to add, subtract, and change when a letter is printed out. And perhaps the long piece of paper or pretty greeting card inspires someone to write at greater length. I admit that I carry on a letter-length email exchange with two particular friends, sending what many of our pop savvy students might characterize as "tl, dr" (too long, didn't read). But maybe this trend to brevity affects blogging culture. Some bloggers - such as my friends and colleagues Michael, Paula, and Anne-Marie -- write long, thoughtful posts. I wish I did. More often my posts seem to me to be "snippets of prose" sent out like Dickinson's "This is my letter to the world" (though never so poetically!). And I think that most blog readers prefer the long meditative substantive posts - am I right? Maybe it's because I always have so much on my mind that I usually end up with something fairly short and wishing I had gone deeper.

What Carmin laments greatly is that exchange of creative thoughts and especially poetry (to judge from the authors whose work he quotes -- Donald Hall, Barry Lopez, William Stafford, Ted Kooser. And without letters how are we to have published books of letters, such as the one I have of Rachel Carson's letters (somewhat poetic?) or of Chekhov. It's wonderful to read the thoughts of these authors, like entering into their daily lives.

Check out Carmine's article which I hope reproduces in the online version the illustration from the actual newspaper of a postcard sent by Allan Ginsberg to William Burroughs on 1965 mentioning Ginsberg's trip through Oregon (saw Crater Lake & The Beatles). What fun it is to be back in that moment.


Coming attractions -- but first a question

A pile of printouts of fascinating issues from web articles sits on my desk begging to be blogged about -- I promise I will -- but first - a question for readers:

Why do students feel that they have to be interested in an editorial in order to carryout a homework assignment of summary and response? Several students have complained that they couldn't finish the assignment to find an op-ed or editorial, summarize and respond because they couldn't find one that they were interested in. This baffles me. Where did students get the idea that they have to like or be connected to the topic in order to do the job? Sure, it's great when people are interested - that makes the assignment more fun and more engaged. But, golly, in life and in our jobs how often do we get to postpone work just because we are not interested in the project. We hear this in terms of an assignment for researched argument - "gee, I couldn't find a topic I liked so I couldn't do the paper." Does anyone have any insights here?


Monday, January 14, 2008

Google U?

Professor of Media Studies Tara Brabazon of the University of Brighton (England) is campaigning for information literacy. In her recent lecture "Google is White Bread for the Mind" she argues that

Wikipedia and user-generated content are creating an age of banality and mediocrity by providing consensual information and stifling debate. Students must be trained to be dynamic and critical thinkers rather than drifting to the first site returned through Google... [and] that universities must teach students to question, argue, debate and challenge, rather than accept the 'facts' from Wikipedia or the rankings of Google.

Of course I would agree. Teaching students to be critical thinkers is an important goal in our writing classes. She might object, therefore, that our Information Literacy Portfolio in first year composition should not send students to Wikipedia for their initial research. However, we believe that because students will go to Wikipedia anyway, that therefore it is imperative that we teach students what Wikipedia is and how to use it correctly (effectively, ethically).

According to the lecture announcement,
Brabazon argues that with the decline in libraries, diminishing stocks of books and fewer librarians, media platforms like Google offer easy answers to difficult problems. She wants to see a more subtle relationship between the analogue and the digital.

She says: "I want students to sit down and read. It's not the same when you read it online. I want them to experience the pages and the print as much as the digitisation and the pixels – both are fine but I want them to have both – not one or the other - not a cheap solution."

Here, she gets into a deeper point - and I totally agree that students should have the print experience along with the digital. Both are essential. For example, the current political campaign is being carried out on blogs and internet and YouTube as much as in print. Voters who are only proficient in one medium or the other will miss important concepts.

Brabazon is also correct about the essential skill in interpretation. To her point of view,
the education resulting from this age of the amateur [could be called] 'the University of Google', composed of shallow ideas, superficial surfing and fleeting commitments. She argues that: "we need to teach our students the interpretative skills first before we teach them the technological skills."
I don't think we can wait.

Read more here.


Monday, January 07, 2008

How useful are the humanities? - With Update Below

According to Stanley Fish in his essay "Will the humanities save us?" from this morning's New York Times, the answer - very much oversimplified (better read his essay to get the full argument) - is that the humanities are in fact not very useful - depending of course on how one defines "useful." The 292 people who responded by 3 p.m. take various positions on his essay, most, it seems, disagreeing.

This immediately brings to mind an essay by Dana Gioia (of the National Endowment for the Arts), called "Why Literature Matters" from the Boston Globe, 2 years ago. Gioia's position is not so much the "art for art's sake" but rather that "Good books help make a civil society". This is a different argument from the "well rounded" or "provides cultural capital so you can get a job" argument. And maybe at this point in our civic discourse - with election rhetoric around on all sides - what we really need is a civil society.

According to Patrick Moe, the 293rd commenter on Professor Fish's essay,
To say that there is no social (or, god forbid, business) utility in courses that teach students to write, speak, and analyze better is patently false. These courses expose students to different perspectives on the world, different lenses though which to analyze and critique that world, and to question the hegemonic and normalizing forces that are taken for granted within other disciplines. At their heart the Humanities teach reason in all its different forms.
Certainly it is reason and argument that I am about to teach tomorrow in my writing class, clear thinking for a civil society, for civic discourse. So I hope - and believe - that Mr. Moe is right.

UPDATE: Wed Jan 9 --
I want to mention that my source for Fish's article was Michael, who has a great post on the topic now.


Sunday, January 06, 2008

Memory - what we lose

Because my mother suffered (we all suffered) from Alzheimer's and as I watched her memory fade, I am particularly interested in information / research into memory and how it works. Today's Sunday Parade Magazine, has an article by Martha Weinman Lear "Why do we Forget Things?" that outlines three kinds of memory, and this seems a clue to Mom's decline:

1-procedural memory (how to walk, eat, tie a shoe)
2-semantic memory (what it is? What ARE eyeglasses?)
3-episodic memory (what I did yesterday)

With Mom, she first lost the episodic memory, forgetting what she did yesterday or five minutes ago. Then she lost what Lear calls semantic memory, forgetting what a spoon was. She could hold the utensil but did not recall that there was a concept to the bowl-shape of the spoon that required it to be held a certain way in order to work. Finally she lost procedural memory, forgetting how to walk or even how/when to swallow.

Lear reassures readers that memory loss is normal with aging (ugh) and says:
After all, how important is it (how does it help you survive in the world) to remember the name of that restaurant you ate at last night? What is important to remember is what “eating” means and how to eat.
But isn't the latter exactly what we do fear? It's what happened to my mother, so I know what it looks like. And the lack of knowing how to eat is indeed fatal - leading to aspirated pneumonia, which is what she died of. So -- we can lose a lot. And even if it's normal, that is not as reassuring as Lear makes it seem.


Saturday, January 05, 2008

Reading Ulysses . . .or not?

I admit right out that I have not yet read Ulysses, but it does sound interesting - and because I really like Virginia Woolf's style in The Waves, I'm thinking, based on what I've heard, that I would enjoy Ulysses, too. In college I only read 19th century British authors, so that when I arrived in Dublin in 1971, I was pretty clueless when our hosts wanted to show us all the Joycean spots of interest. I do recall with pleasure, however, a late afternoon "tea" of Irish coffee and sandwiches of smoked salmon on brown bread eaten in a hotel lobby before a blazing fireplace. Delightful.

Anyway, maybe I don't have to read Ulysses just yet, according to Pierre Bayard's new book How to Talk About Books you Haven't Read, in this review by Toby Lichtig from the Guardian. However, I will have to disagree with Bayard's perspective --
Taking it as given that no one actually reads for the pleasure of the process, Bayard proceeds to investigate the meaning of bibliographic cultural capital
-- because the pleasure of reading is indeed at least half of why I read. On the other hand, I can certainly see the point in this perspective:
'Non-reading' for Bayard, is 'a genuine activity'. It implies an engagement with literature and is different from mere 'absence of reading'. A 'true reader' is simply 'one who cares about being able to reflect on literature'. With so little time and so many books, he argues, it is better to spread the net wide and settle for a general sense of the multitude.
in terms of caring about books - and the ideas they include. And Bayard's point about situating ideas is particularly intriguing:
'Relations among ideas are far more important than the ideas themselves,' he insists. Thus, it is only ever necessary to get a rough sense of what any particular book is about - and where to place it in the 'collective library'.
Certainly I'm always telling students how important it is to gain a sense of the conversation about ideas. And isn't that what Bayard is saying here, in part? So, I would agree with the review that the book certainly seems worth reading - both as Bayard says "with so little time and so many books" - I might get to Ulysses first.