Here at the beginning of summer, two disparate recent readings have me thinking outlandish thoughts about text and how our students read it.
The readings in question are Moby-Dick and Ingrid Daemmrich’s “Novices Encounter a Novice Literature” in the May TETYC. What do these writings have in common? They both ask us to consider texts in ways that are often anathema to standard academic writing.
The way students think about text, the production of text, and the producers of text is changing. (I’m not going to support that statement; I’m going to let it hang out there as fact.) They and we are influenced by music, by the web, by cut and paste technology in all media, by the flattening of text-- written texts flattened into all screen text all the time and the flattening of audio, video, and writing onto the computer screen. In this screen world, most of us are novice readers, like Daemmrich’s novice readers of web-based literary texts, because of the very newness of the medium. As novice readers we are prone to make mistakes about what we are reading, but we are also able to see with new eyes.
In this medium, many students do not delineate between a print newspaper (should we call them legacy newspapers like legacy airlines?) offered online or a web-only publication such as Salon.com or a blog such as this one. As Daemmrich notes, “the Internet can blur the difference between digital and nondigital literature to such an extent that confusion between the two occurs." Daemmrich and others suggest this means the students need more "training in reading hypertext," but I'm not so sure (425). Do we fight the blur or embrace the blur with our new eyes (there's a lovely mixed metaphor)?
Tradition seems to tell me to fight the blur—a newspaper is a newspaper, a book is a book, an academic journal is an academic journal, and they have important contextual and production differences that must be considered when making meaning from their texts.
But Moby-Dick and many other texts suggests this is only a recent fabrication. Melville filched whole chunks of text from tomes on cetology (that’s right, the study of whales). Like the glowing screen, he flattened it all into one narrative. This is a fine literary tradition. To cite only one other example, John Smith “borrows” from others even more flagrantly in his General History of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles.
So, maybe all this nicety around what exactly we are seeing on the screen can be viewed as the aberration more than the tradition. I'm no longer completely sure why I should make so many distinctions between types of texts. Is the academy's delineation of types of texts always driven by intellectual motivations and academic concerns or is it just as often motivated by "intellectual property" and profits-- and should we view all of these motivations as equally valid and useful? As the concepts of copyleft and open source ideas blossom along with open source software, embracing the blur begins to look compelling.
And as I consider embracing the blur, let me back up and say this:
Staring at the blur, pondering the blur-- pondering this very screen on which I am currently writing-- only feeds a suspicion that keeps repeating in my head: the traditional undergraduate academic research essay is dying a slow and agonizing death.
And I don’t think I want to save it.
That was the real subject of this post, but I’ll save that for another time.