This is my first chance to pause and reflect on the new semester (read: procrastinating on fellowship applications) and I’m struck by the transition to reading and teaching full time after a week of faculty computer camp (the grandly titled Willoughby Fellowship) and the mad dash to complete my summer check list (mostly document writing on the not-so-trusty laptop). When the dust had settled, I’d gone almost three weeks without reading a sustained narrative, or really reading much of anything other than Word documents and webpages at summer’s end. During computer camp we were encouraged to have eight windows open while learning new things, tweeting comments mid-stream, filing bookmarks on delicious, and generally trying to drink from the technology fire hydrant. After a week of this, 8:00-4:00 every day, I felt as if my brain had been fried, not so much from the difficulty of anything we learned but from the constant multitasking and social networking. If this is the new literacy, it’s going to take many years before I feel literate—just in time for all of the technologies to have changed.
Move forward to this week, where I then asked my students to cultivate the ability to read Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady, all 600+ pages of its finely tuned psychological calibrations and social minuets. When asked to describe James to an uninitiated reader, the first word out of my class’ collective mouths, almost in unison, was: LONG. I came to realize that what I had asked my very talented students to do was simply another version of the request asked of me the week before, adapt to a new form of literacy after having been bathed in the ambient world of the digital media to which I’d just been subjected. I, too, found myself readjusting to the dilated sense of time captured in the novel—even though this is my fourth or fifth reading of Portrait, I could feel the weekend bending around the reading experience in a palpable, physical way—an experience I find infinitely more pleasurable than the manic, hyper-saturated, false adrenaline you get after writing 50 emails or spending much too long on facebook (not that there isn’t a different pleasure here as well). I suppose James is as foreign to my students as their emerging forms of literacy are to me, and growing more so in exponential leaps and bounds.
This isn’t to say that we live in a fallen world, that digital literacies are no true literacy, that kids today don’t respect their elders, etc. I think there are real opportunities for teachers to take advantage of the ways in which our students write today. Automatic writing exercises, for example, are much more successful now than they were 10 or even 5 years ago as smart phones had yet to dominate the market the way they do today. Conversely, I’ve long held that physical books are among the most robust and versatile media out there—the codex has done well for the past two millennia, and I don’t anticipate it going anywhere. What I can imagine happening is a threat to the kind of narratives James is interested in telling, that the languorous details that so confused even his contemporary readers are becoming increasingly illegible to minds (even the finest among them) trained to read in such measurably different ways. I suspect these are facilities we can still teach our students to acquire, but when will the bar be too high? Or the rewards too obscure?