Thursday, March 15, 2007

Not A Novel Approach?

Terry Sale is a Language Arts teacher in my building who always makes me think. His latest post is no exception. He's responding to an article by Cory Doctorow (of Boing Boing fame - currently the second most popular blog on the planet according to Technorati):
. . . it rekindled in my mind an old debate I have with myself about teaching language arts . . .

All this got me thinking about the fact that most of our language arts classes center around literature in books. Traditionally, we require our students to read and pretend to appreciate stories and novels. Yet the novel, along with being an “invention,” as Doctorow suggests, is an art form. We don’t require all students to take art appreciation classes, or study music theory, or attend the ballet. But aren’t those forms as viable and important as literature? I tout novels as explorations of the human condition and windows into other eras and cultures…but don’t paintings and operas and films do that too? Is reading The Kite Runner any more enlightening than watching Babel?

. . . In the language arts area, it may be time to shift our paradigm from literature-centered classes to reading-centered classes . . .
Now, don't judge a post by its excerpt. I would highly recommend you go read the entire post (as well as Doctorow's article) as there was no way I could excerpt it and do it justice unless I copied the whole thing. Terry does some really good thinking and takes some time to explore this idea further. I left a fairly long comment on the post, so I won't add any more here - you'll just have to head over there to check it out - and maybe leave a comment of your own.

I really only have one complaint with Terry's blogging - he doesn't do it frequently enough.


  1. Terry and Karl,

    Terry's post made me think of one of my favorite passages in Fahrenheit 451, where Beatty describes modern media:

    “Speed up the film, Montag, quick. Click, Pic, Look, Eye, Now, Flick, Here, There, Swift, Pace, Up, Down, In, Out, Why, How, Who, What, Where, Eh? Uh? Bang! Smack! Wallop, Bing, Bong, Boom! Digests, digest-digest-digests. Politics? One column, two sentences, a headline! Then, in midair, all vanishes! Whirl man’s mind around about so fast under the pumping hands of publishers, exploiters, broadcasters that the centrifuge flings off all unnecessary, time-wasting thought!”

    A funny thing happened to me when I tried to find the above quote, however. My copy of Fahrenheit is at school, and I’m writing this at home, so I looked for an on-line text of the novel. I couldn’t find anything. I googled, “Click, Pic, Look, Eye.” Only a few sites popped up. At the top of the list was a link to “Keira Knightley Sex Tape.” Intrigued, I clicked in. I was met by orgasmic grunts and a page that contained a passage from Fahrenheit 451. Inserted randomly in Bradbury’s text were the bold words “Keira Knightley naked,” again and again. In the right hand margin were some thumbnails of Keira doing very naughty things.

    So, what started as an attempt to respond to Terry's brilliant post led me to something raunchy and disgusting.

    And guess what? I have completely forgotten what I was going to say about Bradbury and Terry's post and Doctorow’s article and Karl’s response. Keira flung off all that “unnecessary, time-wasting thought.”

    Ah. The wonders of cyberspace……

  2. Link, please? (kidding)

    Yeah, we've been unable to find an online text version of 451. I was able to search inside the book at Amazon and find the quote, though.

    The best we've found so far is Bradbury reading the first part of the book, which is pretty cool, but it's not the whole thing.

    When you remember what you were going to say, please try not to find any other "interesting" stuff before you start writing! (And probably put it on Terry's post, not mine, since I really didn't have any "brilliance" in my post.)

  3. Keira actually helped me make my point, if you want to know the truth. I had planned a long, passionate rant. (Aren't you glad she stopped me from doing that?) But all of the internet's links and distractions got in my way and produced my goofy little narrative instead.

    And that is my point. The internet, with its slick (and often vulgar) content flashing at the reader, makes sustained thought and complex argument quite difficult.

    I believe it's significant that Terry wrote his post by hand (on paper! with a pen!) and only later typed it onto his blog. Maybe because he wasn't typing his ideas directly onto his computer, nothing like Keira intruded on his thoughts.

    She gives a new--but not very complex--way of thinking about "Smack! Wallop! Bing, Bong, Boom!"

  4. Karl--Thanks for the link to Bradbury reading the first chapter of his book. It was so beautiful.

    I feel much better about wonders of the internet now.

  5. Well, believe it or not, I was looking forward to your rant. Because your "rants" usually help me clarify my own thinking (and sometimes "correct" it).

    But I think Keira is actually another reason why we should be focusing on these issues with our students. Because - and correct me if I'm wrong - nobody forced you to click on that link and watch that "vulgar" content. I've said it before, and I'll say it again, personally I've never accidentally stumbled upon inappropriate material on the Internet. The only time I've seen it is when I purposely went to a site, either for demonstration purposes or to learn about something related to the site (e.g, some MySpace pages). So, I think part of what we should be teaching is Internet literacy, which includes how to focus on what you are trying to do and not visit sites that will "distract" you. That is indeed the world our students live in, so shouldn't we be trying to help them navigate it?

    As far as the site you visited, I'll take your word that it was "vulgar," but hasn't various forms of art over the centuries been proclaimed as "vulgar" by some, yet revered by others? How many pieces of art didn't survive because somebody proclaimed them "vulgar" and destroyed them or prevented their distribution? While the Internet certainly allows for many vulgar and abhorent things to be posted, it also allows many wonderful things to be posted that never would have been seen before - and for our students (and ourselves) to learn from them.

    I think Terry probably would've produced just as good of writing on the computer - he was just forced to do it longhand because he was "trapped" proctoring the CSAP. And, as we know, that's not a place where you're allowed to connect to the knowledge of others . . .

  6. I guess my rant has sizzled out. The English department has been having plenty of face-to-face discussions about Terry’s post, and in some ways I agree with Terry about the need to restructure our curriculum to make it reading-centered rather than literature-centered. When I think about my own multi-tasking, digitally wired sons, I know they are growing into adults who might not pick up Joseph Conrad or Toni Morrison, but who will read constantly from the computer.

    However, I get very nervous when I think about this. I want so badly to pass on the tradition of reading that’s been handed to me. I can’t imagine allowing Socrates and Dostoyevsky and John Donne to die...

    When they aren't doing research or homework, how do my sons spend their time on the computer? Do they log on to Ray Bradbury reading chapter one of Fahrenheit 451? Not my boys. They go to MySpace or FaceBook. They play on-line games. They download music (and yes, some of their music is appealing, but some of it is crass and frightening.) They check their email. Probably they visit Keira, though I’m only guessing.(And yes, Karl, the digitally enhanced pictures of her might represent a new form of art--a modern Venus de Milo with arms and other parts.)

    But when a teacher assigns a novel or a history book, my sons take that book to bed and read until sleep overtakes them. That’s what I’m grateful for, for teachers who give them great books to read when the computer is turned off for the night.

    I’m sure young people today probably read more than any generation has for a long, long time. And yes, they read a different kind of text. Doctorow writes, “Basically, what I do on the computer is pleasure-reading. But it's a fundamentally more scattered, splintered kind of pleasure.” He’s right. But those of us who love books worry that this new kind of reading with its “Flick, Here, There, Swift, Pace, Up, Down” might actually be hurting us. I wonder what changes are produced in the brain of a person who never engages in sustained, focused reading or thinking.

    You find Terry's final paragraph “confusing.” He writes, “As for me, I’ll be happy to teach the old fashioned lit class (especially now that it will be filled with book lovers like me). I’m happy turning the pages of my books, and no YouTubing, blogging, skyping, podcasting, IMing wikiphile is going to change that.”

    I understand that paragraph completely.

  7. I disagree that the internet is harming the impact of "true" literature. I agree that there is plenty of mindless smut floating around, but the internet offers so many opportunities to people who use them.

    Information is always at hand, the trouble is where to find useful information. If my chemistry book makes no sense, wikipedia might. I'm far past the point where I can ask parents for homework help (Raise your hand if you remember anything about thermochemistry). Plus, literature is on the internet. E-books, like someone mentioned before. Poetry by everyone imagineable. Plus, understanding comes easier. I can just copy and paste a word I don't recognize into or translate poetry from other languages.

    Also, the second I hit enter, these words are accessible to anyone in the world with a computer. Gone are the days when only the "right" books get published. Anyone can get their words out there, whether they're good or bad. If you're curious, try looking around on livejournal. There are all sorts of communities from creative writing to chemistry. I stumbled upon a community where a prompt is given each day. It's remarkable what happens when 200 writers respond to a single idea. We bounce ideas off one another, critique other posts and expand our own thinking through reading all the other posts. Sure, most of the posts are much shorter than a novel, but that doesn't make them any less artistic, does it? I, for one, would not as much of a writer if it weren't for the internet. This is a new generation of thinking. Words in my notebook don't go far. But in my blogs, I correspond with people from all over the world. You tell me, which is better?