"[I]f I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week…The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature." --Charles Darwin

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Free serialized literature via Blog

From Neatorama comes a sub-blog called Bit Lit, in which they'll "be serializing entire novels and short stories—even some poetry, many published by major publishers like Random House. Every day, a new chapter until the entire story is complete.

"Plus, [they]’ll be interviewing authors and having contests to give away free, autographed copies of their books."

For teachers looking for alternative sources of free reading material, this could be very valuable.

Speaking of free reading material, I do not vouch for the legality or the permanence of this site, but it contains virtually all of the work of F. Scott Fitgerald, including that certain novel about that very rich person which many of us teach. It is Russian based, so it has all the texts in English and Russian, just in case you have an ESL student from Russia!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Whither teaching literature?

There's no point in disputing it -- reading from a digital device, especially an e-reader will not only replace paper school books, but for most subjects, it will be a far, far better way to deliver text. No longer will science and history teachers be forced to teach out of 20-year old texts, or have to update them with photocopied handouts. Publishers will provide regular updates, perhaps even during the school year. ("Leave your iPads with me tonight so we can run the updates.") Moreover, departments can switch textbooks rapidly when a new, better one comes out, although presumably publishers will require multi-year contracts, or at least, I would if I were a publisher. And let us hope that publishers will disable editing, so that the Texas Department of Education will not edit out offensive parts of US History or the theory of gravity (it is, after all, "only" a theory).

The question comes with the reading of literature. I am looking forward to being able to alter our reading lists with the click of a touchpad, rather than worrying about what books we have enough copies of in the bookroom, especially when I have three sections of the same course. I presume these new devices have better, more long-lasting batteries than our laptops. Henry James and Faulkner take some time to get through (no, I don't teach those authors in high school, but I do teach Shakespeare and Fitzgerald, neither of whom can be read the same way one reads The DaVinci Code). But even if the author is more readily readable, like a Steinbeck or a Vonnegut, a different order of reading is called for than for the absorption of text. The dichotomy used to be described as "lean forward" versus "lean back," although that terminology will probably fade as tablet devices become more common.

As this Smithsonian article describes, this is not the first time our relationship to text has changed drastically.
In ancient times, authors often dictated their books. Dictation sounded like an uninterrupted series of letters, so scribes wrote down the letters in one long continuous string, justastheyoccurinspeech. Text was written without spaces between words until the 11th century. This continuous script made books hard to read, so only a few people were accomplished at reading them aloud to others. Being able to read silently to yourself was considered an amazing talent.
Your grandchildren will probably think it weird that you used devices in which text was only available sequentially and it was non-searchable. (Hence the invention of the concordance.)

But a novelist or a short-story writer is not a journalist or a scholar. He is descended from the story-teller sitting at the edge of the fire, relating the tale of the great hunt of two springs ago, or of the ancient rivalry with the people on the other side of the great wood, or of the trip the warrior took to the land beyond the three hills. The story-teller does not want his story to be searched or cross-indexed or annotated or commented upon. He wants to stimulate emotion and imagination, not discussion and debate. Like it or not, story-telling is a top-down procedure. She tells, you listen. Maybe you ask, "What happened next?" but that is just a little ceremony designed to help whip up emotions among the audience. It is not really a challenge to the storyteller to come up with something different. Any parent of young children knows that the important thing about the story is that it must be EXACTLY THE SAME EVERY TIME. You cannot change the girl with fish in her socks to a boy with ferrets in his pants, or the magic grilled cheese sandwich into a magic Reuben. (You tell stories to kids your way and I'll tell them mine, alright?) Interactivity is NOT the point.

Not to mention that fireside. A place for contemplative reading is important. Yes, we do read books on buses and planes, but would we really chose to do so? My personal dream of a good place to read a book is under a maple solid enough to lean on in the early autumn, near a vigorous, but not too noisy, group of frisbee-tossers (including, hopefully, a talented Labrador or Spaniel). OK, that's a prettied-up picture of my own college days, but you get the idea. Reading a story is about being receptive for long periods of time, not being perpetually poised to respond, but giving the storyteller room to expand and explore on his tale.

All our oldest tales are sprawling, perhaps because they became add-on affairs. One storyteller picks up the story of Gilgamesh and Humbaba as mortal enemies, fighting to the death, and then, perhaps because of the temperament of his audience, or a desire for variety, or a desperate need to fill time or the perversity of his own nature, transformed it into a story of the enemies becoming bosom companions. (Side note -- the oldest written story in the West tells of enemies becoming friends, not the other way around. Is it because it is impossible to really know someone without coming to like something about them? One can only absolutely hate complete strangers.) And The Ramayana and The Mahabharata are ridiculous that way. They are so episodic and eventually, self-contradictory, that they can only have been created by a succession of story tellers, rather than a single source. They might be called the earliest iterations of fan fiction in civilization. But even fan fiction is not interactive. It says, "here is MY take on Star Trek/Lord of the Rings/Firefly. If you don't like mine, make your own."

So why do we like to tell and hear stories? It is hard to dispute that our greatest interest in life is ourselves. Stories tell us about other people. The inescapable conclusion is that we like to consider other people in order to compare and contrast them with ourselves. They are a way to add to our own storehouse of human experience without the possibility of difficult or painful consequences. I don't have to actually fight off the Sirens myself in order to learn how dangerous they are to me and to my family life. The agony of Sisyphus lets me know that my own sense of futility and frustration is not unique to me.

This would suggest that we are interested in facts for some other reason, to know how things "really are." But what use is it to know that Napoleon's invasion of Russia failed in 1812 in and of itself? These facts seem to be peculiar to this particular event, and that is as far as Hitler seemed to go in 1941. Hitler seems to have failed to use any analytical tools to understand why following roughly the same plan was likely to fail.

So why do I care? I have no intention of taking an invading army into Russia, and if I did, I wouldn't use an 1812 nor a 1941 army (nor would the Russians). I need to abstract the facts up to a higher elevation. If I am a military leader, I examine the topography and ordinance involved. If I am just a regular walking-around guy, I can take away the lesson that I don't embark on a difficult and dangerous task unless I am absolutely sure that I am completely prepared. I can draw a personal analogy between Napoleon's attempted invasion of Russia and, say, my desire to play in the NBA or date a super-model (I am hypothesizing a young, fit unattached version of myself here). I had damn well better be prepared.

So, the value of stories is their connection to myself and my experience. And the value of facts is their connection to myself and my experience. Data-based courses do this by analogy. Literature does it by metaphor. In either case, the essence of learning is comparing things to other things and finding the common points and the divergences. And the reason to absorb all these comparisons and contrasts is to inform our decision-making process. Essentially, all education is aimed at the way we make choices.

[What of the facts of math and science, you say? What do these have to do with life--other than the most quotidian use of arithmetic? The value of the facts derived in these disciplines is in the process rather than the facts. The facts in and of themselves are merely descriptors of the universe as we found out--they bear no lesson other than their own intractability (or tractability, as the case may be.) The means by which we arrive at scientific truth is a beautiful process, possessed of a pleasure akin to that of artistic creation. Physicist Richard Feynman called it The Pleasure of Finding Things Out. Not the pleasure of knowing the truth, but the pleasure of learning or deriving the truth. And the truth is arrived at independent of our prejudices and preferences. Moreover, each scientific truth points to the next one. Each must be tested and tried and each uncovers a new question. It is an unending pursuit--thus scientific truth and philosophical truth share the common ground of being endlessly unfinished. All of science bears the single lesson - don't be satisified, don't stop, never be certain you know.]

Then there is no reading, no learning, no story, no fact that we cannot at some level or in some way connect to ourselves and a lesson for our own existence. What does this have to do with the way this data arrives in our brain cells? As the Smithsonian article says,
Books were good at developing a contemplative mind. Screens encourage more utilitarian thinking. A new idea or unfamiliar fact will provoke a reflex to do something: to research the term, to query your screen “friends” for their opinions, to find alternative views, to create a bookmark, to interact with or tweet the thing rather than simply contemplate it. Book reading strengthened our analytical skills, encouraging us to pursue an observation all the way down to the footnote. Screen reading encourages rapid pattern-making, associating this idea with another, equipping us to deal with the thousands of new thoughts expressed every day. The screen rewards, and nurtures, thinking in real time. We review a movie while we watch it, we come up with an obscure fact in the middle of an argument, we read the owner’s manual of a gadget we spy in a store before we purchase it rather than after we get home and discover that it can’t do what we need it to do.
Perhaps it is only the velocity with which we react to what we read, simply a matter of how soon we begin the dialogue. Maybe literature itself will change. Perhaps we will see a great, epic, make-your-own adventure to be studied by students a hundred years hence. But as I wrote in my note on Cory Doctorow's novel Little Brother, while the author has invited active engagement with his novel, even encouraging remixes and fan fiction, he is not permitting readers to actually alter the book itself. The story is the story is the story, and we cannot turn time back to get the story un-told. It is and will continue to be, what it is. [I note that the non-fiction book I Live In The Future And Here's How It Works by Nick Bilton promises interactive extensions of the book online, but the actual book website merely provides links to purchase the text in its entirety, external links to review of the book and a space for reader comments. This is hardly a true enrichment of the text.]

Doubtless e-readers will change our relationship to text, but we don't know exactly how yet. I only know that I'm not yet ready to take an iPad to the bathroom.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Changing educational paradigms - Animated

I love Ken Robinson, but I also love what this artist did with this talk about changing the way we think about education as a whole.