Why be an English teacher in the digital age?

This is a question that has been with me for some time now. Really – why be a High School English teacher in a culture where even ‘educated’ adults rarely read in any linear, sustained way and technology increasingly takes the labour out of literacy?

In ever more strident tones, I am being exhorted to ‘go digital’ in my teaching and texts and be ‘relevant’ and ‘engaging’ to my digital native students. Time after time I go to professional development where the argument is more or less, “The kids are digital, so should you be.”

A colleague recently returned from some professional development to tell me that the latest research suggests that the average number of hours teenagers are spending online is 85 per week and that their favourite search engine is no longer Google, but YouTube. In other words, information that cannot be rendered in a visual format is becoming invisible to this generation. Again, the message to educators was, ‘Adapt or die – you must digitise your teaching.”

But I think there has to be more to it than that. It is more than simply a question of being where they are – online, skipping and clicking amongst the info-bits. Sure, I use a computer all day long in my work. I manage a class wiki for curriculum content for each of my classes and get students to use video and graphics in their work. I use a variety of media in my teaching and include visual literacy in activities and assessment. I have even learned how to podcast. Since embarking on a Master’s degree in Teacher Librarianship I have begun teaching how to research using online sources – how to get good results with carefully framed search terms and how to use subscription-only services that deliver quality content.

But there is a sensation of standing on a cliff-edge while the tide of change slowly erodes the ground beneath my feet. It feels as if, sooner or later, the very foundations of the discipline I teach will crumble into the sea: careful deep reading; devoting attention to a single text and allowing oneself to be absorbed in it; working to construe meaning beyond the surface information given; grappling with the complexities of human existence as explored in complex texts; a focus on craft and art in language to convey subtle and multi-layered ideas; coming up with your own ‘take’ on the information, and developing an individuated, inquiring and well-rounded mind fed from great literature both from the past and contemporary writers. Already, these ideals sound quaint, particularly to my students, for many of whom the only question is, “How can I get this task done quickly?”

I recognise the need to incorporate new, digital literacies into the English (and other) curriculums. We cannot tell ourselves, as educators, that we are preparing students well if we ignore the fundamental shifts in the way we read, communicate and manage our work in an interconnected, online world.

And yet there seems to be an assumption in much of the discussion about technology in the classroom that this is an ‘add-on’ – that we are simply finding more relevant, engaging ways of delivering the same content and conveying the same habits of mind that have been inherent in our discipline. I think this is fundamentally untrue. I think the challenges go deeper than this – they go to the very heart of what it is, wrapped up inside our subject’s content, that we are trying to teach.

Reading Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows: How the internet is changing the way we think, read and remember (2010) clarified for me the source of my unease, my sense that most of the discussion around technology in the classroom was avoiding confronting some of the main issues. It’s not enough to say, “The kids are digital, so should you be.” We need to discuss what lies at the heart of our academic disciplines as their ‘intellectual ethic’, “a set of assumptions about how the human mind works or should work” (Carr, 45). Academic and technical disciplines have evolved to codify and organise existing human knowledge as well as the maintenance and growth of that knowledge. They put a premium on certain ways of knowing – reasoning, evidence, language, problem solving, creativity, practical ‘know how’ – and they institute teaching practices that convey, often implicitly, this valuing of certain ways of thinking.

We need discuss our subject’s ‘intellectual ethic’ because in changing the media we use in the classroom, we are not just switching to a newer, more relevant, more engaging way of teaching the same stuff. As Carr points out, from Marshall McLuhan onwards, media theorists have been emphasising that when you change the medium, you change the content. What’s more, you change the very parameters of what it’s possible to focus on, what kinds of thought are encouraged, what kinds of messages and information can be conveyed, and what kinds of subjectivity and identity are produced.

Studies in brain plasticity have found that the technologies we use inevitably have an impact on our own ‘intellectual ethic’. What Carr found, and what both scientific research and anecdotal evidence suggests, is that by engaging with new communications and information technologies, we are not just handling the same content as we did when we just read books or studied rhetoric. We train our brains to adopt a style of thinking that mimics the technologies we use, “Calm, focused, undistracted, the linear mind is being pushed aside by a new kind of mind that wants and needs to take in and dole out information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts – the faster the better” (Carr, 10).

When I teach English Literature using new communications technologies, or when I train to be a twenty-first century librarian, what intellectual ethic am I embodying – and is this ethic compatible with the aims and objectives of what we think of as an educated mind? Or do our definitions of literacy and being educated need to be revised to address current conditions?

Two anecdotes:

 

Earlier this year I took a middle years class to the school library reading room. This has been a core feature of being an English teacher since year dot – you take your class to the library and provide opportunities for free voluntary reading and choice in text selection. You do this because one of the greatest predictors of a child’s success at acquiring higher level literacy is whether or not they engage in free voluntary reading in a regular, sustained way and this is linked to their exposure to books. Just exposure to books makes a difference. So it’s part of your job – you take them, you set them loose among the shelves to browse, they find books to borrow and meanwhile you supervise and model silent, sustained reading yourself by having taken a book you are reading with you.

For the ten years I have been teaching High School English most students take a long while to settle to the library environment, to commit to browsing and find a book that interests them. About a quarter bring a book with them and settle to reading fairly quickly, and a small minority dodge the reading thing altogether, at best sitting with a magazine and pretending to read. However, the last ten or fifteen minutes were, in the past, characterised by a quiet hush as, finally, a critical mass of students in the class commit their attention to the text in front of them and let the spell be cast.

This happens less and less. There is still the ‘hardcore’ minority of readers who come armed with the novel they have on the go, or who browse purposefully and find something that interests them. But a gulf now lies between them and everyone else. And everyone else, as far as I can see, cannot read in the linear, literary sense of that word.

I watched my class – any thought of having time to model silent reading abandoned – as all but the half dozen ‘hardcore’ readers cast their eyes cursorily over some pages, started a conversation, fiddled with the furnishings, wandered aimlessly among the shelves, went to the toilet, came back, picked up a magazine, turned a few pages, tossed it aside, sighed, and then asked to use their computer. They never make it to the point where they can read for fifteen minutes.

And here is my dilemma – there is enough research to suggest that their constant use of computers and smart phones is precisely what is eroding their ability to commit their attention to a single page of text. The hyper-linked environment of the online world with its endless stream of text-snippets excites our love of novelty and is very convenient; but, used as much as it is by many young people, it eats into the ability to sustain attention, work through a line of thought to its end, to enjoy and savour complexity in language and ideas. But in asking them to leave their computers behind when we go to the reading room, am I condemning the reading program to irrelevancy?

Books such as that by Nicholas Carr and Maggie Jackson’s Distracted (2009) have given us a comprehensive survey of the neuropsychological research into how our brains and attention are being rewired by the cognitive hyperactivity of new media. While watching these kids there is the distinct feeling that this is a change that it is futile to resist. And yet, in an educational environment where being digital has become a pedagogical imperative – including in the library — where is the space and time to counter-balance these distracted tendencies? Even if we ‘go digital’ in our teaching and learning, from where have students developed the methods of focus, attentiveness, and top-down executive cognitive control to develop their own interpretation and synthesis of information, digital or otherwise? From where do these ultimate aims of information literacy come from, if not from these more traditional literacy forms?

As far as I could tell, my students were, on the whole, not avoiding reading simply out of resistance to the institutional practices they associate it with (although there are always a few for whom reading is uncool). They simply could not settle their minds to the page and the quiet required to read deeply. They could not do it then, and, if their writing and vocabulary are any indication of their exposure to more than the text-snippets of the online world, they do not do it ever.

The question is – does it matter?

Another anecdote:

I also teach a Year 12 International Baccalaureate class in English. Some weeks ago we were closely analysing the ‘Banquet Scene’ in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. This is the scene in which Banquo’s ghost appears to an appalled Macbeth, who has ordered his best friend’s murder. We had an amazing discussion – -students posed ideas such as that Banquo was representative of Macbeth’s conscience and that the tragic hero has tried to ‘murder’ his conscience, his friendship, and hence his older, better self in order to pursue power. We talked about how this sets up Macbeth as a tragic hero, despite his being a monster, and how this scene linked to the famous ‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow and tomorrow’ soliloquy near the play’s close as Macbeth realises the futility of his actions and how, in the pursuit of power, he has lost everything actually worth having in life, such as true friendship.

Towards the end of the class, one of the students looked up at me and said, “I feel so lucky, that we get to study this. I feel so sad for the students who don’t get to do this.” We talked about the ‘information’ we get from studying Macbeth and other works of literature. ‘Not everything is in books,’ quipped one student, to which I could not but agree. She is right. But there is something, some knowledge that is developed in the students as they grapple with such a dark and resonant text.

This knowledge, and the ‘intellectual ethic’ built into its slow, arduous acquisition, is something very nourishing; I even believe that it helps us live a better, more meaningful life. I think this was what my student was getting at when she said she felt ‘lucky’ to be studying it. Was this student a bookish recluse? Hardly. She, and her peers in the class, all use smartphones and the internet a great deal – including in class. But they use it somewhat differently to many of their easily distractible peers. They use ICTs purposefully, combined with stretches of committing their attention to a single text or task. Are students like these the key to showing us how to retain the heritage of the linear, print-culture mind while adopting new technologies and new ways of thinking? And yet, why are they so in the minority, and will even students like them disappear? And again, will that even matter?

I think it does – something is lost if we lose the capacities and knowledge built by the study of texts like Macbeth. The tragedy and significance that burnishes human life in Shakespeare conveys to students that individuals matter, but that life is irresolvably complicated. It also states that we are not free of our human predicaments, but we are compelled to try to solve them nonetheless, sometimes erring in our efforts, and therein lies the meaning of existence.

I have to ask if it is possible to infuse this old ‘intellectual ethic’ of deep reading and an individually constructed interpretation of the text in a classroom increasingly shaped by a digital ethic of speed, interconnectivity, multitasking, and shallow, bricolage learning. If I repackage the text in new ways to compensate for the fact that many students can no longer read it, what of its original content remains, and what is utterly changed by the shift in medium? One can be an English teacher in the digital age, but what does this mean now? What intellectual ethic are we really able to impart?

References:

Carr, Nicholas. (2010). The Shallows: How the internet is changing the way we think, read and remember. London: Atlantic Books.

Jackson, Maggie. (2009). Distracted: The erosion of attention and the coming dark age. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books.

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3 thoughts on “Why be an English teacher in the digital age?

  1. A very timely and intelligent essay on English teaching in the digital age. The concerns it expresses about certain habits of mind being culled due to other mental skills being privileged by the technology strikes at the very heart of the English teacher’s dilemma: how to inculcate the desire in students to engage in complicated pleasures in an age where convenience is the new idol? I think that your ‘Macbeth’ anecdote proves there will always be those for whom the old mind maintains its prestige because texts such as ‘Macbeth’ will always maintain its mystique, as long as we keep exposing students to them and to the skills of deep analysis. I imagine that the task may become harder still as technology changes the model of human cognition further with each new development, and so we will have to become increaingly persuasive as to the benefits of patient and detailed sustained focus.

    1. Thanks Malcolm. I think we English teachers are in for a lot of turbulence and soul-searching. We need a full discussion about what the intellectual ethos of our subject is. We also need to meet head-on the fact that any changes in technologies of literacy change the very forms of cognition and literacy that are valued. I want to use many of the new tools, but the argument that we should do so just because they exist is not persuasive to me on its own. Since when was teaching — especially English teaching — about merely getting students to adapt to the intelelctual and technological status quo? Rhetoric, linear print and taxonomies are technologies of knowledge that have built a civilisation — but they have critical and reflective thinking at their heart. I know I am preaching to the choir here! Thanks : )

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