Next week we will have a Socratic seminar that focuses on how we use and experience information through different media. Please read the following article and answer the
questions below in comments to this post. Feel
free to engage each other with questions and responses; I will chime in
1. What is Burkdall's thesis?
2. Given that students in our classes seem to be divided about e-readers (see comments here),
why do you think the media so eagerly concludes that reading books is
dead and young people all want new tech (with chips) instead of old tech
3. Explain the allusion to Ulysses.
4. What reasons does the article provide for the importance of reading? Do you agree? Why/why not?
How do you think this moment in history will be remembered? Will
technological advances continue to support intellectual development, as
it did with writing and the transition from scroll to codex, or is our
reliance on tools encouraging us to relax our brains to the point of
atrophy? Explain your answer.
6. [BONUS: What is the purpose of the allusion in the title?]
can read the article in its original online format--in which the
footnotes are properly formatted and easier to follow-- here.]
The Persistence of Writing
© 2009 Thomas Burkdall.
EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 44, no. 3 (May/June 2009): 58–59
Burkdall (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an Associate Professor in English Writing
and the Director of the Center for Academic Excellence at Occidental
College in Los Angeles.
An intellectual apocalypse may
be looming: Caleb Crain informs us that the "Twilight of the Books" is
upon us, whereas Steve Jobs tells us that the concept of Amazon's Kindle
is "flawed at the top because people don't read anymore."1 At the
Conference on College Composition and Communication in March 2009,
workshops focused on how to assess multimodal assignments, rather than
the traditional essay. And the Modern Language Association annual
convention in December 2008 opened with a panel on multimedia. Is
reading dead? Is the teaching of writing becoming a more difficult
exercise because of these mounting cultural pressures against reading
and writing? It appears that we might as well "stop the sea" (as Leopold
Bloom muses in Ulysses) as take up arms against the onslaught of
But instead of relying on the predictive
power of the Magic 8-Ball to respond "Outlook not so good" for writing,
perhaps we should choose "Ask again later" as a better response. Nancy
Bunge has noted: "Students realize that if they do not grapple with
difficult, abstract texts, they will miss an important dimension of
human learning and thinking."2 Does this comment represent the last gasp
of a moribund print culture? Is it the desperate hope of one whose
livelihood may be going the way of the farrier? Nay, let me borrow from
Mark Twain: the reports of the death of writing are greatly exaggerated.
me also be clear: I am not against teaching with multimedia, and on
many occasions I require my students to create a number of such
artifacts. But let us not discard print completely in favor of audio,
visual, and/or audiovisual creations. As Jonathan Swift suggested
centuries ago in his novel Gulliver's Travels (1726), a concrete
language is not enough. At the Academy of Lagado, Gulliver observes
scholars carrying bags of objects to avoid the ambiguity of words, yet
for abstract thought and expression, humans need the suppleness of
meaning that only words afford. And we need certain conditions to
appreciate or create such subtleties. As Crain suggests, some learning
requires solitary reading. He quotes Marcel Proust that to read is "to
receive a communication with another way of thinking, all the while
remaining alone, that is, while continuing to enjoy the intellectual
power that one has in solitude and that conversation dissipates
immediately."3 Writing, I would argue, further enhances learning, since
written communication demands a set of conditions and intellectual
skills different from those needed for speech or multimedia texts.
if multimedia expression will eventually dominate our intellectual
discourse—as it, arguably, has now come to dominate our popular
communication—the written word and its systems will continue to have an
influence on us. For although writing arose millennia ago, and movable
type has been around since at least the fifteenth century, and
inexpensive books have been common for most of the last 150 years, we
still rely on rhetorical elements that have roots in the Classical
world. Even if we reduce the longevity—in something analogous to Moore's
law—writing will not vanish for decades. It will have direct and
ancillary benefits, albeit in a multimodal universe.
does reading still matter? In the twenty-first century, the
contemplative and distinctly unimodal Proust has assumed a leading role
in defenses of reading and in laments about its possible demise. Both
Crain and Bunge cite his introduction to a 1906 translation of John
Ruskin's Sesame and Lilies; they were led to it, in all likelihood, by
Maryanne Wolf's Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the
Reading Brain.4 They extract pithy remarks from Proust's remembrance of
books read, later published as On Reading, such as: "I believe that
reading, in its original essence, . . . [is] that fertile miracle of a
communication effected in solitude."5 Reading allows both contemplation
and discourse, offering isolation and community. More important, reading
and writing have altered us and continue so to do. Walter Ong
maintains: "Without writing, the literate mind would not and could not
think as it does. . . . More than any other single invention, writing
has transformed human consciousness."6 Or, like Jack Goody, one may
regard writing to be "a technology of the intellect."7 The human race
would be in a very different state of development without the invention
and techniques of the written word. And a very precise tool writing can
be. Ong argues: "Written words sharpen analysis, for the individual
words are called on to do more. To make yourself clear without gesture,
without facial expression, without intonation, without a real hearer,
you have to foresee circumspectly all possible meanings a statement may
have for any possible reader in any possible situation, and you have to
make your language work so as to come clear all by itself."8 Are we
ready to abandon entirely this extraordinary tool that encourages such
attempts at accuracy?
Certainly, reading can be the
conversation across time envisioned by many, including René Descartes,
John Ruskin, and Kenneth Burke, but John Sturrock, in his preface to On
Reading, points out that Proust is a particular type of reader: a
writer—in many ways, the type of writer we want students to become, for
"reading should be an 'incitement,' a unique means of prompting the
reader to, in the strongest sense of the phrase, 'think for himself.'
The Proustian reader is made more, not less alert to the activity of his
own mind by reading."9 Ideally, we hope students will join these
conversations and engage in the critical thinking that both reading and
writing nurture. Neither reading nor writing should be practiced only by
the elite—with the former becoming "an increasingly arcane hobby" as
some sociologists predict, according to Crain10—unless we wish to cede
our responsibilities in a democratic society. Furthermore, having
students write substantive prose requires them to live with the writing
of others for a while (granted, often not as long as we might fervently
hope). Thus, writing should continue to be taught in colleges and
universities for both intellectual and political reasons.
what if this battle is lost, and no one is asked to read and write
anymore? Should we then padlock all the English departments in all the
colleges and universities in all the world? Perhaps, but don't put the
rhetoricians behind bars, for they have much to offer the multimodal
students, since the five canons or precepts of rhetoric—invention,
arrangement, style, delivery, and memory—still apply. Just as writers
(and writing teachers) have adapted these principles from oral to
written expression, so might we consider how they function in a
multimodal world. Invention, arrangement, and style easily make the
transition to multimedia. Discovering what to say, how to put the pieces
together, and how to present them transfers readily to multimedia work.
With delivery, the means to persuade moves from tone of voice to
choosing audio or audiovisual presentation and effects. How one may best
convince an audience expands dramatically as our capabilities to make
audible and visible arguments are enhanced by technology. Memory, on the
other hand, may no longer have the importance it once did, since
extended oration more often than not necessitates a teleprompter.
Certainly memory preoccupies us in terms of kilobytes on a computer disk
drive. Perhaps, more significantly, memory may be regarded in terms of
what it evokes. In our post-modern, mashup, remix culture, few produced
texts—in any form—avoid becoming a bricolage of memories and meanings.
Mikhail Bakhtin's heteroglossia, the polyphonous text, can exist on many
levels in an audio essay or in a multimedia narrative. Adding a song,
using a particular tone of voice, or applying a special effect may all
communicate a message simultaneously.
Of course, even
without resurrecting the spirits of Aristotle and Cicero, writing has a
place in teaching forms of new media. Few of us can make a compelling
point in an audio essay or create a voice-over for a short film without
first generating a script. Having students create both written and
multimedia texts allows them to contrast the effects of their words in a
variety of situations. They begin to understand register, diction, and
transitions in a new way when they deploy these techniques in different
types of media. Multimodal expression should encourage the use of a
variety of abilities.
Rather than banishing writing or
lamenting the development of multimedia, as Socrates famously deplored
the introduction of writing, let us teach both writing and multimedia.
Each has distinct purposes and effects that students will discover as
they explore their expressive and analytic potential. In her conclusion
to Proust and the Squid, Wolf argues for such a "both/and" approach:
"The analytical, inferential, perspective-taking, reading brain with all
its capacity for human consciousness, and the nimble, multifunctional,
multimodal, information-integrative capacities of a digital mind-set do
not need to inhabit exclusive realms. Many of our children learn to
code-switch between two or more oral languages, and we can teach them
also to switch between different presentations of written language and
different modes of analysis."11 Let us lead—an etymological root of
educate—students to such richness of expression.
Caleb Crain, "Twilight of the Books: What Will Life Be Like If People Stop Reading?" New Yorker, December 24, 2007, ; Jobs quoted in John Markoff, "The Passion of Steve Jobs," New York Times, January 15, 2008, .
Nancy Bunge, "Assign Books, and Students Will Read," Chronicle of Higher Education, October 17, 2008, p. 24.
Crain, "Twilight of the Books."
Maryanne Wolf, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain (New York: HarperCollins, 2007).
Marcel Proust, On Reading, preface and translation by John Sturrock (London: Penguin, 1994), p. 27.
Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (London: Methuen, 1982), p. 78.
Jack Goody, The Power of the Written Tradition (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000), p. 133.
Ong, Orality and Literacy, p. 104.
Sturrock, preface to Proust, On Reading, p. vii.
Crain, "Twilight of the Books."
Wolf, Proust and the Squid, pp. 228–29.