Monday, May 2, 2011

Traditional Literary Study Breaks Down in the Digital Age

As an English professor who has been teaching students the analysis of literary works for a couple of decades, I am very interested in the process of reading. I value books of all kinds, but especially works of a more literary nature, and I have a real investment in using (and teaching) ways of reading that are substantial. We literary types are all about close, careful readings. We teach literary theories that help to plumb the depths of content, and we comb carefully through the formal qualities that give works clarity and aesthetic texture.

That's all for the good, but the way that literature is taught in the traditional classroom is breaking down in the digital age. What's served generations well is not serving the present generation. I'd like to shine the spotlight on these weaknesses by talking here about typical classroom practice for literary studies.

In classroom practice, we literature professors follow a very established pattern: we assign lengthy readings that require intense discipline on the part of our students (merely to complete the reading assignments); then, we assign formal essays that require the application of literary theories and methods of formal analysis. As our students create arguments about the literary works they study, they acquire a valued kind of literacy that we hope is a transferable skill beyond merely saying something about Shakespeare.

I'd like to analyze this from the point of view of CONSUME, CREATE, and CONNECT, the three principles I believe we need to understand for digital literacy today.

The traditional model for how students consume content is an authoritative and exclusive one. In short, "you read what I tell you to read and nothing else." Reading is often aligned with ideas of individuality and independence, but as students move into college self-directed reading is a luxury few can afford. Part of the seriousness of college is measured by how completely students' minds are consumed by the directed curriculum and its heavy reading load. It is an exclusive curriculum both in the sense of pushing to the side individual reading, but also in the sense of isolating students. Traditional book learning uses a private consumption model. This is as true of the teacher as it is of the student; the papers that students write may be artificially directed to a generally educated audience, but in reality they have an audience of one.

In the traditional model, students create meaning or content either very informally, in classroom discussion, or else very formally, when being examined or when writing and submitting formal analytical essays or research papers. Any social interaction is typically only lightly evaluated as some kind of participation grade, with the substantial measurement of scholarly achievement taking place through the exams and papers. Moreover, at least within a typical literature-based program, students are merely creating texts. They do not create media, nor even add an illustration to their research papers. Moreover, the type of text they create are not creative, but critical. They are writing abstract, philosophical arguments and not creating aesthetic objects. Their own voice is effaced, as their detached and abstract arguments are foregrounded. And creation is rarely collaborative in nature. Individuals consume their literary works in isolation, and they create their critical essays in isolation, which are then read and evaluated in isolation.

The only connections that are sought within traditional literary studies are intertextual in nature, not actually social. While students might discuss literature in class or in study groups, this is always seen as a minor and secondary activity leading to the more substantial work of literary analysis and writing. Students doing research are encouraged to connect ideas, and to connect meaningfully with a record of past publications. But they do not connect with others who are currently researching similar topics either locally or more broadly. And even if students write something that is in response to or is somehow about current conditions, no effort is made for students to actually connect their incisive paper about the dangers of racism, say, to actual current problems in society. The "connection" is always an abstract, attenuated one, working on the assumption that while students are in school they must remain disconnected from real-world engagement (even while studying or commenting upon real-world issues).

Obviously I am leading up to some strong criticism of the established method here, precisely because traditional approaches to teaching literature are flying in the face of the best intellectual and social methods that are evolving from the new media. I will address these more explicitly in future posts. For now, what do you think? Are these generalizations true about traditional studies of literature (from your experience)? What am I leaving out? Can you give examples?

1 comment:

  1. I'd love to hear more! Our reading load has been trimmed to be able to have them choose books they want to read. Our reading responses and essays are posted on-line to encourage peer feedback. When students request creative projects as a response to literature, time is given. And of course, we discuss texts in small groups and whole class, not just for an eye to literary elements and devices that is part of the craft, but also the human questions that rise from the dilemmas and conflicts characters face. These are connected to their own experiences and that of the world around them--past and present.

    Still, I'd like to have other ideas for managing the analysis--as you suggest--a creation of sorts could happen, something that includes digital media, but isn't just superficial treatment. I'm not interested in just glorified book reports, but a way to synthesize the old and the new, the classic and the contemporary. Any ideas?