Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Technology and the Future of the English Department

Yesterday at work, our student records system, CARS, quit sending documents to the printer.  For reasons I don't fully understand, a CARS issue requires a call to the Corporate IT people.  So, I called.

The IT people have always been very kind when I call.  Yesterday was no exception.  As we waited for the computer on his end to do its thing, I heard the IT guy mutter, "Come on, come on."  And then he said, "Why does CARS hate me?"

I had to laugh.  You mean it's not just me who feels undone by technology?

My issue turned out to be a simple one to fix.  But the larger issues will linger longer.

I thought of tech issues again as I read this article by Marc Bousquet, in part about the various reactions of English departments to technology and new media.  Some departments remain committed to classic texts and a classic approach to literature.  Many more have trained their grad students to be able to teach Composition and Rhetoric.  And some have glimpsed the future and begun to talk about all the sorts of electronic texts which have become part of our lives.

It doesn't take a careful reading of that paragraph to get a sense of my opinion.  I was a classically trained English major and grad student.  I'm glad I was forced to wrestle with those texts.  But I think we do our students no favors if we train them in the way I was trained.  Most of them are not going on to graduate work in literature the way my favorite professors understood that term.

And let me pause to admit that this argument about what deserves more attention, classic texts or electronic texts, is a luxury in many English departments.  Many English departments spend much of their time trying to figure out how to bring students up to a basic level of literacy.

You might assume that everyone who graduates from high school can be assumed to have that basic level of literacy, but sadly, many students do not.  And some state legislatures, like ours in Florida, have decided that state supported schools of higher ed shouldn't teach remedial skills.  This kind of decision makes the Composition classroom even more challenging than it has been in the past.

Most Composition teachers have always dealt with students who have a wide variety of skill levels.  Now that width is even broader.

What role will "new media" play?  What role will "old media" play?  Stay tuned.  It's going to be very interesting. 

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