Thursday, June 21, 2012

In Praise of Textbook Publishing and the Mutilated World

Today is the birthday of Adam Zagajewski, born in 1945.  When I teach his poem, "Try to Praise the Mutilated World," I remind/teach my students of the historical events happening in 1945.  We talk about what it would be like to be a poet in Poland during the post-World War II part of the 20th century.  We talk about Communism and Iron Curtains.  It's beginning to feel like very ancient history.

The poem, however, still works beautifully.  You can read it here.  I love to use it to teach imagery and symbolism and how ambiguous it can all be--and how clear.

I've seen this poem broken into stanzas:  a stanza break after each line that mentions the mutilated world.  Interesting to think about how our lives have changed.  I've seen it broken into stanzas in print, in English 102 textbooks.

Now I'm more likely to learn about poets through reading blogs.  But once, not so long ago, I found out about poets because they appeared in anthologies.  I'd fall in love with a poem, teach the poem, and begin my research about the poet.  That research often involved going to the library to see what they had.  Ah, the days before the current incarnation of our Internet!

Now, like the rest of the literate, plugged-in world, I Google.  I zip from site to site.  If I find a poem that's got errors, how will I know?  I may not.

But I'm not here to lament the loss of that information.  I'm glad that more people have more access to poems.  I've been lucky in my access to good public libraries and good libraries connected to universities and libraries that can order me materials.  Most people are not so lucky.

Yesterday I met with some textbook publisher traveling reps, another moment where I thought about old media and new media and how life is changing.  I don't see book reps like I once did.  We talked about the ways that textbook publishing is changing, with eBooks and all sorts of other innovations coming at us.

The national book rep talked about new technology that they're developing.  It's so much more than an eBook, she said.  It's an eBook, but I can customize it, by putting in my own lectures (filmed by whom, I wonder) and links and such.  In the end, I've practically created an online course!

As a faculty member, this idea strikes terror in my heart, I said.  They looked at me and said, "Why?"

I said, "Well, what's to stop a school, then, from saying, 'Hey, thanks for creating this online course for us.  We won't be needing your teaching skills anymore.  But we'd be happy to pay you $10 an hour to grade all the papers.'"

One woman said, "Oh, I don't think a school would really do that, do you?"

But she said it with the same kind of hoping-against-hope tone in her voice that people get when they talk about global warming:  "It won't really get that bad, will it?  Some glaciers will melt, but not all of them, right?"

Oh, how I hate to disabuse the young in their hopefulness.  But I did.  I said, "Yes, I do think schools would do that.  I don't think it's much of a stretch to imagine at all."

And then we talked about the future of online courses and onground teaching and shook our heads over how much has changed and the pace of that change.  We talked about all the developments, both good and bad, that we never saw coming.

We talked about how we've tried to adapt.  But we admitted that it's tough to adapt when the environment changes so quickly and we're not sure where we're all headed.

In these kind of times, it's good to return to the poetry of Adam Zagajewski.  I tend to make the mistake of thinking that we're the first generation who has ever had to make these kind of adaptations, but of course, that's wrong.

Yesterday, my spouse and I watched Lonesome Dove, again.  We watched those 19th century cowboys driving the herd north and not for the first time, I thought about how quickly that landscape was to change.  Likewise with the 20th century:  the pace of change could be dizzying.

I suspect that at some point we'll look back at the dead ends of our own time period, and we'll shake our heads over how we got all worked up over the wrong things.  I suspect that e-textbooks will be one of those dead ends, a cultural artifact that some people will have spent a lot of time developing, only to see some newer something eclipse it.  I suspect that publishers will never make back their money on these efforts.

I worry that we may say the same thing over all of higher education.  The kerfuffle at UVa doesn't make me hopeful.

But I've been in despair before, only to see history make a turn towards brightness.  I love the way that Zagajewski closes his poem:

"Praise the mutilated world

and the grey feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns."

May the light continue to return!

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