Technology, Writing, and Humanities Education

This is a set of links I have been collecting for a while. They all relate technology to either writing, humanities education, or both. Diana and I have been having a conversation about technology, writing pedagogy, and more general humanities concerns for weeks now.

I am still at the point of trying to separate what we actually know about this stuff from what we simply think we know. This post is a sort of annotated bibliography to help me figure out where to go next.

Here is an article from 2001 by Marc Prensky explaining the idea of Digital Immigrants .vs Digital Natives. The metaphor can be problematic, but I’ve found it very useful to understanding generational differences in the way people relate to technology.

I have also been looking at a more recent article by Nancy K. Herther, “Digital Natives and Immigrants: What Brain Research Tells Us.” It was published in the Nov./Dec., 2009 issue of Online. I haven’t been able to locate a copy to hyperlink, but it is a fascinating read, and it includes a good bibliography. You can read the abstract here, and I have a fair-use copy I can email you if you want to read it.

The Chronicle of Higher Education published an article last month about how to give Liberal Arts graduates better career opportunities.  This part is worth emphasizing here:

For several years now, I have been meeting with the center’s faculty members, students, and internship directors to learn what they are hearing from employers about our students. Again and again they hear potential employers say things like, “We like liberal-arts graduates. They are curious and creative, they write well, they can do research, they are quick learners, and they are good critical thinkers.” The best of them have the “ability to synthesize and distill large amounts of information.” And “we especially need individuals who are good storytellers—who can convey the mission of our organization in a variety of forms.”

All good so far. We liberal-arts faculty members pride ourselves on graduates who have those qualities and who can do those things. But employers also have other, more specific and immediate needs: “What we ­really want right now is someone who can build and maintain our website and publicize our work appropriately using social media. We want graduates who can generate content, of course, but they also need some technical skills. And most of the time we can only hire one person. Do you have anyone like that?”

“We want liberal-arts graduates who are not digitally challenged,” one museum director said.

The presidents of Stanford and the University of Michigan published an editorial in the Washington Post the same week arguing that the United States is in danger of marginalizing the humanities in higher education, and a long list of important skills along with it. They emphasize the importance of interdisciplinary education and conclude:

The crucial issue is not whether a student will be a “science and technology person” or a “humanities and social sciences person,” or whether one or the other is more important to preserving the United States’ global standing and maximizing a student’s job prospects. The critical issue is that a person needs both types of skills and knowledge to innovate and lead in a rapidly changing world.

The Arendt Center has a discussion of a recent open letter by Nobel Laureate J.M. Coetzee on threats to the humanities and the importance of defending them. He is not optimistic about the state of the university as incubator of independent thought because he believes people at all levels of higher education have lost sight of the value of the humanities, which is bad enough. This only makes the situation seem more dire:

We also find this same loss of belief in the humanities in the ever-increasing talk about using the humanities to teach basic literacy or critical thinking “skills”, in the parlance of recent jargon that dominates committees discussing educational reform. Here is Coetzee:

Even if we grant that critical literacy is as important as you claim, do students really need to know about Hesiod and Petrarch, about Francis Bacon and Jean-Paul Sartre, about the Boxer Rebellion and the Thirty Years War, to attain a sufficient competence in such literacy? Can you not simply design a pair of one­-semester courses – courses in which all undergraduates, no matter what their career track, will be required to enroll – one course to be entitled “Reading and Writing”, in which students will be trained to dissect arguments and write good expository prose; and the other to be entitled “Great Ideas”, in which they will be briefed on the main currents of world thought from Ancient Egypt to the present? A pair of courses like that will not require an entire faculty of humanities behind them, merely a school of critical literacy staffed with bright young instructors.

In other words, to argue that what students need are simply skills is to abandon any actual defense of the humanities. While skills can be taught through the humanities, they can likely be taught as well and more cheaply in other ways. Attempts to defend the humanities because they inculcate useful skills does not and cannot defend the humanities themselves. Whether those skills are themselves useful is an open question; the bigger question is whether there are easier ways to acquire those skills then spending years reading and writing about old books.

The thought of adding critical literacy components to the core along the lines of the courses Coetzee describes has occurred to me, but I was thinking of them as courses that would teach students basic things they need to know before taking the rest of their humanities courses. I never thought of using critical literacy courses to replace humanities requirements, but I can certainly see it happening. Doing it that way looks more efficient and can be easily spun as an innovation.

I am not sure what this all means, or where it leads, but I think it is important to pay attention to this stuff, because it has to be influencing the evolution of higher education and some other long-term social trends. Just ignoring it, or leaving it to a small group of experts does not seem like the best way of dealing with it.

Here is one other link, to a New York Times article about an experiment which involves a writer having his brainwave activity monitored while he composes a novella. Once it is published, a group of readers will also have their brains monitored while they read the novella for the first time. The goal of the experiment is to compare the brain scans to see whether or not the readers experience the same or similar emotions that the writer experienced while composing specific parts of the text.

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