discovery and creation and… lies!

I’ve never really understood the whole pirate thing. Talk like a pirate day can come and go without my noticing, and despite the presence of Johnny Depp, I didn’t make it through the whole Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy.

So even if I had seen the mentions of the Last American Pirate hoax on the blogs I read all the time, I’m not sure that I would have bothered to follow the links. But maybe I would have. This story does combine two of my favorite things – scholarly uses of social media and history. Still, amidst holiday preparations and Oregon-style snowapocalypses I totally missed the initial stories on the topic.

Which is relevant in that I’m not a disgruntled blog reader feeling taken in. I was not personally hurt in any way by the deliberate historical hoax created by the students of History 389 at George Mason University last term.

And yet.  I keep thinking about it and I’m not sure I can really articulate why.

So, quick recap.  Professor Mills Kelly of eduwired.org fame taught a class on historical hoaxes last term.  Early in the term, he gave advance notice that his class would be perpetuating their own historical hoax.  The class created a fake story about the search for the Last American Pirate, a guy named Edward Owens.  The search was chronicled by fake student Jane on this fake blog, discussed in these fake interviews on YouTube, and finally reported as fact in this fake Wikipedia article.  Some people were taken in by said hoax, most notably a pop culture blogger at USA Today.  Kelly reportedly pulled the plug on the hoax when some of his real-world colleagues were taken in and the whole thing was revealed in the December 19th  Chronicle of Higher Education in an article only found behind the paywall.

So why do I keep thinking about it?  There has been a fair amount of discussion about it, some I really like.  Some talking about things I really don’t care about.  There are some people that love the experiment.  I’m not really moved by any of those arguments.   They seem to be mostly focused on the idea that kids today can’t get into traditional historical research, so this is a good, creative alternative.

The criticisms i find most compelling are found here, where Michael Feldstein explains why vandalising Wikipedia for the sake of a lesson is uncool and here in the comments on Dr. Kelly’s reveal post.  Commenter Martha, in particular, talks about the impact of this kind of project on trust networks.  Given that trust networks are, I think, a crucial part of meaningful information evaluation on the social web and thus a tool any information literate student should know how to use in this context, an assignment that deliberately devalues and damages those networks strikes me as problematic, even if there is some small benefit on the cautionary tale scale.

But that’s not what I keep thinking about except in a tangential way.  No, what’s got me thinking is what this project means for teaching information literacy and research — first in terms of the evaluation skills that are an overt, intended outcome articulated in the syllabus but also, and more deeply, in terms of research itself – why we do it and why we want students to do it.   These are, I suspect, related, but I’m not sure how.  Maybe if I write about it they’ll come together.  Maybe this will be in two parts.

Dr. Kelly says at the top that he is hoping for an information-literacy, information evaluation benefit to this assignment.

I’m hoping that this will mean that my students dig in and do some excellent historical research. I’m also hoping that they’ll learn a number of technical skills, will learn to work in a group, and will develop greater “information literacy” as we like to call it here. And, of course, I’m hoping they’ll have fun.

Specifically (from the syllabus – opens in PDF):

I do have some specific learning goals for this course. I hope that you’ll improve your research and analytical skills and that you’ll become a much better consumer of historical information. I hope you’ll become more skeptical without becoming too skeptical for your own good. I hope you’ll learn some new skills in the digital realm that can translate to other courses you take or to your eventual career. And, I hope you’ll be at least a little sneakier than you were before you started the course.

So the quick issue I have with this is that I just don’t see where the information literacy skills here translate into what most students need in their real work with online information sources.  Increasingly, I just think that a focus on deliberate hoaxes isn’t a very good way to teach students how to evaluate information.

Now I get that the work done to create the hoax might give the students in this class a greater appreciation for stuff that could make them more information literate, and that knowing specifically what they did to create a fake site might give them some stuff to look for in other sites, but I don’t really see the larger benefit here beyond the reminder that stuff on the Internet can be fake and I honestly don’t think that our students don’t know that full well already.

Because here’s the first thing – helping students learn that there is stuff on the wild, wild web that was put there just to trick them,  to punk them or to prank them – well, there’s not a lot of value in that.  The punker or the pranker will either be really good at it, in which case all of the abstract stuff we might teach them about how to identify bad information won’t help them because the good pranker isn’t going to do any of that stuff.  Or, and this is more likely, the prank won’t be all that good.  And our students – I really think they’re very able to identify the obvious crap that exists online.

They don’t need help identifying stuff that is fake or wrong just for the sake of being fake or wrong because there’s not a ton of stuff like that out there.  Honestly, our ability to identify stuff that exists for no other reason than to trick us is not a real-world problem that keeps me up at night. Most people who put fake or wrong or misleading information out there on the Internet have an agenda beyond April Fool’s – they’re trying to do more than trick us and what our students need is help identifying those agendas. They need help identifying the information that isn’t flat out lies, but that is a particular kind of truth.

There’s not a lot of historical information TO evaluate on the pieces of this hoax that are available to the public – the blog talks a a lot (I mean, a LOT) about how painful and difficult research in archives and mircofilm collections is – but the details about the sources themselves are pretty light.  Most sources are presented as transcripts  (“once I found the articles, there was no way to get a copy of them, apparently the machine is broken, so I had to transcribe them by hand,” that kind of thing).  The main thing that is presented as a digitized image is a will, not found in any archive or collection that could be investigated further – it is from the private attic-type collection of one of Edward Owens’ “descendants.”

Very clever.

No, what we have to consider here if we are evaluating information is not the quality of the historical sources in question (for the most part).  We don’t have the information to evaluate most of the fake sources, and beyond that – most historical sources in the world aren’t on blogs or YouTube so the skills that would help us evaluate them there wouldn’t necessarily translate to evaluating sources in archives.  What we really have to evaluate here are the classic foci of Internet evaluation: the authority of the scholar/author  herself and the nature of the digital tools used to present that scholarship.  And here is where I think it is useful to return to the criticisms mentioned above  – the tools we need to use to filter the social web are different than the tools of historical scholarship – and this project made those tools less useful for the rest of us.

Yes, we should remember that our trust networks and Wikipedia pages aren’t infallible.  Treating them as if they are is dumb and dangerous, of course.  But not starting from the assumption that someone is willing to do all this work just to fake you out? That’s not unreasonable.  Creating a hoax like this just for its own  sake, after all, is not more fun than the work it takes to do it is not fun.  This one took an entire class of students working for a whole term with the great big huge carrot of the GRADE as motivation, after all.  When someone, or a class of someones, does deliberately put false information out there – and I’m not talking here about the fake historical documents, but the fake blog posts and tweets and comments and pointers – it makes it harder for all of us to use the skills that really do help us navigate and evaluate the social web.

I think it’s pretty significant that outside of the USA Today blogger, most of the people who got excited about this story – excited enough to blog about it – weren’t excited because of the history beyond the “that’s kind of cool” level.  The excitement was about how “Jane” leveraged social media tools to present her research broadly:

This undergraduate took her research to the next level by framing the experience on her blog, full with images and details from her Library of Congress research, video interviews with scholars and her visit to Owens house, her bibliography, along with a link to the Wikipedia page she created for this little known local pirate.

Or stated more directly, after the reveal:

But I want to concentrate on something else. Amidst all the fiction, alternate and virtual realities, hoaxes and pranks, one thing jumps out at me as utterly real, wholly genuine, honest. Read Jim’s post on this when he first came across the project. Here is passion and excitement, a celebration of what a student might be able to achieve with the tools now available, given the right puzzle to work on and a supportive network and intellectual environment.

And I agree with all of this in theory, but in terms of this specific hoax there is still something missing to me, and it’s an important something.  It’s research – and inquiry – and discovery.

I know I am only seeing a tiny portion of what is going on in this classroom – and from the syllabus just the idea that one of the goals of the class is to show that hoaxes can themselves be the topic of serious historical research, just like wars or elections, is something I find fairly awesome.  I have no idea how the process of discovery was inculcated in the other projects the students did.  All I have is the public pieces of the course – the blogs, the videos, and the rest.

And that’s a piece of this discussion that shouldn’t be missed.  By putting this material up on the real web, on the public web, by consciously trying to get people to access and engage with this material the question of what kind of learning experience does this material provide for those of us NOT in the class is a valid one.   Is our learning experience supposed to be related to information literacy as well?  To history? Or is it just a clever, creative prank?

Because here’s the next thing – I don’t think that there is much of a learning experience for the rest of us in this project – at least not in terms of information literacy.

Don’t get me wrong, I value creation and creativity.  I value world-building and imagination.  And I don’t think those things are separate from academic research.  There is definitely creativity and imagination in scholarly inquiry, in looking at sources and seeing what might have been or what could be and re-searching based on that new potential meaning.  Watching a class of students using the social web to extend and communicate such a learning process would itself be valuable in that information literacy context.

And I think there’s room in that picture for fiction as well – in telling a story that you know in your bones to be a kind of truth even though you can’t prove it, at least not in a way that would be recognized as proof, epistemologically speaking.  I think there are truths and stories and voices that can only be captured with fiction.  So it’s not the made up or false part that gives me pause.

But in the case of this project, as it is laid out for us to see — the public pieces of this class project combine to celebrate what a truly information-literate student can do to take control of their own learning – but all the time that information literacy only exists on the surface.

This is why I have problems thinking about the pirate hoax as a great new way to talk about or teach information literacy. Because beyond the fact that I don’t think hoaxes are a great way to teach evaluation, I’m also not sure they are a great way to talk about research and scholarly creativity. At its heart, I think information literacy is inherently linked to inquiry, and discovery.   It’s about the ability to learn from information – not just to find the sources worth learning from but to use that new information to change the way you understand things, and change the way you approach the next question.

“Jane” talks endlessly about the physical pain she feels as a result of days of looking at microfilm:

But, I have no idea how I am functioning right now…I can barely look at the screen without wanting to throw up, my eyes are in so much pain.

And she goes on about how frustrating it is not to find that evidence in the documents that will prove that her pirate existed:

After my failed trip to the town, I was really discouraged. I found out enough information to keep me going, but nothing really substantial. I have not gotten any closer to figuring out a name, and my trips to the library that last four hours at a time to look through the microfilm (I’m convinced I’m causing permanent damage to my eyes), have yielded absolutely no results.

But she never talks about that other kind of pain and frustration that comes with research and learning – one of the big things that makes research hard – feeling stupid, or having to question what you thought you knew before.   That’s what I mean when I say “Jane’s” process is all surface-level.  She never finds anything in her research that leads her in a new direction. She finds additional things she can use on the path she’s already on, but that’s not the same.

In the end, it is a lucky break that brings Jane’s process to a close.  The lucky break isn’t the issue — the real issue is that at the end of the research process described in the blog she finds exactly the single document perfect right source she had been looking for from the start.  The perfect right source she imagined might exist that would answer the narrow question she formulated before she even know much about her topic at all.  That’s not how research usually works.  You could argue that that’s not how good research ever works.

And that’s the last and main thing.  At no point does Jane really engage with something that leads her to change her mind about anything, to reevaluate her process, to go back over the same ground with a new understanding or a new set of questions.  It’s needle in the haystack searching she does – she has to be creative to find different ways into the haystacks but at the same time she’s not going into the haystacks to find out what’s there.  She’s going in to look for that one needle that she thinks/hopes must be there.

And yes, I get that she’s pretend, but the fictional process the real class came up with does suggest that historical research is difficult and tedious and one doesn’t make the great discovery by engaging with sources in an open-minded way.   If the class had been engaged in a discovery-based research process I would hope that that would have come through in their fictional avatar’s narrative.  It doesn’t.  There is no doubt that this group of students were truly engaged – playing with history, creating a new world and the characters to fill it.

I can’t find it now, but when I was reading about this project earlier I was struck by the description of how the topic was selected in the first place – all of the considerations were practical – not too well known, not too likely to inspire a lawsuit if the hoax was discovered, and so on.  The reasons for piracy were practical as well – a topic of broad popular interest, local, not likely to be something anyone would already be an expert on, etc.  They didn’t talk about discovering the space in the historical record for their hoax to exist, they talked about creating it.

And if it’s mainly about creativity, about the class’ engagement around creating this alternate reality, around engaging with each other, and about engaging with others on the social web, then I’m not sure I see the value in making it a hoax.  Except that that was the topic of the rest of the class to which we were not privy.  If the skills they were learning were about creativity and world-building it seems like the resulting project could have taken the form of an ARG or a similar project where those creative muscles could be flexed in the service of creating a world for the rest of us to play in, too.

ARGH – Joss Whedon-related ARG – & me with no time

On Monday, a new thread appeared on the unfiction forums pointing out a trailhead for a new game that seems to be linked to the Fox series Dollhouse. Given the percentage of librarians who are big damn fans of Joss Whedon + my obvious fascination with Alternate Reality Games the odds were very good that I would find this very fascinating – but …. I will have no time to catch up on it until after next week.

So quick – if you fall into the above categories and are not presenting in a week:

Rabbit hole – one of the characters on Joss Whedon’s new show Dollhouse sends an email to this person (described as a “prominent Whedon fan” on unfiction. Not a librarian, but yes, an Oregonian). The email leads, though not directly, to this website — http://www.adelledewitt.com/

That site is then referenced at an official Fox blog, suggesting this isn’t a fan-created site, but an “official” ARG.

(Note, the login information for the adelledewitt site is provided in the comments to the Fox blog post.  Not typical ARG practice, but there it is.  And it is interesting how even on the unfiction forum there are clearly some ARG newbies being pulled in by the Joss connection)

Trailhead thread at the unfiction forums — 7 pages and 93 posts as of this moment. They really start to get into the unfolding narrative on page 2.

Game thread at the official Dollhouse forums

Game thread at the Dollverse forums – a fan-created Dollhouse portal

What does social networking overload really look like?

Last year, Rachel and I reported on a survey we did the year before that looked at how librarians feel about different social software applications like blogs, wikis and the like (is that right? I think so – it’s a really long time ago now). We mainly found out that we should have asked some different questions, which is what always happens when I do surveys.

But there was one thing that was really, really striking – most people reported not doing a ton of social networking (and I’m talking about things like blogs and wikis, not Facebook. And this was 2 years ago so things have probably changed). But in terms of how often people have edited a wiki, for example, I bet things haven’t changed that much.

Anyway, most librarians weren’t doing a ton of social networking. AND YET –

Almost everyone (97%) reported that they liked exploring new technologies.

Almost everyone (85%) reported that they were encouraged at work to explore new technologies.

And this is the big one – almost everyone (70%) reported that they had enough time to explore new technologies.

And yet. They weren’t doing it. So we theorized that the reason for this was a time issue, but it wasn’t the time issue that people usually talked about. Setting up accounts, figuring out how tools work — librarians have time to do that. That part is easy. The hard part for most of us is the time it takes to actually engage with a new group of people (or put together enough of the old group of people to make it worthwhile).

And I’ve certainly found that to be the case.

Which is a long way of saying – I actually looked at my Twitter account today. I know, right? I have said in multiple presentations that I don’t use Twitter, and I don’t. But as is the case with many other things that require accounts – I have one. So the second Pengrin story launched today and there’s a Twitter component. That was apparently all it took. Just like this whole experiment means I can choose to just read stories and not really play the ARG, this story means I can just read stories and not really have to do all of that work that it would take to make Twitter fun.
I enjoyed the first story quite a bit but I’m expecting to really have fun reading this one. It’s blog-based (young character = LJ, parental characters = wordpress), the emo teen-ish character makes an Emily the Strange reference in her first paragraph and a Twin Peaks reference in the third — and as an extra added bonus for me there’s a slowly evolving meta conversation in the comments.

I don’t know the classic book it’s connected to – The Haunted Doll’s House, but Slice does have a creepy doll picture representing it on the main site, which is awesome.

So this is apparently what it takes to get me to invest some energy in Twitter, at least for today. It will be interesting to see if I feel like I “get” Twitter any better at the end of this week than I do right now. It usually takes real engagement with a social tool like this for me to understand its cool factor. That usually happens right about the time I start to notice that the tool is changing something about how I think about something on the web – whether that something is information, other people, or whatever. I suspect this won’t be enough to do it, but I’ve been wrong before.

It was this post today on Unit Structures that really got me thinking about all of these connections. Because this isn’t all to say that I don’t get why lots of people do like Twitter – I actually do. But I think there’s some truth in the guess Rachel and I made about our survey data — that sometimes even when the social or informational or educational or other payoff is there for the taking, developing new social networks takes work, and energy — and sometimes we have to pick and choose where to spend it.

digital publishing, ARG’s and collective storytelling – one stop shop!

Well, maybe. I don’t think we know for sure how all of those things are in here…

Anyway, I was talking yesterday with a group of colleagues from my library and across my campus about the potential for ARG-type things on a college campus such as, say, OSU. And one thing we kept coming back to was the importance of the narrative, or the story, to lift a game beyond “scavenger hunt” or “puzzle.” And even beyond this — the importance of creating an experience where the player (or reader) of the game plays an active role in creating that narrative. if:Book yesterday articulates really well what I mean by co-creating – it’s something more complex (and compelling) than allowing the player to choose between a set of pre-defined plot directions.

Which makes this project (also briefly mentioned by if:Book today – hive mind?) interesting, connected as it is to Penguin Books, home of lots of people who know how to tell stories really well. It seems like this project is going to launch in some form on March 18, but I wasn’t able to find anywhere that seems to know exactly what form it will take. What we do know –

The site itself has changed a few times over the last few weeks – initially displaying this quote from Alice in Wonderland, favorite resource for ARG designers everywhere:

Alice was very nearly getting up and saying “Thank you, Sir, for your interesting story,” but she could not help thinking there must be more to come, so she sat still and said nothing.

There was also an image of the Cheshire Cat with seven tails — very mysterious. The early developments and a little bit of speculation are easy to catch up on at the unfiction forum.

Now the image has shifted to focus on the first of the six digital stories that will launch here over the next several weeks. There’s nothing that immediately jumps out and yells ARG on this page – but there are game designers connected to the project and they’re calling it an ARG. Penguin itself is calling the site an experiment in storytelling, but they’re also highlighting their connection to the ARG community at unfiction.

So it’s looking like there will be some ARG component to this, beyond the digital narratives promised on the website, but one reason I’m pointing this out is that it might also be a pretty good first-ARG experience if that’s something you’ve been wanting to try out. Even if I don’t have time to get involved in the actual game, I can lurk a bit and still get the fun of reading the stories, right? And the fun of thinking about new ways to tell stories – what digital publishing might mean beyond e-books and Amazon Kindles — which I think is a useful thing to think about.

Six to Start, the group behind whatever this is, includes many members of the creative team behind Perplex City, which they call the first “self-sustaining” ARG. I’m going to talk about a couple of them for a few more minutes here, because they’re recently been discussing this question of writing for the web, or “designing” for the web –

Naomi Alderman was the main writer behind Perplex City, and she’s also a published novelist (by Penguin). She wrote an article in the Sunday Times (UK not NY) about the Kindle, but which really goes much farther than that in talking about what writing for the web could be – beyond the device we use to access it.

(For an interesting look at Alderman’s experience with ARG writing – look at this short article in the Telegraph)

(For a disappointing article about how she sees libraries – look at this short article in The Guardian.  I’m not sure it’s intended, but the subtext I’m getting is that she doesn’t see libraries as part of this new kind of storytelling.  And that makes me sad.)

Adrian Hon, another Perplex City veteran and Chief Creative Officer of Six to Start, picked up on the theme on his blog a few days ago. This is the part that jumped out at me:

While a lot of ’stories on the web’ today involve some interesting technology, unfortunately, they’re just not very interesting stories. This leads a lot of people to conclude that the format of a book is superior. Of course, I disagree; we need to put a lot more thought into designing stories for the web, and that needs to be a collaborative process between not just writers and programmers, but also people who design interactive experiences on the web…

That feels true – that the problem with some web stories is in the story, not in the web. And the idea that people are likely to blame the new delivery mechanism first also resonates. I liked his suggestion that designing interactive experiences on the web is something special itself, that we can’t assume is covered by “writing” or “programming.”

This sounds a little bit like what a lot of us are lacking when it comes to support for the delivery of instruction on the web. We have the content, we have the programming – but increasingly we know that there’s another special bit in there – the people who know how to do this stuff on the web. And we don’t always have the same access to that kind of expertise — and we probably should.

Yes an ARG – and over there, and over there too

All of a sudden ARG’s are everywhere – it’s like when you learn a new word and suddenly it’s everywhere? It feels like Rachel and I presented on this topic ten minutes before the Internets done exploded with it!

Michael dropped me some great links in my del.icio.us about this — game designer Elan Lee presented about ARG’s at the O’Reilly ETech conference just yesterday. Most interesting to me was Cory Doctrow’s liveblogged notes on the talk – but his summary at Boing Boing is worth looking at – and there are comments! Three short things about this talk -

1. I love the magnet metaphor. I think that idea that magnets “push, pull and charge” resonated – I can’t wait to see more of the actual talk. But the “charge” idea seems to get at that essential thing about the ARG experience – that it is something co-created.

2. This from the Boing Boing comments got me thinking – “The only problem with ARG’s is once you’ve played one and know how they work it ruins the rest of them.” At first that kind of sounds true. Rachel and I spoke at length about how hard it was to try and go back and describe games that have already been played. As much as we could retell the narrative and show the websites, it was clear that we were missing something about the experience of having played the game. And those kinds of things are often best the first time you do them.

But I wonder if maybe this statement isn’t more interesting in that what it really does is show the importance of the narrative to the experience, as well as the social act of creating the experience with others similarly immersed. It might be hard to recreate one’s first transformative experience with a novel or a movie, but that doesn’t usually ruin the act of reading for the rest of time.

3. I need to think more about the scalability aspect at the end – and by that I mean “I need to see more of the actual talk.” This idea from Doctrow’s notes – “It can’t just be “let me use all the elements of your life to tell you a story. It has to be, ‘Let me look at all your channels (browser, phone IM, etc.) and find a way to turn that channel on specifically for you.'” I want to hear more about how this preserves the social aspect of ARG’s.

And then Wired yesterday speculates that this is part of the rabbit hole to an Olympian-sized ARG – with the Olympics and McDonald’s behind it. And asks – if McDonald’s is involved are ARG’s totally part of the mainstream? There is something simultaneously disturbing and fitting about the idea that McDonald’s couldn’t manage to keep their involvement quiet because they had to cover themselves with the law talk on the website. Some things are just more important than T.I.N.A.G, I guess.

cool stuff that’s fun to look at!

For reasons I won’t go into, I recently spent way too much time on the internet looking for magazine scans. (Anyone going to Online NW might soon be able to piece together why). Looking for those I ran across some other things I thought were awesome, even if I’m not always clear on what to do with them.

The Book Scans database

  • I’m linking to the main page – the database page is on the left. I probably lost an hour going through these. The site design is a little old-school, and navigating can be kind of clunky. The site is also intended for the collector community, so it might be perfectly organized for their needs and only clunky for non-collectors. Oddly there’s no notes anywhere about what one can do with these images, or actually anything at all intellectual property-related.

Steven Hill’s Movie Title Screens Page

  • Again, more a browsing space than a searching one, and initially I was like “why would I want to browse this.” Thirty minutes later I still wasn’t sure but I couldn’t stop. These are screengrabs of the title shots from a whole lot of movies. I almost didn’t include this one when I couldn’t find All About Eve, but this one from The Awful Truth was entirely charming so I left it in –

Title shot from The Awful Truth

Vintage Vanguard

  • A big collection of scans of old Vanguard record albums. Both front and back material, which is awesome. I love these because you can see how old they are.

And I also found magazine scans galore — these were my two favorite sites:

MagazineArt.org

The Conde Nast Store

And finally this – cute mid-century French stuff. I’m not sure how to categorize this, but how could I not include it?

Lefor-Openo

reading, thinking & Caleb Crain

I don’t often envy my friend Matt his Harvard education, except for on days like today.  After skimming through my RSS feeds and finding not one, not two, but three links to the same New Yorker article – I remembered why occasionally I think Harvard wouldn’t have sucked.  Because Matt went to school with Caleb Crain.

And if you want to know why, just read Caleb Crain’s latest article in the New Yorker – Twilight of the books: What will life be like if people stop reading?

I’ve read enough apocalyptic, end-of-knowledge type discussions of how the kids today, they just don’t read that as soon as I hear there’s another article on the topic I get twitchy.  And since the NEH report (To Read or Not to Read) hit the airwaves the number of simplistic mass media treatments of the topic have about made me crazy.  When I read this morning on Cliopatria that Caleb Crain had written about reading my spirits — they noticeably lifted.  Noticeably!

And he doesn’t disappoint –

He considers history.  So many critics worry so much about losing the habits of now that they forget that the now is a relatively short blip on the epistemological radar screen.  While the ideas of text, of authority, or single authorship hold a lot of power over us now it wasn’t that long ago that that’s just not how we knew things. 

"Taking the long view, it’s not the neglect of reading that has to be
explained but the fact that we read at all."

I just can’t take criticism seriously, no matter how serious it is, when it has no historical perspective.  And those who don’t recognize that ideas like the author’s voice, or even intellectual property itself are historically and culturally situated — no matter how insightful or intelligent their criticism is, I can’t treat it as such.  While I do think that we have something to lose if we stop reading, if we stop arguing, and if we stop communicating as we do now – I don’t necessarily think that we also have nothing to gain if those things go away. 

History is change – but the changes are the result of real people making real choices and at any point things could go a lot of ways.  Now isn’t inherently better than then, and tomorrow won’t be inherently better than now.  Just as a step away from now isn’t a step away from progress, the right path, the best way.  I don’t know what it is that we might gain, but I do know that we just don’t know.

Looking at Walter Ong and especially Maryanne Wolf, Crain looks seriously at what we knew pre-reading – how those brains differed from our post-reading brains.  When he says that if the movement away from reading continues in our culture "the world will feel different, even to those who still read" you believe that by "different," he means "different" — not "way worse OMG".  Western reading, western epistemology aren’t just the result of some inevitable progressive march towards perfection – it’s what happened, it’s not what obviously had to happen.  And that means if it changes, then the impact of those changes aren’t inherently good or inherently bad – they just are.

Which isn’t to say that they’re value-neutral or that there’s nothing there to value.  But this kind of examination is a necessary first step to any real, meaningful reflection on what it is we might want to preserve about what is.  What we might want to fight for.  Because we can’t pull out the act of reading itself and assign it inherent value and bemoan its lack — it’s not the number of words or pages that we read that we need to think about – it’s something else.  In higher ed, a lot of the people I know have come to call it "critical reading" — by which I think they’re getting at our students’ ability (or inability) to learn from what they read. 

Citing Wolf, Crain talks about how fluent readers have enough free brain time while they are reading — during the process of reading — that they can think about what they read.  They can reflect, synthesize, anaylze, criticize and evaluate. 

"The efficient reading brain, quite literally has more
time to think."

– and –

"The secret at the heart of reading, is "the
time it
frees for the brain to have thoughts deeper than those that came
before."

This resonates because I think we’ve all felt sometimes that some of our students are so focused on the act of reading that they forget about the thinking.  Or worse, that they’ve never really been taught that thinking is part of the process.  One of my colleagues in graduate school used to tell her students that "you can’t read without a pen in your hand."  Reading with thinking is an interactive process – the reader and writer both engaged, both creating, both thinking.   That’s the piece that we want to preserve — or to create — students who can engage with a text and learn from it.  That’s far more important than their page counts.

Crain talks at length, in part because Wolf talks at length, about television and other visual media.  The overarching theme is that exposure to visual media threatens out ability to think, to understand.  We lose grade levels if we watch too much tv.  But even here, Crain’s treatment shows that the picture is more complex than "tv makes us dumber."  Some tv for younger children is good, Sesame Street raises grade levels, older teens can’t watch much without damage…

When I read these types of arguments I wonder a couple of things.  One relates to what I was talking about above – is it really fair to use the ability to read and engage with text as our only or primary measure of the impact of our students’ engagement with visual media?  Or is that focusing on what’s lost, without considering what might be gained?  Beyond this, but still connected, is the idea of creativity.  Does it change the equation if our students are engaging with media interactively, if they are creating, if they are thinking while they do it.  Is there a media fluency that can free the brain up to think and read and consider and analyze and evaluate?  I don’t think that all kids today are doing this, because I’m not crazy.  But I’d love to see someone examine the question of is there a difference – is there a difference between people actively engaged in the creative production on visual media and those who only consume?

Anyway, read this – pass it along – this is the kind of smart, complex criticism we need to really think about how we can help our students learn today.  Reifying the past without criticism means we won’t get there – articles like this one make me think we can.

Note: Karen Munro points out another good article on the reading question.