I just read an excellent blog post by Henry Jenkins. He is responding to a recent documentary, Digital Nation. His discussion is balanced and reasoned and speaks to my own experience as I engage with the digital side of English Literature.
A few things rang particularly true to me.
Jenkins notes: "I think the student who described himself as writing 'killer paragraphs' was getting at something that is easy to ridicule or dismiss, yet may be a significant shift in what constitutes good writing. The writing of MIT students has to do with the production of densely written, carefully argued, powerfully presented, meaningful chunks of information." Often I talk to students who are frustrated, because their theses are exploding into random chunks of analysis and theory. They speak of clouds of post-it notes, cork boards with colourful string, reams of butcher paper with circles and lines around the dot points. They produce brilliant, succinct paragraphs and then have to glue them altogether. It's not an easy task. Others stall as they try to approach 'a chapter,' struggling to think in terms of longer pieces of writing. I, myself, have always written in 'bits'. Most students are familiar with my patchwork analogy. I don't think we're necessarily seeing a shift in the writing itself, but how people evaluate and think about writing. The digital environment suits those, like myself, who think in terms of 'killer paragraphs.' It allows us to evolve our skills. It provides us with other audiences, who perceive good writing in different ways to those linked to the traditional essay or thesis.
In fact, sometimes looking at those bound bricks of the past, you wonder if the thesis itself will ever change. Could we free that new, fresh, experimental thinking from the work of the binders and a couple of examiners? When you look at the old typewriter-written thesis, imagining the hours of cursing and tapping and dinging and liquid paper, and then look at the theses emerging with their blue lines marking long lost hyperlinks, you begin to wonder if the bound form isn't becoming just a bit too restrictive.
Jenkins also notes: "I certainly encountered situations where most of the students had a lap top open in my class. In some cases, they were performing quite mundane tasks, such as compiling code, which required very little of their attention and would be mind-numbing if performed with their full attention. They are multitasking in the same way that a faculty colleague would knit during faculty meetings: the actions were routinized, most of the time they didn't require much thought, but they absorbed a certain amount of nervous energy." This particularly made me smile. I knit sometimes in meetings or in classes. It is much like doodling, though I have a sock at the end to show for it. It helps me to focus on the intellectual discussion. Women for eons have always occupied their hands, the better to tell stories, exchange gossip, listen to literature. We all multitask - whatever our gender. And I often find the students who are producing the most intricate, amazing doodles are the students who likewise make insightful comments in class and produce excellent essays.
Jenkins says: "Unlike some adults I know who want to pit the computer against the book, they have no trouble giving both their proper respect, using the computer when it seems meaningful to them, reading books when it seems the best choice." With the introduction of the iPad, this discussion will become ever more heated. Yet I think Jenkins makes a good point. There are some books and situations where iPads and Kindles etc will be the best option - useful, for instance, for word searches, scanning and for carrying around multiple novels or books on theory. There are other situations where the paper and ink (I almost write physical, but the iPad is just as physical as my copy of Harry Potter) versions will be preferable. Indeed, I think and hope that the paper and ink versions will continue to become more interesting, tactile and aesthetically pleasing. We'll still want them too.
All in all, it's an excellent post. Do read it if you get a chance.