Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Vernacular and Formal Expression

This Virginia Heffernan post on overhauling eduction to meet the demands of the future has gotten a bit of attention. Tim Burke chimes in his support for the idea.
So educators can argue that their immediate job is to ensure an even distribution of experience with new media practices and a richer exploration of interpretative and expressive work in those media.

Of course, to do so, educators themselves would have to have widely distributed skills and be practiced in those richer possibilities. This is not my sense of the current norms in higher education in the humanities and social sciences, nor do I necessarily see incoming faculty as being markedly closer to that goal, only that there are tendencies in that direction.
I always value Burke's reflections on liberal arts eduction. Even if I tend to be more slanted toward traditional disciplinary education, I admire his sense of purpose and ability to articulate it.

I'm left scratching my head here, though. I can't help but feeling that the academy is being set up as the fuddy-duddy straw man. What exactly is being proposed, either by Heffernan, Cathy Davidson (whom Heffernan is drawing on), or Burke?

From Heffernan: "When we criticize students for making digital videos instead of reading Gravity’s Rainbow, or squabbling on Politico.com instead of watching The Candidate, we are blinding ourselves to the world as it is."

It happens I have taught in the context of an intro class both The Candidate and internet political culture. I don't see these as mutually exclusive. Both benefit from ideas about mass media and from ideas about civics. Each has its historical context, so by nature The Candidate is less obviously relevant to contemporary culture than, well contemporary culture. That said, at least some of my students have found The Candidate an eerily prescient commentary on President Obama's star image. It's not as if TV culture or the political party apparatus has gone away.

Then, there's this claim: "Ms. Davidson herself was appalled not long ago when her students at Duke, who produced witty and incisive blogs for their peers, turned in disgraceful, unpublishable term papers.... Ms. Davidson questioned the whole form of the research paper. [She] concluded, 'Online blogs directed at peers exhibit fewer typographical and factual errors, less plagiarism, and generally better, more elegant and persuasive prose than classroom assignments by the same writers.'”

I have used blog writing in the classroom, sometimes to great effect, sometimes not. Whatever the merits of students' blog writing (which does tend to have a more assured voice than the average term paper), is the proposal to spend more instructional time on vernacular expression and less on formal expression? The reason that blog writing is less tortured is that it comes closer to daily speech. Formal expression is valuable precisely because it is abstracted away from verbal speech - abstracted in the mechanics of written language, abstracted in its logical structure, abstracted in its ultimate ideas, and abstracted in the readership it imagines. This makes it difficult to teach, and the missteps painful to read sometimes, but expository prose is valuable precisely on all of these counts. The ability to deal in these abstractions is closely related to the formal expressive abilities that form the basis of professional life and specialized knowledge. I can't predict the jobs of the future, but they may be important then, too.

If this is a status and resource battle between literary and media studies, fine, I guess. Beyond that, I'm not sure what the overhaul being suggested means specifically.

2 comments:

Dave said...

I'm quite frustrated with the Digital Media and Learning community's dubious claims to integrating new media (not capital-N-M New Media) forms into pedagogy. I think Heffernan says at some point in her piece that a focus on students' interests, passions, and skills in digital media are closer to a broader humanities program, but then she uses the ultra-specific examples of blogging platforms, Politico, etc. (I would love for her to point me to an example of students who spontaneously post on Politico...).

Often the kinds of skills that formal education offers to kids are exactly the kinds of (useful, professionally and more broadly intellectually) abstract thinking and communication skills that vernacular expression simply doesn't (directly) reinforce. A lot of times the DML community seems to be playing a kind of "underpants gnome" game, which looks like this:

(1) Connect to kids' experiences and expertise in digital media.
(2) ...
(3) Learning!

But what happens in (2) is a messy, frustrating, hard process that frankly isn't made any easier in and of itself by the kinds of media integration that this piece seems to be calling for. The community seems premised on the idea that not only are kids meaningfully learning in their online and other media experiences (a claim that I think is more a question of faith than evidence) and, more problematically, that this learning has implications for how teaching has to "change" to meet learning where it's happening.

But teachers construct learning environments, carefully, and guide students' development. So any "solution" to the gap between teachers and students (I'm still skeptical of the gap to begin with, but I'll grant it for this argument) has to be in the realm of professional development, which means there needs to be a plan of action and a sense of what teachers who go through such a program will look like afterward. I don't have a sense that the community respects the learning trajectories of teachers nearly as much as they respect the learning trajectories of students who happen to learn "on their own" through media environments. (I wrote about that here in response to the DML conference: http://davidcoopermoore.com/post/3725933557/dml-download-1-digital-media-and-teaching-reblog )

Chris Cagle said...

I like the way you frame the question. And it's good to know that I'm not the only one who finds the specifics of pedagogy a structuring absence.