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.