Friday, March 7, 2014

Thinking about teaching English when it seems the world will surely end...w/ Dr. Richard Miller

The Apocalypse
That was the subject, in sorts, of Dr. Richard Miller's talk last night at Fairfield University as he contemplated the role of the humanities in a conversation he entitled: Cultivating Curiosity in These Our Distracted, Polarized, Irate, Ill-informed, Dysfunctional, Fractured, Broken Times

Dr. Miller made his case by asking the audience to detach for 60 minutes while he overviewed his thoughts on raising children, teaching, exploring apocalypse in literature, and questioning the unbudging traditions of scholarship in higher education.
Why teach English when it seems the world will surely end?
The betrayal of technology, he requested, was to allow temporary focus - the ability to be present in an ever-changing landscape that is chaotic and informationally overloaded. The enduring question was, How do educators ask difficult questions that don’t have real answers in a world where finding answers is at the fingertips of everyone wanting to immediately know more?

A student can't be interesting unless they're interested. The educator's quest is to help students find interest in everything around them.

To make his case, Miller overviewed several talks hosted across Fairfield's campus this week: scholars from multiple angles of expertise held lectures for a generation of undergraduates and academics - it's all right here, happening now. Knowledge. I couldn't help but wonder, though, "Perhaps we've failed society by hoarding opportunities and knowledge within small communities. What about the ones beyond ivory tower walls? Who hosts such conversations and dialogue with them?" This is my service / scholarship in action belief.
Education is Stuck in the Past.
We are a nation where virtually all carry distracting devices that keep us from focusing on any one thing for a very long time. This, it was argued, might be robbing children of the benefits that come from being profoundly bored - the confrontation of discovery that comes when you aren't totally interested in the subject at hand, but you can't do anything about it.
Information superabundance + loss of focus = shallowness 
The pre-Internet age fantasized the isolated writer, composing for an audience at a distance, seeking the proverbial publication to be distributed to regions of their imagination where information was controlled by him or her and access to knowledge was scarce. Mastery arrived with those who proved they had control of content.

The Internet Age creates an environment where everyone is connected, present and embodied, Information is immediate, dialogue is global, knowledge is ubiquitous, and resourcefulness is the key to moving forward.
Educators need to teach resourcefulness. Resourcefulness = Mastery.
Dr. Miller made his case by drawing on dissertation processes imagined in libraries where only a few are parading the aisles to collect information that others rarely read. Now, he explained through an example of his daughter learning soliloquy in a high school classroom, the information is available in her room: Wikipedia, YouTube, Google Searches, etc. A new generation - with digital tools - are writers who can get instant readership depending on their mastery of collecting information quickly and rearranging it in new, innovative ways.

Data storage in a single brain is the past. We all have digital brains carried in our pockets. This changes the way we learn.
Our institutions are preparing young people for a world that no longer exists.
The 21st century classroom should encourage students to compose in graphs, images, text, maps, animation, data, sound, video, etc. Students should show they can think through self-generated information, recordings, online archives, production, etc. They must be producers and consumers. Knowledge is no longer created by individuals  constrained by the traditions of institutions and academics are falling behind if they don't embrace this. It remains that scholars have ethical and moral obligations to the world, but how can any have control of all the information available to them?

This, perhaps, is what causes the apocalyptic vision rampant in American society - the end of the world - because no one can quite manage the future any longer. Video games, movies, the Zombie craze (see my nephew, Dylan) are examples of a younger generation trying to make sense of the bombardment of knowledge coming at them - it's easier to imagine death. Death is a simple hope.

My critique? I think it is a 1st world, western dilemma to be pre-occupied with apocalypse because of the multiple privileges we're afforded. While Chicken Little visits doomsday-ists, those who have less are quicker to see the privileges that come with new tools. I think about the 2 to 3 hours of digital composing I witnessed relocated refugee youth engaging with outside of school, but the mere 10 minutes they were expected to write in school: institutional restraints caused by measurements of knowledge, traditions, and old paradigms for intelligence restricted knowledge because of bureaucracy. These young men were smarter than our schools. 

The Hunger Games helped me realize how most with power in the United States are replications of the plastic and excess found in the Capitol under President Snow's reign. Here, the privileged can watch death in the arena because they are so far removed from it in the nature of their superficial lives. Meanwhile, in the districts where tragedy occurs daily, there's no time for dreaming of the apocalypse. Rather, there are only hopes for a better world.

The apocalypse, then, is born out of guilt. That's my thinking.

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