Monday, August 13, 2012

teach naked!

on occasion, when I especially miss teaching, I swipe an issue of "the chronicle review," the midsection of the larger chronicle of higher education--my rationale is that it's unlikely most visiters to my local libraries are going to read the chronicle anyway, and it might as well go to use--and spend a few days reading it.  last week I brought home a copy with the short essay "against reading lists" by lennard j. davis.

it's a provocative idea, dropping required readings from syllabi (except for some introductory material) and allowing students to determine, through conversation and suggestion and their own outside reading, where to go next.  say, in a 20th century american lit class opening with some early influential stuff--"song of myself," say, or the red badge of courage--and allow them to determine what and who to read next, maybe choosing from a prepared list of options.

davis recognizes the massive change that ebooks and online availability makes for reading. 

on the internet, one link leads to another.  you look up turner, say, on wikipedia.  that site leads you to the national gallery of art, which in turn leads you to romanticism, which in turn takes you to delacroix, and thus to reubens, who isn't a romantic but whose use of flesh, light, and color influenced that movement.  that little stroll was unpredictable, but a fruitful exercise in intellectual curiosity.  in the past, we've operated with a very different model, conditioned not by the internet and the intellectual meandering it allows but by a kind of linear thinking reflected by the consecutiveness that we find on the printed page.  the fixed reading list is the icon of that linearity.

at first, I wasn't certain he understood what some of the realworld costs of that flexibility meant.  for instance, he suggests that in "the new world of e-books, online publications, and next-day book deliveries, we are freed from the dull hand of tradition," apparently oblivious to the fact that for most students not enrolled at a more expensive school like chicago, where he teaches, such sudden cash expenditures are not easy to negotiate (or for working students to plan reading time around).  he does , however, next present a more affordable and workable alternative, suggesting an e-reader (or an option to spring for paperback copies for the more linear among them) for his students onto which they could download preselected texts.  he says he somehow selected his list so that the 2 groups "would end up spending the same amount of money..." 

that format allowed many impromptu changes in the reading list.  it also allowed us to look at a poem or a short story right at the moment in class when it occured to me to refer to that work.  another benefit was that visual material, not included in the course packet or reading list, could be called up at the mention of a specific reference.

this is doable now, of course, using classbased technology, and I've made much use of that in my more recent practice, putting sites and film clips and readings on the overhead computer screens available in most college classes.  but he makes an excellent point near the conclusion of his essay that what we are looking at is not only new in terms of technology in the class but in the way learning is distributed.

we are now presented with a more 3-dimensional model that reaches through time and space in unpredictable and valuable ways.  the philosophers gilles deleuze and felix guattari called that kind of knowledge "rhizomatic," after a type of plant.  a rhizome, such as a potato, reproduces by sending out underground shoots that form another plant, which in turn does the same thing, producing a network of roots.  deleuze and guattari contrast that to the "arboreal" model, in which a single set of roots produces a single tree, with all its branches connected to one trunk.  deleuze and guattari see the arboreal model as the older model of knowing, hierarchical and organized, such as strict taxonomes of organisms.  they see the rhizomatic as a newer, more effective scheme for organizing knowledge.

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