Sunday, November 19, 2006

"Collage students," Part I: Time-sensitive; or, Writing like we're talking

This post has its origins in R. Sherman's thanking me for linking to this post of his and then saying, "Actually, I was hoping to hear your thoughts on the topic . . . " At least some thanks/blame are owed him--and, for that matter, his wife (whom he has dubbed "the EMBLOS," and which I'll borrow here for convenience's sake) and her fortuitous invocation of Walter Ong that one fateful night Mr. Sherman describes.

I'm going to start with an image, one supplied to me by one of my students this semester in a paper of his. I don't know where it will lead me, which is part of the point (as it appears to me now). So bear with me: this may not turn out very well.

In his paper, this student referred to himself throughout, without fail, as a "collage student" and to the environment in which he found himself as "collage." He noted that he was the first member of his family to "be in collage." You get the idea.

Yes: collage.

Given that the topic he chose for this paper required him to provide and describe some of the various pressures college students face, he had occasion to use the word "collage" more than he did just about any other noun, with the obvious exception of the first-person-singular subject pronoun.

When I read his paper, I briefly considered posting a bit of snark here at good old Blog Meridian (you know: jokes that only art-history types might fake-laugh at, like "All collage students are a footnote to Picasso"), but then I thought, Why bother? As the Wikipedia article notes at its very top, "collage" is a frequent misspelling of "college," and I can attest to that being true in my own experience. All that made this particular student's paper remarkable is that he misspelled it every. single. time. At least 20 times. But even at that, I hadn't thought of it for some time, until reading Mr. Sherman's post prompted me to think back on recent classroom moments and this one was one of the first to pop up. And it struck me today that, yes, maybe I really am teaching collage students. In a collage.

I wouldn't mind that so much if we just had the same backing to stick all those pieces to.

The picture you see at the top of this post is illustrative of the challenge I face as a college instructor (I know they're middle-school students, but the idea's the same). All those faces, apparently happy . . . but none looking at each other, and only one looking at the viewer. This seemed more representative of what I've found to be true in my classrooms' dynamics than what I saw as I perused similar pictures from college websites. Their pictures have the students either looking at each other or, say, a Bunsen burner, as they earnestly engage in some academic endeavor, or they're looking at the viewer. Would that such pictures reflected the reality of the classroom, at least as I experience it in my little corner at a community college. That's not a complaint, mind: it's simply fact. The vast majority of my students want to be in class, so that's not what I'm speaking of. It is that, as the EMBLOS says in her discussion of Walter Ong, we've entered into a new orality, one which the various new electronic media, going back, I'd say, to the arrival of cable television and including--especially?--the Internet, facilitate, serving simultaneously as that orality's symptom and cause. They're looking every which way because they have so many places to look, but they don't all have a place in common look (and no, Google doesn't count). Thus the absence of appositives and, as I've noted with my students, the difficulty they have in thinking about abstract ideas and in presenting the arguments of people who might disagree with them. All is here and now and/but centers around the individual. Indeed, I'd go so far as to argue that in our popular cultere there exists an unconscious but active resistance to the idea of having a common place to look, as embodied by the idea of "coolness" as I understand that term. An inverse relation exists between the attractiveness of an artist's work and the size of the audience that work commands. It's interesting that in these file-sharing times of ours, what drives that phenomenon does not seem to be the cultivation of tastes in a larger forum but the sharing of one's own tastes: what Christina Rosen has called "ego-casting." Sometimes, not even sharing one's tastes is what's at work here: just declaring them is.

"All is here and now and/but centers around the individual." Knowledge and ideas in such a community become time-sensitive, though not in terms of calendars but those of the individual. Thus, their potential value to others becomes less of a concern for the individual; the need to establish a connection between the writer and his/her audience isn't ignored but simply gets overlooked. I see symptoms of this in student writing all the time, even when the subject is the student's own life: fairly-detailed descriptions of people whose names and relations to the student don't get stated (via, yes, appositives); assertions of the student's value as an employee get asserted and even described, but without the additional supplying of the name or type of business or, even, sometimes, specific duties; loving descriptions of favorite places and activities from the student's childhood with nary a brief declaration of just where in time and space we've been transported to. What is of primary concern is the student's memory of it, its value to him or her. If someone else is listening in, s/he can ask questions. No worries.

That would be fine, except for the fact that I'm not listening in, in the traditional sense of that expression. I'm reading: a fundamentally different activity, in that the source of the text usually isn't available for consultation. Only the text itself is. The the idea(s) at the heart of the written text, assuming it's directed to an audience other than the self-same writer, require(s) context: that backing for the pieces of the collage that I alluded to earlier. It just may be, though, that to this current crop of "traditional" college students (another term that, as time goes on, is becoming more and more dinosaur-ish), who can barely remember a time before the pervasiveness of the Internet and e-mail and who, as a group, appear to be reading "dead-tree" media less and less now, the rapidity and immediacy of electronic communication via text (IMs being the prime example) blur the line between reading and writing, on the one hand, and talking, on the other.

"I just like to get to the point," my students say--which, by the way, is the sort of reading they like as well (though I suspect THAT particular trait transcends our particular moment). Well, fine, I say. But, I think to myself--I'm too nice to say this out loud OR in writing--if this is the All About ME generation, that means you cease to matter not just when you die, but even the moment you leave my field of perception (hmmm . . . maybe Bishop Berkeley could be of some applied value here). Tell me why you think this and, in so doing, seek to make your reader think, "Dude. I can, like, relate."

To come: some rambling on what has been lost--and maybe gained--via the loss of those old backings for "collage students."

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Winston said...

Being removed from academia, at least the formal classroom model, for many years, I find your observations and assessments of the current-day inhabitants of that land most unsettling. Your challenge of keeping the students focused and channelled goes far beyond that which our instructors and professors faced. And as you so ably described, the students have so many more places to look and they hear so many other sounds. From my own observations of those either in or recently removed from college, and even high school, I have concluded that most of them are not motivated by the traditional values and rationale for being there in the first place. I have no qualifications for even guessing what their reasons and goals are, why they are there, what they hope to gain from being there. Perhaps you could make a stab at that.

One of their major challenges, and one they may not even be aware of, is to filter the cacaphony in which they are immersed. Learning which sounds are important, which channels have white noise vs. pink noise vs. garbage, which tracks lead to their goals whatever they are, which tracks are most likely to help feed them for a lifetime, etc.

The idea of the blurring of lines and the melding of reading and writing through technology is intriguing. Yet, we have barely scratched the surface. Those two activities, along with talking and listening, constitute what we broadly call "communication". You and I may not see it in our lifetime, though you probably will, the most elementary and fundamental form of communication is at a synaptic level. That will be achieved. Mind meld, Mr. Spock?

So much to think about...

BTW - You may want to read and then delete this paragraph. Pardon me for my assumed role as proofer and editor, but there seems to be a double "the" at the beginning of (nevermind - I went back to find it and couldnt, so you must have already fixed it.)

R. Sherman said...

The EMBLOS has said much the same thing. She finds that her students seem incapable of understanding that there is a difference between an assertion and supporting evidence.

Papers are filled with "the people were nice," or "the movie was funny." In response to the question, "Why?" they say, "It just was." Period.

It is if they lack the linguistic fundamentals necessary to convey any thoughts, beside "LOL" or "OMG."

Of course, this begs the question of why this is so, the internet, television, video games, etc. notwithstanding. I don't want to take a pot shot at primary and secondary education but who's dropping the ball here?

Whoops. I wondering into "mean old fart" territory. I should probably move along.


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