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Teaching Writing from within The Shallows

posted: 5.21.14 by Nedra Reynolds

Last month I wrote about the time squeeze in the teaching of writing. What does it mean for the teaching of writing that there is “less time” (or at least the perception of less time) while there are also more competing demands on that time?  That question can be answered only if we also take into account the ways that our “plastic” brains are being molded by tools and technologies–as has always been the case.

In my argument class this semester, we read an article by Nicholas Carr that you may know: “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”  I also shared with them bits from his 2011 book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.  If you haven’t read this book (a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize) and you are also despairing about “students today,” Carr’s evidence might convince you that all of us, not just college students, are developing synapses that, through repetition and continual use, make it harder to “go deep” into texts or ideas.  The Internet, in short, is changing our brains.

Carr writes, for example, about how the cognitive demands of hypertext disallow “absorbed” reading and thereby reduce comprehension (127-28).  More links mean a diminished ability to understand or summarize a text.  “The Juggler’s Brain,” as Carr titles this chapter, is not a brain poised for diving deep into a subject. My students loved the quotation from Carr’s article, “Once I was a scuba diver in a sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.” We referred to that metaphor often as we tried to dive deeper and stay off the jet ski. My students were the first to admit that they don’t take the time to dwell in a sea of words because they might miss a ping from their Instagram accounts!

In fact, my students admitted what their dependence on social media is costing them. Several of them wrote about sleep deprivation, for example, and about their anxiety that comes with trying to keep us with their studies as well as their demanding online social life.  They also understand–theoretically–that texting during class is interfering with their learning, or that keyboarding during a lecture is not as likely to help them on a test as much as handwritten notes will.

As bright and capable as ever, my students were also genuinely shocked by the length of the articles I asked them to read (from the NYT, the Atlantic, and a couple of accessible scholarly journal articles).  We spent so much class time working on fundamentals to researched writing, especially on alternatives to a “hit and run” use of sources. In the shallows, cherry picking quotations and “tossing them in” is good enough!

Because of the fundamental shifts in cognitive processing that have taken place in our brains, even motivated students are staying in the shallow end when it comes to reading. Zipping through the shallows leaves no time for paraphrasing, summarizing or analyzing a text–key elements of academic argument. But for how much longer will that be true? It’s worth considering what happens when those features no longer define academic discourse, and what qualities of academic writing we should fight to retain. Blogs like this one are increasingly replacing “the academic article” as a way of communicating. Writers know that they have their readers’ attention for only a tiny window of time.

When most of today’s first-year college students were born, only 18% of U.S. households had Internet access. In about six years’ time, the percentage of our students born into a household with Internet will more than double. Even if you don’t accept all of Carr’s argument, our dependence on the Internet suggests tremendous consequences for teachers of writing. Some readers of Carr’s book have made changes in their personal lives to “unplug” more often and, for example, commit to reading a book–a bound volume, all the way to the end!  It’s scary for most of us to consider what might be lost, but Carr also points out that the same fears existed upon the invention of the printing press.

Neuroscience is undoubtedly the next frontier, and teachers of literacy will discover much more in the next decade about how to use brain research to help humans learn. As we wait for some conclusive findings on that front, I am going to spend some time this summer thinking about assignments or activities that will ask students to spend just a little more time in the deep end.

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