"I would we were all of one mind, and one mind good." --Cymbeline, V.iv.209-210. An English teacher's log. Slow down: Check it once in a while.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

What’s Wrong with Instantaneous Comprehension? or Charles Dickens meets IM

My students are some of the brightest in Southern California. They are so capable that they can be listening to a favorite song on an IPod, talking on a cell phone, playing a remote video game, exchanging Instant Messages with their friends, and typing their English essays all at the same time. This is real talent. I’ll talk about the quality of the resulting essays in a minute.

Their gifts of multitasking intelligence being so prodigious, why is it that when my sophomores open Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities to the first page, so many of them feel either “this is too hard for me” or “I am too dumb for this” and immediately fly into the Web, where—at quicknotes. or read4me. or dumbdown.—they get stuck among the shrunken, dried, brittle carcasses of books whose juices have all been sucked out of them by the dot com spider?

Obviously the book isn’t really too hard for them, nor are they too dumb for it, because approximately four weeks later, having been forced actually to read the book, nearly all of them will report that they loved it, that they were moved by it, that it got easier to read as they went. So why do so many of them think it’s too hard for them? And more to the point, why do they think the proper response to that difficulty is to find a way to make it quick and easy?

My theory is that it’s because they’ve been brought up to expect instantaneous comprehension of whatever they see, hear, or read. Almost everything they have seen on TV, in the movies, or on the computer or video screen, almost everything they hear on the radio or CD or IPod, and almost everything they have been expected to read—websites, instant messages, email, advertising, and nearly every textbook—has been pitched at a level so low, so shallow, so easily absorbable, that anyone could get it, and get it instantly.

This low aim is intentional on the part of the pitchers. The easier something is to comprehend, the greater the market share. Pitching something that takes effort and time reduces sales.

One of the corollaries of this marketing of lowest-common-denominator content is that any individual instant of it is boring. Freeze-frame a TV show or study the score or lyrics of a pop song or reread an email or IM exchange a week later and you will most likely find insufferable shallowness. But if things keep moving, you don’t notice. You have the constant excitement of perpetual expectation. Of course this moment is boring, but that only increases your hope that the next may be meaningful. It isn’t? Well, how about the next? the next? (If you want to read more about this subject, check out Gerry Mander’s book called Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television.)

Given the predominance of the shallow media during their formative years, my students grow up expecting, quite understandably, that everything that comes to them can and should be instantly comprehended. And if no one has taken the time or effort to force them to learn from experience that an hour’s time and effort expended on a worthy object (like a good book, poem, painting, or movie) will yield deeper meaning than a thousand hours in the electronic media world, then how would they know it?

Because the culture they are steeped in and their busy parents have left it to machines to train them, is it any wonder that their natural reactions end up conforming to the machine? TV, radio, computer, IPod, cell phone, VCR, DVD player, palm pilot, even the automobile—all respond predictably, regularly, and effectively and yield instantaneous and perfectly comprehensible (however shallow) results. Why wouldn’t kids raised by them think that they should be doing the same?

So it is not my students’ fault that they are tempted to rush to the computer to find the explanation for a chapter of Dickens thinking they can’t do it themselves. They have not been taught that they can. They have not been trained to think it normal to reread a difficult sentence before they get it or to look up an unfamiliar word or to think about a passage before its light comes on. They can be forgiven for thinking that anything requiring that sort of effort must be too hard. Nonetheless, they need to be taught a better way.

What is wrong with instantaneous comprehension is that if you think it’s either that or quickienotes dot com, you cannot believe or even imagine how meaningful—how rich, deep, moving, and life-enhancing—are the rewards of time and effort spent in appreciating a great work of art.

As for those essays I mentioned above, which would you rather read: the essay of a student who thinks that you should instantly comprehend whatever he or she has tossed together on a computer whose screen also has open windows showing Instant Messages, a video game, and the notes to a Dickens chapter at cheat4me.com? or the essay of a student who has taken the time and made the effort to live in the world Charles Dickens creates out of words and sentences of whose profundity freeze-framing would only reveal greater depths and who has tried to craft his own sentences to be worthy of them?


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