I’ve got a problem.
On one hand, I’m passionate about technology. I’ve been an active user of computers since back in high school when I cracked open my Mac Plus to install an extra four megabytes of RAM. Let’s just say Lode Runner ran a heck of a lot faster after the upgrade.
And my academic work improved as well. I remember using Hypercard for a class project, dragging the buttons around, creating links to other cards, and basically, creating. What did I create? I wish I remembered. I’d like to say I had some sort of overall epiphany when playing with Hypercard, but if I had, I’d probably have ended up in Silicon Valley with the other dot-com folks, either retired at 38 or scrounging for work.
Technology has long been a part of me. But I’ve also long been a reader. I’ve buried myself in books for years, losing myself to the plot of everything from the Narnia Chronicles to Nicholas Carr’s most recent book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains.
And that’s where the problem comes in. What is the Internet doing to our brains?
Carr’s book posits that the explosive growth of digital media is essentially shortening our attention span, literally changing our brains from ones able to focus on books to brains which are better designed to handle the often chaotic firehose of information that is modern media. “Calm, focused, undistracted, the linear mind is being pushed aside by a new kind of mind,” Carr writes, one “that wants and needs to take in and dole out information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts–the faster, the better.” While paying tribute to both the inevitability of change and the benefits new technologies bring, Carr’s book is an implict warning about the future.
Admittedly, there’s a range of opinions about Carr’s book, which I find particularly frustrating since much of the criticism has come from technology and education writers I trust and consider part of my Personal Learning Network. But as a teacher of English — especially one who values the act of reading — I have to be concerned.
I’ve been concerned for a few years, especially since 2007, when the National Endowment for the Arts’ report “To Read or Not to Read” really shocked me. Coming on the heels of its 2004 report “Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America,” the two reports painted a bleak picture of reading among teenagers. According to the reports, both reading scores and interest in reading as a pleasure activity were in a gradual but unmistakable decline — particularly among teenagers. Reading for pleasure — that is, reading for fun outside of school, steadily decreases between the ages of 13 to 17. In 2004, 54 percent of 9-year-olds reported reading “almost every day for fun.” But for 13-year-olds, that number dropped to 30 percent. By 17, the percentage was at 22 percent.
Perhaps more shocking was that the report also noted a similar decline in college graduates. Even though the report noted that educational level correlates strongly with reading habits, it still found an 18 percent drop in literary reading among college graduates. One in three college seniors reported reading nothing at all for pleasure in a particular week.
The report studiously refused to speculate on the possible causes for these numbers. So I presented this report to my fall 2007 English 9 Honors class. They had no problem telling me exactly what they thought. To paraphrase one student’s comment: the farther you go in school, the less time you have outside of school for pleasure activities. Given the choice between reading a book and playing a game or talking to their friends online, how many students would realistically choose a book?
The class nodded. And I was only a little surprised. These were the best and brightest of the entering class of 2012. And they were bluntly telling me the older they got, the less they’d read for pleasure.
“Is this a problem?” I asked. They agreed. “Well, what can we do about it?”
That year was the first time I assigned independent reading as an academic task. That year, we limited the independent reading project to the first quarter. This year, I’ve made independent reading a core component of my class. I expect my students to read independently for at least two half-hour sessions a week. I’m tracking their reading not with intrusive reading logs, but with a combination of informal check-ins, discussion groups and an end-of-quarter portfolio. Though it only counts for 10 percent of their grade, I consider their independent reading one of the most important aspects of the course.
At the same time, I’m trying to model my own reading, both by discussing it in class along with my students and using new media such as my wiki and my new academic Twitter account. Which is itself interesting, because my renewed concern about technology’s impact on our lives coincides with me launching my most technology-enabled class ever. I’m again using an online platform to communicate with students and their families outside of school. I’m playing with Twitter to explore how a limited amount of social networking can help improve communication between home and school. And in my most exciting endeavor, I’ve moved all my lesson planning to Google Calendar, enabling me to among other things push out a constantly updated class agenda. I don’t have to write things down once in my planbook and once online. I do it once.
You see, despite my concerns about technology, I’m an optimist about the future. In that regard (and perhaps as an antidote to Carr’s book), I’ve just begun reading Clay Shirky’s book Cognitive Surplus. And it’s making me hopeful for the future. In a June 2010 talk in Cannes, France, Shirky argues that given contemporary media tools, many people choose to use them to create, rather than consume:
But now that we’ve been given media tools…that let us do more than consume, what we’re seeing is that people weren’t couch potatoes because we liked to be. We were couch potatoes because that was the only opportunity given to us. We still like to consume, of course. But it turns out we also like to create, and we like to share.
Carr’s book paints a picture of the Internet as a firehose constantly pumping distractions into our mind. But while we consume media, we also create it.
I don’t see the decline of the book as inevitable–at least not in my students’ lifetime. And while new media does have the potential to distract, it also has the potential to create.
Hopefully we can have the best of both worlds.
P.S. Shirky’s talk on “Cognitive Surplus” is worth watching in its entirety.