Papyrocentric Attitudes

Even if I am right that rhetorical argument and intellectual rigour as we know it is difficult in hypertext, maybe this matters about as much as Plato's famous denunciation of writing as a destroyer of memory. Plato was right, of course, but he could not foresee the tremendous positive changes that literacy alos brought about, including, according to Havelock, his own worldview based on deductive logic. The kind of linear, propositionalized argument that we value so much today is, after all, not an inevitable end of human progress. If we believe the stronger versions of the theory of transformative technology, it is only an artifact of the print age. Perhaps its usefulness is passing with that age. If we are truly entering a postmodern era in which these coherent strings of propositions reveal themselves as fictions, perhaps instead of fighting it we should get used to an entirely new way of looking at things, and help our students to do the same.

This in turn has at least two versions. We can teach our students to work with the new technologies without losing the intellectual disciplines that print has threaded through modern existence in general and through the academy in particular. In other words, we can co-opt rather than resist the clickable classroom.

But maybe even this is too strong, too antiquated--a "papyrocentric attitude" to borrow a felicitous phrase from Stevan Harnad. If hypertext is the ultimate realization of the postmodernist dream of a reader-constructed universe, maybe they don't need to indwell in others' ideas as much as we creatures of a print culture think they do. Maybe the postmodern culture that the electronic age is bringing about will spawn new forms of thought, new ways of knowing, that make Heim's obsession with discipline obsolete. We may be putting our students in the position of McLuhan's "cool" TV child, unnecessarily perplexed by adult attempts to lever him into an increasingly alien world of "hot" print literacy.

How would we step completely through the looking glass into a world in which knowlege is no longer made by rhetorical interchange as we know it? Perhaps we have to let exploratory rhetoric have more weight than argumentative rhetoric, reversing three thousand years of privileging argumentation.

Or perhaps we simply can't. Thomas Kuhn claims that after a scientific revolution, scientists trained in the old paradigm may be able to learn to operate in the new but never truly internalize it. Perhaps we will have to let this world evolve around us and figure out how to teach it as we go, resigning ourselves to never really internalizing it. But that does not mean that we should avoid participating in it. We need to figure it out from the inside, not the outside. As Nancy Kaplan puts it,

Equitable access to computers, modems, and Internet services alone will not be sufficient. Unless people know how to read what they see and to write when they can -- unless e-literacies are also equitably distributed -- equitable access will be for naught. The humanists among us, slow even to see the changing world of communications all around them, must take responsibility for the literacy education that makes access meaningful. So here is my challenge to English departments, Education departments, and teachers everywhere: learn this space. And contribute. Write this world. ("E-literacies")

And in the meantime...?

Since the best thing to do when it's raining bricks is to stay light on your feet, perhaps the best we can do is to give our students the most flexible tools possible while we, and they, are learning this space.


Plato on Writing Plato's famous denunciation of writing, by way of suggesting that we don't always know much about the media we use.
The Theory of Transformative Technology Background on this theory, useful for those not already steeped in McLuhan, Ong, Bolter, et al.
Co-opting the Clickable Classroom
How to help students get used to this clickable world..
McLuhan hot and cool McLuhan's TV child in the perplexing old world of print.
Michael Heim on Discipline Heim's suggestion for a remedy for excessive speed..
Kapla n on participating in the electronic world A link out to Kaplan's plea for teachers to find out more about these new media.
Flexible Tools for Hypertext Literacy How to, sort of, maybe.

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