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Digital Natives or Digital Strangers?
Teaching the Eighteenth Century Online, from Ctrl-F to Digital Editions

Allison Muri

WHEN I teach my undergraduate course on “The History and Future of the Book,” I ask the students to read Socrates’ narrative of Theut’s invention of writing in the Phaedrus. The course website links to the translation by Benjamin Jowett published online by the University of Adelaide Library, and because the full 23,000-word text is presented in a single page, I instruct students to search for a particular string of text and read to the end: “But there is something yet to be said of propriety and impropriety of writing.” One could assume this instruction is as straightforward as saying “read pages 609–15 in Jowett’s The Dialogues of Plato, Volume 1.” However, on one occasion after coming to the realization that many of my students had not read the excerpt, I asked why, and I was startled that one excuse among the expected commonplaces was that a few had not been able to find the pertinent section: they were unaware of the “Find” function in their browsers to search the text on the page. A significant number of students, in the second, third, and even fourth years of their undergraduate programs, will admit that they do not know how to format a hanging indent, insert section breaks and page numbers so that their title page is unnumbered and their essay text begins on page one, or create and modify paragraph styles in their word processor.

Fig. 1
The “View source” tool in Firefox. Phaedrus, distributed by eBooks@Adelaide (the University of Adelaide Library), is licensed for use under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Australia.

Please click on the figure above to enlarge.

Many do not know how to view the source of web pages, or even that it is possible to see (to some degree) how the pages they read
every day are assembled and formatted (Fig. 1). They do not know what “HTML” stands for, and many do not know that their digital texts might record their actions and patterns of reading for data analysis and marketing. They do not know how Google results are ranked but will use the search engine as their first foray into research for their essays. Computers, the Internet, and increasingly inexpensive and user-friendly applications and mobile devices are profoundly affecting means of social and intellectual expression, distribution and access to cultural resources: they have established new practices of recording, accessing, and manipulating information, and they have resulted in new forms of literary and cultural expression such as e-books, wikis, blogs, feeds, scholarly TEI-compliant texts, databases, mashups, apps, and games. And yet significant numbers of our students understand little about how the texts they are reading and writing every day actually work, have limited technical skills to manipulate them, and know surprisingly little in general about the cultural implications of digital texts

My examples are anecdotal but would seem to confirm the conclusions of various reports on and studies of so-called “digital natives” in recent years. Robert Kvavik observes, in his study of 4,374 undergraduate students in the United States:

Our quantitative data show that, in general, students say they have the skills they need. The qualitative data suggest a slightly different picture. Students have very basic office suite skills as well as e-mail and basic Web surfing skills. Moving beyond basic activities is problematic. It appears that they do not recognize the enhanced functionality of the applications they own and use. (7.7)

Similarly, the findings of an Australian study of 2,588 first-year students by Gregor Kennedy et al. found that while the majority “use a computer at least once per month to manage or manipulate digital photos and to play digital audio files,” the use of more sophisticated software, “such as audio and video editing or . . . Photoshop is much less common” (Kennedy et al. 520). Furthermore, while basic activities “such as searching for information on the web, email, mobile telephony and SMS messaging are used very frequently by a large majority,” newer technologies “that allow students to collaborate and to produce and publish material online are used by a relatively small proportion” (522).

Meanwhile, textual scholar Jerome McGann is calling for the desegregation of digital research and undergraduate education:

For many years the approach we took at IATH -- we were typical -- made sense: to promote specific projects in digital scholarship outside the traditional departmental and institutional structures of the research university. It seems obvious now that we need to integrate our scholarship into the programmatic heart of the university, and specifically into our courses and with our students, undergrads as well as grads. Humanities scholarship needs those people, and most of all it needs to work with them in the world of their degree programs, and not along the marches of that world. . . . we need them because the future of humanities scholarship, exposing what Michael Keller calls the ‘big ideas,’ often comes from that population of young people. (x)

As educators, we need to encourage our students to defy the popular notion that online reading actually diminishes human intelligence, as suggested by Nicholas Carr, who writes that “What the Net diminishes is . . . the ability to know, in depth, a subject for ourselves, to construct within our own minds the rich and idiosyncratic set of connections that give rise to a singular intelligence” (143). We need our students to engage with Carr’s assumption that while writing “on a page of parchment or paper enabled us to become deep readers, to turn our attention, and our brain power, to the interpretation of meaning,” with “writing on the screen . . . we’re no longer guided toward a deep, personally constructed understanding of the text’s connotations” (166). Our students need the technical expertise and the technical literacy to counter the claim that “screen intelligence doesn’t transfer well to non-screen experiences, especially the kinds that build knowledge and verbal skills,” as Mark Bauerlein argues, suggesting that reading online

conditions minds against quiet, concerted study, against imagination unassisted by visuals, against linear, sequential analysis of texts. . . .Visual culture improves the abstract spatialization and problem solving, but it doesn’t complement other intelligence-building activities. Smartness here parallels dumbness elsewhere. The relationship between screens and books isn’t benign. (95)

If we were to accept these conclusions -- even if we do not (and I do not) -- addressing the stereotypes bears some attention from our education system. The mass digitization of books, the growth of digital collections, and the ubiquity of digital texts suggest that the roles of educators in the humanities need to change. Before we can successfully incorporate our scholarship, digital or otherwise, into the undergraduate classroom, however, we are obliged to teach students how to find, sort, assemble, and read these texts.

My reader will surely be asking by now, “But what has all this to do with teaching the Eighteenth Century online?” I am suggesting that teaching the period online is only in part a matter of introducing our students to the many outstanding eighteenth-century resources available online today.1 It is also a matter of providing them with the technical and critical skills necessary to understand, participate in, analyze, appraise, evaluate, influence, and create the texts and technologies, both scholarly and popular, that are currently in use and surely will continue to develop throughout their lifetimes. For these reasons I have required students to submit their work and discuss them on blogs, and I have asked students to edit wikis. I have taught them basic techniques for searching databases, and I have introduced them to HyperText Markup Language (HTML) and Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) so they can create their own online editions. Admittedly, these exercises have some potential complications: for example, one belligerent or aggressive blogger can stifle the expressivity of the majority of participants in a class, and the investment of time and energy to set up, monitor, and mark an evolving set of digital communications is not insignificant. Yet, I believe, the benefits far outweigh the potential conflicts and time pressures. What follows are some examples of how I approach teaching seventeenth- and eighteenth-century works in the context of digital resources and the study of new media.

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