Circling the wagons: the culture of technology and english teaching

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I am a little unsettled by the cult-like euphoria that unilaterally and uncritically promotes the use of computers in our classrooms.

Don't get me wrong. I use the laptop in my classroom. I create attractive and illuminating handouts and I use an online interactive grammar website provided by Towson University that is better than any other teaching tool that I know. I like composing on a keyboard; I use our email and e-conferences to stay informed; I browse the Internet for articles and sources; and I keep my e-handouts and e-files tidily in my hard drive. On YouTube I can show students Philip Larkin reading An Arundel Tomb, complete with photos of the poem's famous effigy in Chichester Cathedral. Before the Internet, the time and expense involved in such a resource would smother it at birth. Now, it is mine at the click of a mouse.

What concerns me as a teacher of English literature is that the once merely viral enthusiasm for the selective benefits of computers in the classroom has become a pandemic assumption that the tool is ipso facto of insuperable value in every subject. And yes, I do wonder if technology is bent on serving its own imperatives rather than those of education. I am also suspicious of the technological culture's presumptuous claim that it owns the future. I tire of attending conferences only to be told by hyper-enthusiastic IT people that all other forms of teaching are now obsolete. Period.

Computers cannot teach literature and they are not my ally when I walk into a classroom and try to "sell" literature. Not as some slick salesman with bells and whistles up his sleeve, but as someone whose personal credentials as a communicator students might come to trust. Trust that I know what I am talking about, that I want more than anything else for them to feel comfortable about engaging their minds, their feelings, their experiences, their entire selves in the journey towards knowledge (not information), enlightenment (not accumulation of facts) and growth (not a passage through prescribed hoops).

Computers slow down classroom discussion

I go into a class, not hard-wired to follow a lesson plan or to lead the students through a preconceived template, but prepared to abandon my preparation the moment I realize that it is redundant, that discussion and thinking have ignited a new lesson plan that might better serve our objectives. I need to be quick on my feet, and a computer won't let me do that. For all its speed, it can be slow and it cannot think laterally.

If I commit to teaching within the limitations of the binary code I risk losing the real opportunities to connect with the students and to harness their impromptu thoughts and sudden energies.

Whatever else is now required in math and science, I often wonder if the teaching of English and of the humanities generally is to be radically enhanced by the prefabricated structures and templates of much educational software that hard-drive us to distraction.

Good literary fiction is interactive

Ultimately, there is a real sense in which literature cannot be taught at all (Graham Hough, The Dream and the Task, 1963). "There are moments of imaginative fusion in which sensuous delight, emotional quickening and intellectual comprehension are blended"–what the poet, Hopkins, called "the roll, the rise, the carol, the creation", but what may be just a stylishly imaginative sentence. Good literary fiction is more interactive than any computer program. All the teacher can strive to do, finally, is encourage a belief that perception, imagination, emotional response are real, that nuance and ambiguity in language are of value, that the diverse connections that can be made within a text are essential, and that the quiet dialogue between the text and the reader's own experiences, real and imagined, is the pulse of engagement. I teach all of this so that those "unteachable" moments need not be taught in the first place. I'm not sure that this is best done with binary software that has not the wit to deal with tone, or irony or ambiguity (something that computers see not as "an opening for insight and dialogue but a bug to be fixed" Nicholas Carr, "Is Google Making Us Stoopid?" Atlantic Monthly, August 2008).

There is also a far-reaching problem of incompatibility between the binary code and individual diversity. Essentially this opposition is part of the ongoing tension between left brain and right brain, between scientism and art, between those who would wish for a more efficient consumer world of order, uniformity and measurable accountability, and those who celebrate stubborn uniqueness. In his inaugural lecture as professor of French Literature at Leicester University in 1964, F.W.J. Hemmings spoke of his resistance to those who pursue a "human taxonomy":

I like to think that in the possibly over-policed, leveled and uniform society towards which we appear to be drifting... in this tight-knit, crowded, socially undifferentiated society of tomorrow, the study of literature, and what is more important certainly, the love of literature, will encourage the growth of what I can only call a non-violent anarchy: by which I mean a state of quiet and indrawn, but obstinate and unceasing rebellion against all demands that one should fall into line, that one should round oneself, if one is a square peg, so as to fit the round hole that awaits one; a quizzical scepticism, in short, towards the values, modes of thinking and way of life of our consumer societies. (p. 21, The Uses of Literature, Leicester UP, 1965)

Hemmings was uncomfortable then with our "modern habit of mind of thinking in categories." Today he might have been more than a little alarmed by how much we think in algorithms, those systems of precise instructions that create the colour-coded percentage tables, pie charts, box graphs and statistical diagrams showing different numbers of little silhouetted men in a series of little rectangular boxes. Google's chief executive, Eric Schmidt, declares that his is a company "founded on the science of measurement, and it is striving to systematize everything it does." (Quoted by Nicholas Carr).

The problem is that stereotyping, classifying, bureaucratizing, codifying, binary thinking, indeed all thinking that produces statistics, surveys, focus groups, categories, trends, marketing research, strategizing and consultant groups, is as anti-literary a habit of thinking as possible. And its chosen idiom is also anti-literary: buzz words, jargon, clich's, all of it "unyielding language content to admire its own paralysis." (Toni Morrison quoted in Death Sentences by Don Watson).

Learning with no clear answers

Writers deal with individuals, not types; they celebrate and explore the layers and folds of the oddity, the eccentric, the unmistakably unique human being, the square peg for whom there is no round hole. They imagine a universe that is exactly like our own, one in which the only important questions have no clear answers and no algorithmic solutions: Who am I? What am I doing here? How do I deal with the inherent and acquired flaws in my nature? How do I live with the discontent in my life while embracing the joy and energy and beauty that is life? In their fiction they pursue unobvious truths.

Asking an English teacher to adopt the methods, the strategies and the tools of those who pursue diametrically opposite ends in their disciplines is like asking a biologist to teach The Day of the Triffids instead of Mendel's Law.

And all of this requires a certain kind of literacy, one that goes beyond mere word recognition and cognitive meaning. Computer literacy is compatible with speed, systems, categories and codes. The more literate the student the more adept he will be with the skills required to assimilate information-systems quickly, accurately, and retentively, so that the vital connections that transform information into knowledge are possible if students dwell on them long enough to make them happen.

My gut feeling is that they are inclined not to.

Nicholas Carr is one of a growing number of skeptics who believes that literary reading is becoming obsolete. Of course, he acknowledges that the ubiquity of text on the Internet, cell phone messaging, Facebook and email, means that people now might be reading even more than they did in the 70s and 80s when TV was the medium of choice. But it is a different kind of reading. We are now highly efficient "decoders of information". We "'power browse' horizontally through titles, content pages and abstracts, going for quick wins." (UCL study cited by Carr). The best minds, in such a universe, "operate as high-speed data-processing machines". Horizontal reading, or "accelerated scanning", connects at warp speed from a myriad of instantly available sources, to find the quick solution to a problem, to book a flight, buy a car, find a lost friend or discover a hundred new ones complete with bio and photos on Facebook.

This is an evolution in the way our brains are wired.

Literature requires a more advanced form of literacy. The reader is asked to do more than read words. He must learn how to read a voice. The voice of the writer who has a story to tell. He must learn to hear its inflexions, to follow its rhythms and to understand its deliberate ambiguities ("His face was drawn but the curtains were real"). Because writers express more than mere intellection, their words come misted with nuance and irony that reveal emotional and fanciful depths, and that often express the contradictions that inform real truth. Consider the final line of The Great Gatsby, with its emotional resonance that captures the entire novel in a perfect counterpoint:

"So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

Speed read your way through that and you might as well not read it at all. Scan it and you've missed it. Power browse it and you kill it. Reduce it to columns, or a graph, or a box, and you have nothing. The writer's voice is gone and you are left with stuff that can be neatly categorized but means nothing anymore.

Good literary fiction creates interesting lessons

But we are told by the likes of Sheryl Abshire, a school technology officer in Louisiana that students "don't engage with textbooks that are finite, linear and rote. Teachers need digital resources to find those documents, those blogs, those wikis that get them beyond the plain vanilla curriculum in the textbooks." ("In a Digital Future, Textbooks Are History" NYTimes 9 August 2009).

In textbooks, maybe, but there is no plain vanilla curriculum in good literary fiction.

As a teacher of plays, poems, novels and short stories, I want students to learn to read not at lightning speed, but at the pace of the writer's own voice. Only then can they hope to discern the ambiguities and emotional resonances of the language, where meaning and drama and truth lie.

I am not convinced that the triumphs of computer literacy (speed, facility, colour, graphics, sound, video, podcasts, GarageBand or any of the other "neat stuff that's so cool") can really enhance the quiet, reflective, solitary process that is reading. For that we need time, peace, an absence of distraction, and a book – all of which are under siege these days. Our classroom culture has changed. Computers with all their gimcrackery have created loud and animated distractions that invite students to multitask and be diverted even while they are reading. I sometimes feel that we, as teachers, feed that distraction when we substitute software aids and games for the text.

The Boston Globe has just reported on the decision by Cushing Academy (a top US prep school) to dismantle its traditional library and give away its collection of 20,000 books. It will now house three large flat screen TV's, laptop-friendly study carrels and a coffee shop (to replace the reference desk). University libraries have been dumping books for a couple of years and redesigning their spaces as "e-learning centres". In 1951, Isaac Asimov wrote a prophetic story "The Fun They Had" about education in 2157. Learning takes place at home with a "mechanical teacher" that is programmed for the student's ability and returns digitally evaluated homework without ever seeing the student. The story turns on the discovery of a book in an attic, and this object fascinates the children who did not know that a book ever existed. Perhaps Asimov was wrong about the date... by about 150 years! Perhaps, sadly, the future is now.

As an English teacher who believes that you can't navigate the layers of good narrative at warp speed or with predetermining, "horizontal" software, I will remain skeptical of IT gurus and their presumptuous initiatives of unproved success in education that would retard my own progress as a teacher and that of my literature students as learners. We have all been assured that the computer is merely a tool to help us when we need it. I use it when I need it, and hopefully in years to come I will learn how to use it more extensively to supplement my teaching. Supplement, but not replace. There's the rub.

When the time comes for me and my students to get down to the business of reading, of learning to be literate in the highest sense of the word, then I will continue to ask them to log out and tune in.


F.W.J. Hemmings, The Uses of Literature: An Inaugural Lecture (Leicester University Press, 1965). Gary Small and Gigi Vorgan, iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind (Collins Living, 2008). Don Tapscott, Grown Up Digital (McGraw-Hill, 2009). Don Watson, Death Sentences (Viking Canada, 2003).

—Colin Brezicki

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