Monday, July 28, 2008

Not Reading About Not Reading

I just got back from a car trip and even though I had almost no time for the internet and didn't buy the Sunday Times, I couldn't avoid hearing about the, um, news:

"OH NOES no one READS anymore and everyone just looks at the INTERNETS all day and what about WAR AND PEACE and what kind of moron spends her whole day SOCIAL NETWORKING!"

The story is here, but um, to be honest, I didn't read it.

I tried, but I got bored. Isn't this debate getting old? I mean, I love books as much as anyone, and I want them to survive, and I value and treasure the mode of reading associated with books, and so on and so forth.

But there are actual interesting questions about the future we could be discussing instead.

For example. I teach Philosophy. I used to assign some reading, from Hume, or Plato, or whatever, and students would have to go read it and try to puzzle out what it meant. OK, they didn't HAVE TO, but figuring out how not to was hard.

Now, there are a million websites laying out all the basics. Hume said X, he meant Y, in simple language this means Z. Recently, most people think W, though some also think Q.

Now, you could say, "No looking at the internets when doing philosophy homework!"

But that would be dumb. I know this, because I do the same thing my students do. Or, rather, I do the scholarly equivalent. When I'm reading about something, I google a few phrases; I see what comes up; I check out homepages of authors; I read encyclopedia entries.

Of course, that's not all I do. Duh. That's the starting point. But it's incredible useful, it's easy, and it's pretty fun. Not doing it would be stupid.

So what I want is to get my students to do the same thing: use the internet sources on a subject as a starting point for research on some topic, and then have them do work that brings them from there to somewhere else.

It's not totally obvious to me how to make this work. Assignments will have to be structured differently. Probably different readings will have to be assigned. Even class time may be used differently.

I admit that doing things this way, something will be lost. Students will spend less time reading Hume and more time thinking about Hume-related topics, or reading secondary sources on Hume's philosophy.

That is something lost.

But there are great gains. A student who not only is responsible for learning not only the basics, but who also has to learn what's new about some subject, and has to understand what people are thinking about it now, and who has to sort through various kinds of texts and points of view to figure out what is right, is learning a ton.

Obviously this is critical thinking.

To me, the interesting question is, how are we going to restructure learning so that googling something is not generally cheating, but is rather a way of learning stuff?

'Cause really, trying to get students not to use the internet to learn things is really, really, really, just not going to happen.

No comments: