I’ve been reading Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. I love it.
I first read his work in an article in The Atlantic (2008): “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” The second I finished it, I knew I was going to have to use it in classes I teach–especially classes with LONG novels–over and over again from freshman to graduate students, because we need to talk about reading–always.
It’s really hard to read eight or more long novels in a British lit class in one semester. Stamina in reading is in short order. I speak from experience. I’ve lost a lot of power in reading myself. It’s harder than ever for me to single-task a reading experience. Focusing on reading is hard, hard, hard now. When I sit down to read a big ol’ novel, I have to be in the right mood; I have to turn everything off; I have to prepare to have no distractions of any kind; I have to really push myself to sustain reading and thinking over a long period of time. It’s the best way to really understand a piece of literature. I need deep time on a text.
Knowing when you are working in the shallows might keep you from being stupid.
But more and more, I am distracted by anything shiny. Been complaining about this trend for years. Sigh. Bummer. Nuts. Oh, there’s a text. Oh, someone’s posted to Facebook. Oh, someone needs me. Oh, I’m so important. Oh, I’ve got to respond. Oh. Oh. Oh.
As a teacher, I have to account for this change in how I work, because if I’ve changed this much, think what my students are like who are raising themselves to be multi-taskers who do 18 things at once and can read a long novel, but need more time stretched out to do the same thing we used to do in less? I teach less content now yet more interaction and more writing (and hence, more thinking). It’s a better deal, but truly, we’re covering a lot less than I ever have before. It’s a bummer on some level, but I love that thinking takes precedence, that writing really makes a difference in learning. Writing is my thing.
I’ve regularly had students read the article from 2008–it’s smart, savvy, and raises issues I need to talk about with them. But now Carr has come out with the book (2010) published by Norton (a favorite publisher). But, it’s taken me awhile to get to this; it’s so worth it. SO totally worth it.
I’m taking weeks and weeks to read this, not because it’s dull. It’s not dull. Every page has notes, underlines, arrows, stars, questions. Every chapter, I think: ” I have to teach this chapter right now. No, I have to make this book part of what I’m teaching right now. The whole book.” There’s a way cool part about the history of reading, handwriting, printing, and books and the relation of all that to how our brains work. Of course, there’s a ton of information on our brains. Of course–it’s the title of the book. But the connection between the brain and the book is so very meaningful to me (English teacher, voracious reader, addicted writer, book collector). I can’t read fast because I’m reading so deeply and thinking so much about everything I’m reading and taking copious notes. Good Lord. It’s ironic, isn’t it?
It’s one of the best books I’ve read in a long while. It’s inspiring me to rethink everything I’m planning to teach next year: honors composition and a 19th century novels course in fall 2013 (and everything in the summer of 2013, too: LOTR and Narnia for an honors course with a philosophy colleague, and a detective novels class).
Oh man. I love when that happens.
And then I realized, KA-BLOOIE, KA-POW, KA-BAM, I’m working in the shallows. Not just that: I am shallow, so shallow. I get it. I’m dancing on the surface of places where I used to dig deep with shovel and pickaxe. I have moments when I get deep (like, ironically, reading Carr’s book), but I don’t get as deep as I used to nor do I regularly go deep. Not really diving like I wish–sort of splashing around about the ankles and knees.
Whine, whine. But here’s the great thing: I’m a much happier person than I’ve ever been. I’m deeply profoundly madly satisfied to have the answers to almost any question I can ask… right at my fingertips. I love having the world right here, right now, right away. I dive into the shallows. Sometimes I smack the bottom a bit, but I sort of, kind of, a little bit know how to dive “light,” or how to dive in the shallows without breaking my neck or dying (no special trick to it–you leap into a position that is more like a belly flop than a dive).
I am a learning junkie. I know it. I love to learn; I love knowledge from the arcane to pop culture; I love to read; I love to write. And the internet does something for that addiction that I’ve never had before–I can get a fix any time, day or night. For free. Libraries used to do that for me–I haunted them morning and night. I’d sit in different places every time so I could discover new books in places I might never go. It’s how I discovered Banjo Patterson. It’s how Alexandre Dumas stole my heart when I was ten. It’s how Allen Drury converted me to his work. It’s how I found Jane Austen and so many more authors who changed my brain. It’s how I found my love of football and military history. It’s how I fell in love with baseball writing. It’s how I learned to love the serendipitous. I still dig wandering in physical libraries–may they never disappear–but many of them are not open all night and they may not be convenient to my home: as in, I’m in bed right now, reading and writing and thinking and exploring. I can tell you with zero equivocation that this is very very right.
I feel so right, I just signed up for a MOOC (a massive open online course) on digital cultures and e-learning that begins in January. It’s free. The texts are free. The videos are free. And I can take the course at home–listen to lectures when I feel like it rather than when it’s convenient for the professor to teach (or in this case, several professors). I could get a certificate of completion from the University of Edinburgh for my efforts, but I don’t care. I just want to learn. I just want to have fun trying to learn in a new way.
And (whoo-hoo) I just signed up for another MOOC on strategic thinking to support innovation in organizations. I think a lot about writing and strategic thinking for the part of my job that is directing a graduate writing center for senior military officers and civilian leaders. Course costs this much: nothing. I will have to buy a book and spend my time reading and learning. OH NO. Invest in my own education and professional development. I CANNOT BELIEVE I HAVE TO DO IT THIS. Wait. I can’t believe I get to do this. My time required: 5-7 hours a week for seven weeks and the books will cost less than $15 and will be downloadable to my Kindle in 30 seconds or less. Am I worth that investment? Yes. Will I learn something valuable? I might.
I did all that while I was writing this blog post, thinking about how the internet is changing my brain, writing about how Carr has written about that, how distracting being online can be, while checking email and Facebook. Yep, about seven things at once. For a short time, I took a break from several of these things to make a phone call, but then about half way through the call, I said, “Hey, I forgot to send you that photo from the other day–want to get on FB, and I’ll message it to you right now?” I was back online in 22 seconds flat and scrolling through FB while talking, and then I opened my email again.
I also have another book lying next to my computer and The Shallows (check out a nice bit on NPR about this book). The other book I’m reading right now is a novel by Michael Connelly–a favored detective novelist. I sometimes take a short break from online “work” to read a fun book, in this case, in a hard copy version. I try to read both ebooks and print books. I like the variety. I’ve read several of the Game of Thrones books in hard copy, big page, bigger print formats, and the last couple in ebook form. Keeps me on my toes. Bobbing and weaving. Reading guerrilla style. Ready for anything.
I imagine part of my ability to do all that is I’m not scrambling to feed myself. I just drive to the store and buy all the food I need; I don’t have to spend days hunting down a mammoth to feed my village. Nor do I need to build my shelter. I pay for it with the money I earn at a job that is largely mobile. Even my laundry isn’t all that hard or dangerous. I’m not risking my life beating my clothes on rocks down at the creek waiting to be attacked by wild animals or shot through the heart by an arrow of a rival clan member. I’m full of the kind of time that allows the kind of intellectual leisure that leads to the kind of blog post you are reading right now. And it is this very situation that Carr is writing about–the fundamental change some of us have undergone in our grown-up-working-adult-professional-and-personal lives made possible by the Information Age. (When I spend too much time contemplating this–it becomes unnerving. I mean, my brain has actually changed over time, and hence, my ways of working have, too. Just read a few posts on this blog, and you’ll see I have rarely bemoaned and often celebrated the Information Age, the Open Movement, and all that jazz; I frequently mention it or aspects of it with great love, e.g. I vowed at one point to always mention Writing Spaces in my posts, but I lost track awhile back and haven’t for some time. LOVE the Volume 1 and 2 of WS. Do click on the link so your writing live can be transformed, too–you’ll love me for it. Love.)
There’s no doubt I’ve changed, my tastes have changed, my brain has changed, my life has changed. Thinking about how that’s happened and why it’s happened, by reading a book like Carr’s, and then spending some time being meta about the whole thing (me, the book, my brain, Carr’s brain) allows me to know what I’m doing. Knowing when you’re romping around in the shallows is a good way to keep from getting too stupid.
I think we are getting smarter–many of us humans. It’s just a kind of smart that we don’t all recognize because it’s new and we don’t know exactly what it means. Or this is the end of the world, and I’m already too stupid to recognize the signs. If the latter is the case, then I imagine I’ll keep on being blissfully ignorant up until the moment of the apocalypse. If the former, then: I win.
I win. I’m really okay with that.