Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Allie McCullough, Othello, and Texting

Dusty D has been reflecting on the fact that in the last diary excerpt, Allie said she had been reading "Othello." Not for school, but for leisure. She said she didn't like it much--which means she was also able, at 16 years of age, to assess and evaluate one of the greatest works in the language. She absorbed the content and formed an opinion.

Dusty D does not know of any 16-year-old in Washtenaw County who would not only read Othello for pleasure but be able to express an opinion on it.

Contrast this to the recent NYT story about a family, each of whose members are avid, day-long users of screen culture. Each member of the family checks their cell or computer first thing in the morning--even before breakfast, to which Mom summons them by texting.

How does a given medium shape its content, and how does that particular rendering of content shape our ideas of the nature of knowledge and communication and our technique of processing it?

Allie's world had one medium: print. Her usage of media involved the active technique of reading, in which the reader is actively making sense of the text, proceeding at one's own pace, and in the quiet of the mind forming questions and making evaluations. The medium allows for long, complicated sentences and ideas which we also see in her pastime of attending her Lyceum oratory club. For fun, she attended several hours of oratory at each club meeting. Don't forget the commencement exercise at Normal, which featured a slate of speakers whose number is unimaginable by today's standards.

The medium's content, in something like Othello, is contextualized. Events take place within a long narrative, like the long political essays in the papers of her day. Information is not a hodgepodge of snippets of decontextualized short bits, as in a modern news show or a text message or the average Internet browse.

Dusty D would posit that the media available to Allie, and the lack of such constant modern-day distractions as cellphone rings, conditioned her mind to be better able to weigh complex ideas, form lucid and organized oratory of her own to read at the Lyceum (where her talents were recognized), and have overall a richer and sturdier life of the mind than the average teen today. Her mind was furnished with Hepplewhite. Not Ikea.


BF said...

"... a richer and sturdier life of the mind than the average teen today.."?

I'm not sure I would agree with that posit. Different? Yes. Valuable? Perhaps. Necessary for the time? No, not really - just as much teen activity today is not *necessary*.

It was, as you mention, one of the few forms of what we would term "entertainment" of the time. While we still have that form (the printed page) today, we also have a wider variety. I'm not suggesting the options today are all good, or even better; but from an entertainment perspective, I would guess it's on par with a 16 year old reading Othello on her own, without a guiding hand of an educator to put the story in the context of The Bard's time and to breathe life into the meanings hidden in the language and actions of characters in the play.

By the same token, children engaging in that very same "entertainment" today, merely for entertainment sake, are not necessarily getting the full experience they *could* be getting, either.

Allie was indeed a bright young woman, who filled her time with entertainment options of her day, just as teens - and mid-to-late-40-something-readers-of-your-blog - do today.

Anonymous said...

I'm with you Lauren. The Internet has become a substitute for real face to face social interaction for many and an addiction as bad as heroin.

Dusty D said...

Anonymous: I know one thing for sure. My Mom would never have tolerated that pre-breakfast texting and fooling around. She would have seen that as disrespectful to the family, and disrespectful to her authority as a parent. I agree completely. I can't imagine a family so fractured that people are fooling around with their addiction instead of making civilized sleepy small talk over the cornflakes, like a family should.

This is not a "get off my lawn" post--there are larger implications for families, for styles of communications and thought, because of these media changes.