Is there really a text in this class?

Originally published on DogWalkBlog.com

Nathaniel Hawthorne

Nathaniel Hawthorne

I read Shannon Paul’s blog this morning where she was invited to speak at a class at Ferris State University on using social media tools in marketing research. While she did not share the entire content of the class on her blog, she alluded to the gist of it in her afterthoughts and with the question: “How do you prepare communications students for a world where no canonized body of work applies?”

But the fallacy that there is “no canonized body of work” is not entirely accurate. There are huge volumes of works that study human behavior. The problem I have with social media classes like this is they study the medium rather than the text. It is the same issue I have with business and social media experts who attempt to sell an ROI of social media.

Can you imagine when Nathanial Hawthorne enrolled in Bowdoin College, if the first class he was required to take was The role of ink and paper in writing? How silly, you may say. But, the corrallary for what passes as modern education is just that.

To illustrate, let’s say we have a syllabus that separates out works by the type of writing instrument used. Works written in pencil, the quill pen, the manual typewriter, the IBM Selectric. Then, each is examined in the context of it’s medium, rather than how it connects to culture as whole, to the actual work produced, the author who produced it or the period in which it was produced. What professor would construct a syllabus around that? Not many. But, it might make an interesting, albeit somewhat useless, course.

When Hawthorne wrote a story, he did not study the technology of paper, ink and pens. He just wrote text. If he were writing today, he would feel just as comfortable using a MacBook as he was using a journal. To writers, artists, even business people, the value of the tools is not in how they work but in what can be created with them to affect other human beings to produce a result.

Twitter, blogs, RSS are technical tools, just as paper and pens are technical tools. We are studying the tools of the trade in institutions of higher education instead of the works they enable people to create and ideas they are able to advance. Did professors in the 1830s teach students how to load their pens with ink or how to bind pages into a book? No! They assumed these skills as a prerequisite to taking classes. Can professors now make those same assumptions? They should be able to, yet we have professors building entire courses around remediating students on how to use what are basic tools of our contemporary culture.

Technology changes, people do not. The same human condition we have been struggling against since the time we started walking upright plagues us still today, regardless of the tools we use. A Twitter community doesn’t work without people and has rules like every other group, though that somehow comes as a shock to most newbies. Email is still ultimately connected to a human being with feelings, emotions and reactions, even though many senders forget that when they hit the send button. Blogs are journals and articles people wrote who now have the ability to publish.

If we want to study the anthropological implications of information being received electronically as pieces on a grid, that is fine, but studying the technical tools in a post-secondary institution is like wagging a dog. At minimum, it is University 0.5 and belongs in the remediation department alongside “How to write a research paper” and “Invitation to Physics.”

Advertisements