Missing Thackery

I had a rare evening out with a dear friend recently: dinner, followed by a concert.  As we walked from the parking lot toward the auditorium, she was bemoaning the omnipresence of YA (Young Adult) literature in the reading diets of a number of college-age students she knows. (My friend,

Thackery’s best-known work

an educator at an independent school, is often visited by former students.) It’s not that she has anything against YA lit, she said, but one of the most glorious times in her freshman year in college was falling in love with Thackery. She spent hours reading in her dorm room, and she feels badly that her bright, talented college students are so focused on YA lit that they won’t have the same experience.

When I pointed out that my free reading choices these days run to murder mysteries and that her student friends might be seeking a similar kind of respite, she went on with barely a breath. “I know things are different for them; this is a different time altogether. But it’s just sad that there isn’t the time, or maybe it’s that there isn’t the inclination, for that kind of reading.”

She had said something similar over dinner, recounting an NPR interview with an author that she’d heard on her drive to the restaurant. “He wrote the thing on paper,” she said, “real paper, with a real pen.” The experience of writing on a computer was just a qualitatively different experience for him.

Her comment segued into a discussion of all the digital tools she is aware of but doesn’t use, how aware she is that her professional background needs updating in the area of new technologies, and, at the same time,  how intensely she is avoiding it. How her students do all this stuff– including plaigiarizing– because they just don’t have time to do the assigned work. “‘Repurposing'” she sniffed. “Nope. Plaigiarizing”

“So what responsibility does that teacher have in this?” I asked. I wasn’t talking about the volume of work kids were dealing with. “The world is

William Makepeace Thackery 1811-1863

different. There’s been an explosion in options for learning, for showing what we know or that have thought about. In what ways does the teacher’s assignment reflect that? If the nature of the assignment is such that a bright, conscientious, overwhelmed student can root around on the Web and piece together a paper, it seems fair to suggest that the teacher may be complicit in this plagiarizing. And if the teacher can’t tell a patchwork paper is different than other writing the kid has done during the year….”

My friend got it; she agreed.

My friend is bright, highly educated, and knows her way around all kinds of high-tech gadgetry. It struck me that she wasn’t railing against technology, at least not completely, in the way that many people– especially those who don’t use computers for even word processing. She was sad that a way of being, with a book, with one’s thoughts, might be passing. She’s just missing Thackery.

Later that evening, when I checked into Twitter, many of the tech-related education conversations were there– decrying teachers who won’t learn, who think social media has no place in learning. The cry is that these teachers are hanging on to the past, teaching our children for the past, the industrial age. I don’t disagree.

But technology is not the answer to all that ails schooling in the U.S. And since my chat with my friend, I’ve realized that sometimes, the people who are saying NO to tech may just be missing Thackery.

The Web makes things possible that never were, but it also makes things (that may have had real value) impossible. Literacy researcher Donald Leu & his research team talk about the need to help kids develop dispositions for living in the age of the global information tsunami.

Rather than stay stuck in the discussion model of “tech is good!” vs. “tech is bad!,” we need a different discussion, framed around questions like what dispositions go along with a love affair with the novels of Thackery (or anyone else)? How does the Web disrupt these? In what ways are these disruptions problematic? Useful? How might we weave these into ways of thinking about learning and teaching in a global, information-rich world?

windmillsCAEB8E31DC1E8 by barbarajm via CC BY 2.0



4 responses to “Missing Thackery”

  1. @1healigan says:

    I am in the process of drafting a world lit course that will incorporate digital writing skills for my seniors next year. It is a big leap for my school, though I am chafing at the bit. They will make a personal blog, curate their research before they write a traditional essay and then make it “digital,” staff our new newsblog, create a digital dossier, practice some DIGITAL storytelling–all while avoiding the words “social media” cause that phrase is a trigger for my admin.
    I am telling you all this so you know I am devoted to their experience of the skills they need to be thinking individuals who control their own destinies. But I am also missing Thackeray, Austen, Shakespeare, Ibsen, Marquez, kafka, Hopkins, Kerouac……I almost lost it the other day and told a beloved student to let Libba Bray go and just read pride and prejudice! YA is great in middle school and to rekindle the reader in teens. But they never regret moving up. Never. They are missing Thackeray without knowing it. The problem for me is how to fit it all in. That iMovie will only be as good as their ability to articulate the emotion and judgment that sparks their genius. I know reading is not the only way to inspire and train their brains, but it is sooooo good at melding learning and entertainment. Plot driven YA is only a stop on the way…

    • Karen says:

      It’s almost like being homesick, isn’t it. Thinking of this era as an ongoing conversation between past and future might be a way to cope with the tensions, or at least, to identify tings we want to be sure to bring from the past forward. You’ve certainly given a great rationale for weaving the traditional literature with the iMovie! I wonder what your students would say– if they would experience a difference in the emotional depth of the videos according to whether they’d read or not….

  2. Healigan says:

    It is homesickness! And I hope they would notice a difference in the video story and the printed story: the AP students often want to start with their reactions to a text versus a movie, but my juniors? Pulling teeth to get them to read, really read their Shakespearean sonnets…we are illuminating sonnets today a la A Way to Teach. So far, they think it is hard but they are rocking the highlighting, commenting and linking features in Word. Keeping my fingers crossed

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