Today’s Moment of Heresy

I’m sitting under the portico on the back deck of the Truro, MA  library, watching the kids from the local day camp run relay races. It’s one of the top ten days here: pure blue sky, light breeze, endless sun. I walked for a long while on the beach this morning, to this year’s sandbar where hundreds of grey seals are resting. They make this constant moaning sound, like wind across bottle tops. Scientists don’t know what it is, but it’s part of seal magic, I suppose.

Don't they look like giant slugs?

I’ve been camping here for the past two weeks. It’s an annual retreat– no electricity, random spotty internet access, day time activities suddenly linked to the rising and setting sun, or the teeming rain. Still, this is a working vacation. I’m on a timeline to defend a dissertation proposal by December. I’ve been reading some of the new-ish theories about literacy– why is academic writing so oblique?– and thinking about the significance of these ideas for the future of English (the academic subject in the U.S., not the language). I think I am committing myself to a heretical position: English just can’t center on the study of literature any more.

Why? Well, you might have to read my dissertation to find out all of my thinking on this. But the way we communicate, the reasons why we communicate– Gunther Kress, an English Education/Language guy in England (why is all the good stuff on literacy happening everywhere but the U.S.?), makes the case that writing distributed via the printed page is being slowly displaced by images on screens– especially computer screens. He says writing will always be around, so don’t worry about that. But more and more, we’ll see the image combined with writing to make communications. “The combined effects [of the dominance of image and screen] will produce deep changes in the forms and functions of writing,” he says. He goes on to say,

This in turn will have profound effects on human, cognitive/affective, cultural and bodily engagements with the world, and on the forms and shapes of knowledge. The world told is different to the world shown. The effects of the move to the screen…will produce far-reaching shifts in relations of power.

We’re intent on the purpose of education being to prepare kids for work and college (according to the Common Core Standards), but in what kind of world? Not the one Kress is thinking about, above.

What should the English of 2020 look like? Will we study “language”? For what purposes? What does it mean to study language? (Mostly I think it turns out to be grammar worksheets and the 5 paragraph essay.) What is the place of literature in the “world shown” ? What more do we– and our kids– need?




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