Archive for June, 2010

Does Surfing the Net Change How We Think?

June 17, 2010

It does, claims Nicholas Carr, in The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains (Norton, 2010).  Expanding his famous 2008 Atlantic piece, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?,” Carr delivers a measured but disturbing conclusion regarding the effect of long-term internet use: the brain’s cognitive activity is re-routed to skim, rather than to read deeply.

He opens with a confession that may sound familiar, especially to those of us who find increased resistance to deep-reading, either in the classroom or in our own work:

Over the last few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory.  My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing.  I’m not thinking the way I used to think.  I feel it most strongly when I’m reading.  I used to find it easy to immerse myself in a book or a lengthy article.  My mind would get caught up in the twists of the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose.  That’s rarely the case anymore.  Now my concentration starts to drift after a page or two.  I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. . . the deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle (5-6)

Tellingly, Carr became unwired to write the book: he put his blog, Rough Type, on hold, moved from Boston to Colorado, and limited his social networking, including e-mail.  The Shallows appeared a year and a half later.

The Shallows probes how the Internet transforms cognitive activity by repeatedly “seiz[ing] our attention only to scatter it” (118).  The plasticity of the adult brain means that its circuitry adapts to the repeated pattern of having its attention splintered by competing demands from ads, e-mail, list-serves, hyperlinks, Twitter, Facebook, and the infinite possibilities of a Google search.

The brain’s plasticity can be positive.  For example, the area of the sensory cortext that processes signals from the left hand is larger in right-handed violinists than it is in right-handed non-violinists.  As violinists practice, the stimulation from their left hand physically changes the shape of their brain.  Similarly, victims of brain injury or illness can often use the brain’s adaptability to compensate for injury.  Even the neurons of sea slugs change, both biochemically and anatomically, in response to cognitive stimuli.

But neuroplasticity has a downside, too.  The “repetitive, intensive, interactive, addictive” cognitive stimuli delivered by the internet “have been shown to result in strong and rapid alterations in brain circuits and functions” (116).  As Carr puts in the May 24 issue of Wired,

When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning.  Even as the Internet grants us easy access to vast amounts of information, it is turning us into shallower thinkers, literally changing the structure of our brain.

Catering to the brain’s hunger for information and novelty, the internet provides an environment of  “constant distractedness”  (119).   Repeated heavy use of the Net has, as another neurologist, Michael Merzenich, notes, “neurological consequences” (120).  The time we spend on the internet is time away from reading linearly-driven narratives requiring concentration.  The disused neurons and synapses once dedicated to deep reading get recycled into the work of distracted skimming.  Carr concurs with Maryann Wolf’s conclusion that as we read online

we sacrifice the facility that makes deep reading possible.  We revert to being ‘mere decoders of information.’  Our ability to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction remains largely disengaged (122).

Michael Merzenich puts this more strongly, arguing that internet multitasking may be “deadly” for our intellectual lives (142).

Repeated internet use results in what Carr calls  “The Juggler’s Brain,” the title of a chapter that should be mandatory reading for all teachers.   Study after study is cited demonstrating that multitasking interferes with memory.  A Cornell study reveals that students typing on a laptop during a lecture perform more poorly on tests of the lecture’s content than students without laptops—even when the web pages visited pertain to the material discussed.

Similarly, a Kansas State study notes that students watching a CNN broadcast loaded with color graphics and a “textual news crawl” remembered less about the broadcast’s content than students who were given the the same program stripped of the graphics and news crawl.  This information might be useful the next time someone discusses multimedia teaching techniques.  And when a printed text becomes a hypertext, as it does on Kindle, comprehension is, studies suggest, compromised.

Carr’s most interesting chapter may be on memory.  He distinguishes between “primary memories,” which vanish soon after they come into being, and “secondary memories,” which can be recalled indefinitely.  When a boxer gets knocked out, his recent memories disappear, suggesting that it takes time for a “primary memory” to become a “secondary memory.”

Short-term memories don’t become long-term memories immediately, and the process of their consolidation is delicate. Any disruption, whether a jab to the head or a simple distraction, can sweep the nascent memories from the mind.  (184)

So while surfing the Net can yield a giddy confluence of ideas and connections, few of those connections are actually retained because the Net’s distractions interrupt their migration into secondary memory.  While computer memory is a database, pure and simple, human memory relies on processing information: “Biological memory is alive.  Computer memory is not” (192).

Behind all of this is a concern for deep reading, which is currently dividing the humanities and widely discussed by the media.  Recently, both  Stanley Fish and David Brooks argued for the need for deep reading in the humanities to cultivate wisdom.  A week earlier, the Chronicle of Higher Education ran a story about Stanford University’s Literature Lab, which features data-mining that allows students to “read” 1200 novels for one class.  Clearly, the latter kind of reading differs from the kind called for by Fish and Brooks.

As we consider the new kinds of reading made possible by the internet, including important practical questions, such as Laura Rosenthal’s recent query on The Long Eighteenth regarding how to read a long book in a screen-based medium like ECCO, we would do well to imitate Carr by remaining open to both old and new technologies.  An engaged Net surfer, with a clear understanding of the merits of being plugged in, Carr easily cites poetry and literary anecdotes that reflect his immersion in the world of printed texts.   That he is fully aware of the many advantages the Net offers makes his warnings about the erosion of concentration among internet surfers all the more alarming.  Intrepid internet boosters, like Clay Shirky, downplay the value of printed books as “just a side-effect of living in an environment of impoverished access.”  Shirky famously dismissed Tolstoy’s War and Peace as “too long, and not so interesting” (Carr, 111).  Carr eschews such extreme positions.  Though he put his blog on hold to complete his book, he has now returned to it.  He is not urging that we ban use of the internet.  But he provides extensive evidence for the need to be mindful of the internet’s transformative effects on our cognitive life.

My special collections assignment for Swift and Literary Studies

June 13, 2010

Hi everyone,

Since Anna and Eleanor asked about this, I thought it would be easiest just to give you a bit of a background to the special collections work that I do with my students, then show you the assignment, and see what comments or suggestions you all might have.

The background here is that, while I am not really a bibliographer or researcher in the History of the Book, I think these issues are interesting and pertinent for students in literary studies, especially in regards to undergraduate research.  Frankly, though, the focus is really on the research dimension, and getting in the habit of extracting, and building upon, the information they can glean from these items.

I’ve always had a special collections “day” since I started teaching this course, but after a decade or so, I’ve learned how to get more from special collections visits by focusing on the Swift-oriented rare book materials as the basis for small, discrete, group research projects that are explicitly aligned with their course readings in Swift and Swift literary criticism.  I do rely heavily on group work in this course, which I’ve never regretted, but which does demand some special pedagogical attention for it to work.  This is their first group assignment, and it comes just after I’ve formed my five “research teams,” which consist of 3-4 people, and are organized around certain recurring themes of Swift criticism (Swift and Empire, Swift and Femininity, etc.) which vary slightly from term to term.

The point of the assignment is for them to handle some Swift or Swift-oriented books, and then make some connections in a brief course blog post between what they have examined, what they have researched, and their overarching Swift topic.   This group project demands that they describe and compare the physical attributes of some items examined, speculate a little about the sources behind the item, then do a little research off-site (using our library digital resources like the ODNB, MUSE/JSTOR, etc.) to generate about a paragraph’s worth of information about either a) the Swift work examined, b) the editor or bookseller named, and any connections to Swift, or c) any historical person named in the work, and his or her connections to Swift.

This is posted on the course blog the same week as the visit, and students are able to view and compare each others’ findings.

The other important aspect to this exercise is my “sourcing heuristic,” which I developed from Samuel Wineburg and his followers for teaching historical thinking, and which I now try to incorporate into all my classes as a way to explain the uses of historical materials.  I think I’ve discussed this before, in my description of my Burney assignment, but I really do think this is an important aspect of our research.  I am simply asking them to ask a simple series of questions about whatever text or item they handle, and try to answer them as they learn more: Who wrote it?  When (and where) was it published? What type of document is it?  What type of audience was it written for? And finally, Why was it written? If the majority of students are able to ask and answer these questions about whatever they read in a literature class by the time the semester ends, I’m doing a pretty good job.

I should add that in my own thinking about literary studies (as a discipline? as a set of professional practices?), I’m much more inclined to think that the core of our disciplinary practices reside in organizing principles like sourcing and organizing concepts like “author,” “work,” “genre,” “period,” rather than in a list of canonical writings or writers as such  In other words, I’m interested in teaching students how these lists, or canons, are generated, and how disagreements are argued, rather than trying to get them to memorize and recall a particular version of the list.  To enter into that scholarly discussion, however, they have to understand how that information is collected and those valuations are asserted and argued and finally collected in particular bodies of critical traditions.  That, after all, is what the course is about.

So here’s the worksheet.


[ I'd be thrilled if others took this assignment and adapted it for their own classes, but please leave a note here to let me know your name, institution, and the class for which you adapted it.  Thanks.]


Bibliography: An Endangered Skill?

June 10, 2010

Recently Jennifer Howard, a reporter for the Chronicle of Higher Education, posted a request on SHARP-L about whether bibliography was an endangered skill or art in the academy. She sought thoughts from teachers and students about this question an as well as “where the field bibliography might be headed.”

Her query generated a number of responses ranging from ones that indicated bibliographic training was alive and well in the responder’s particular program to ones that indicated students’ exposure to the topic was highly dependent upon the faculty member they had for a given course or the climate within the department. That Howard added a note later that afternoon in which she clarifies what she meant by bibliography–“I’m interested in the book-history side of bibliography, not in how to prepare correct bibliographic citations”–is telling in my mind. While responses posted to the list before Howard’s clarification primarily addressed the “book-history side,” I do wonder if off-list comments suggested possible confusion about what Howard meant by “bibliography.” Bibliographic citations, annotated bibliographies, and the like are still the standard staples of what is taught in first-year writing courses and even more advanced topics. So it would seem odd, to me at least, if someone had misinterpreted her query, especially one posted on a listserv devoted to the history of the book.

Many of our discussions on emob have noted the important relationship between traditional bibliographic knowledge and electronic resources such as EEBO, ECCO, and Burney. (See for instance the discussion that emerged in the collaborative reading of Ian’s Gadd’s “The Use and Misuse of Early English Books Online.”) But we have not had an extended discussion about the state of bibliographic training. Rather some comments have considered it to be a given that descriptive and analytical bibliographic skills are not regularly or as vigorously taught in graduate programs (with admitted exceptions), while others have stressed the need for such knowledge. Thus, I would like to hear more about if and how we teach these skills in our undergraduate and graduate classrooms as well as whether students respond well to such lessons. How do colleagues respond? (One SHARP commentator made mention of “sneaking” this material into courses). What tools and materials do people use? And what is the context or type of course(s) in which such skills are taught? Some SHARP-L responses to Howard’s query favored teaching bibliographical skills within a textual studies context, while others preferred a “book-history” context.

I have tended to use both approaches, but it depends upon the course. In methods/skills courses, I have used Oxford University’s manuscript exercise, Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est.” While some students found the process of editing tedious, almost all appreciate being exposed in a hands-on way to issues they had never considered. I also use videos and the workshop materials for the hand-press book from University of VA’s Rare Book School to teach bibliography from a book-history standpoint.


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