A *Brief* History of Reading and Culture

Normally, on this blog, I write my way towards what some idea of what it means to participate in digital media culture; what it means in terms of identity and relationship to the world to live on social media.

But this coming month, I’m trying on a new hat. Or an old hat. One I’ve left unworn for awhile.

I’m developing and teaching a short, intensive Masters in Education course for UPEI called “Building a Culture for Reading in a Digital Age”.

Which is exciting (hi students! Meet my Internet!). And also a little daunting: this course is about reading, as an educational and cultural activity. And reading hasn’t been my primary focus in over a decade.

I was once, actually, a high school English teacher. And a literacies specialist. I have a Certificate in Special Education focused around working with children facing challenges in learning to read.

It’s funny. I think and write a lot about identity, but not necessarily about the aspects of my own professional identity that pre-date my digital life. My career and life trajectories haven’t been especially linear, and so whole parts of who I once was never fully made it over the threshold of my transition to the life I live now, both online and off.

But preparing for this course has sent me back to a very particular space, an in-between space where I had one foot still balanced in my English degree/reading teacher world and one foot testing new waters of academia and digital selves: the year I spent exploring ideas of reading and culture and what it might mean to know in a digital age. It was late 1999 and early 2000 and I lived in Halifax in a two-story upstairs apartment in a falling-down house, and I wrote a hundred page M.A.Ed thesis in a tiny attic room on a Hewlett-Packard desktop that had less computing power than any telephone you can buy, these days.

That thesis later got published by European Graduate School‘s New York Studies in Media Philosophy and I am eminently grateful to them as, six computers and three countries and full circle back around the world later, I’d otherwise have long since lost any digital trace of it. Sure, its earnestness makes me cringe and the neologism of “techknowledge” was, um, kinda undertheorized…but what I learned in the long, meandering process of writing my solitary way to those ideas on knowledge and digital culture laid the groundwork for my forays into social media and digital identities and everything that’s come since.

And, with this course, some of that groundwork may actually come in handy.

If we’re talking about building a culture for reading in a digital age, we need first to explore what a culture for reading means to people; what kinds of images and practices it calls up. Before we leap into exploring the digital, I want to throw a bit of what Foucault might call a genealogical light on reading, to think about the ways in which traditional reading culture reflected certain kinds of power structures within society.

What was the pre-digital culture of reading into which most of us were inducted in late 20th century schools and homes?

Well, conveniently, I wrote about a lot of that and where it came from in my thesis. Basically, the pre-digital culture into which most of us were born was a culture descended from the concept of The Book as sacred artifact, a culture based in the veneration of writing, and a culture in which reading was deeply tied up with knowing. For a few thousand years, at least in the European historical tradition, status as a knowledgeable person has been tied to capacity to read.

Funnily, though, it didn’t start that way. Back in the time of Socrates, writing – and by extension reading – weren’t very popular.

And because I wouldn’t be very popular either if I made my students read my entire M.A.Ed thesis, I have kindly condensed the forty or so pages of that tome exploring the history of reading, culture, and knowledge into what follows below. You’re welcome. ;)

(Relevant excerpts from the 2000 thesis are in quotations. Helpful commentary from the 2012 version of me is interspersed.)

The Greeks and Writing and Truth
“Socrates was an avowed dialectician who considered the written word mute,
inflexible, and unable to distinguish between suitable and unsuitable readers
(O’Donnell, 1998, p. 21). In ancient Greece — or the ancient Greece knowable
today — Socrates, and, after him, Plato, were vehement and passionate
defenders of the dialectic method of speech and argumentation, which was
based in dialogue, logic, and rationalism, and believed to be the path to truth
(Pirsig, 1974, p. 331). This systematic process of cross-examination in pursuit of
truth represented both a technology, in the sense of a tool aimed at a specific end,
and a culturally specific intersection through which meaning and status — in this
case not only of truth but perhaps of Socrates himself — were created and
supported. He railed passionately against “[M]aking truth the helpless object of
men’s ill-will by committing it to writing” (O’Donnell, 1998, p. 21); against
abandoning the dialectic process of face-to-face communication and the
resulting illumination of that rubbing together of minds. Socrates appears
to have been a scathing critic of all other technologies of communication in
his era: his primary focus of attack was actually not writing, but rather rhetoric,
which he positioned in a dualistic relationship with dialectic and rent apart from
there. Some of his most powerful critiques of rhetoric, though — that it
constituted manipulation and a pandering appeal to emotion rather than truth —
he likewise applied to writing, positioning both systems of communication as
inferior to dialectic because of the “muteness” of their audiences (O’Donnell,
1998, p. 20).”

You will notice I am quoting Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance as a source for my appreciation of Greek culture. Take everything I say, therefore, with a grain of salt. Or two.

So Socrates was against writing because it wasn’t dialectic. Here’s the interesting part about that. Dialectic was, for Socrates and much of the ensuing…oh…two thousand+ years of European scholarship, tied to a belief in the possibility of objective, external truth. And while Socrates lost the battle against writing – which is, of course, ironically the only reason we have record of his railing against it, since Plato conveniently wrote it all down in the Socratic dialogues – his concept of truth stuck around as an ideal.

Dialectic as Truth
“For Socrates, dialectic was truth, and truth as absolute, independent of
interpretation. “Early Greek philosophy represented the first conscious search
for what was imperishable in the affairs of men (sic). Up to then that was within
the domain of the Gods, the myths” (Pirsig, 1974, p. 336). This notion of
truth as the immortal principle, made tangible through dialectic, was still a
fragile entity in Socrates’ day, part of a tense political struggle for ideological
dominance. Dialectic truth was set, in proper dialectic dualism, against
rhetoric and the Sophists’ prevailing concept of arete, or good: a more relativist
position whose maxim ran along the lines of “humanity is the measure of all
things.” Although the politics of the struggle took Socrates’ life, within
generations his concept of objective truth as the ultimate goal had prevailed,
subsuming “the good” as a mere fixed idea, and granting Socrates and his
dialectic a semblance of immortality.”

Since Plato had written Socrates into hero status, basically, and Western culture’s earliest philosophical texts and heroes have long been those of Greece, the truth that Socrates argued for got cemented into our mindset, conflated – ironically – with the writing he railed against. Add to that the co-mingling of the Abrahamic religions of The Book and Greco-Roman classical culture in the structures of the early European Church – for a thousand years the guardian of what counted as “knowledge” in the West – and you have a whole lot of power that gets invested in reading and writing.

How Dialectic as Truth Became Writing as Truth, and Truth as Dogma
“When later societies looked back to this perceived Socratic
Golden Age for wisdom, the wisdom they were able to access was bound
up in the intersection of authorial writing and absolute truth: in the
conventional wisdom, literally, of a community whose ideology was based in the
“common knowledge” of truth as external and discoverable. Thus the literate
practices that developed around writing led to it being taken up, powerfully, as
a tool of truth, to texts being read as paths to truth, with meaning contained
inherently in them, rather than in transaction between reader, author, and
culture. This was reinforced in the Roman and early Christian cultures by the
relative scarcity of texts, and by the religious nature or the high cultural status
of many that did exist. As Purves points out, “[T]he position relating the text to
the world was most vociferously held in those periods when there were
relatively few texts as compared to the present time when the number of texts
in the world probably matches the number of molecules of water in a good-sized
lake” (Purves, 1990, p. 46). The sanctioned writings of the “peoples of the book”
— Jews, and then Christians and Muslims — were taken up within those
communities as the Word of God, and the surviving writings of the Greek
ancients were seized upon by the Grecophilic Romans as equally singular
truths, if not of Gods, then of honoured chosen ancestors, knowers of truth.

By the eighth century C.E., the concept of external truth had become ensconced
in the form of deity. As an increasingly powerful Catholic church gained control
over large segments of the feudal economy and its governance structures,
writing — which had likewise become a medium of the church — came to
represent knowledge itself, in the form of Roman Catholic doctrine and ritual.
A monoculture of power based on the Word of God held sway across Western

In Nattering on the Net: Women, Power, and Cyberspace (1995), Dale Spender
details a Europe of 1450 wherein the church essentially controlled knowledge: theirs
was the key to what was known, both literally, because most documents were housed
in the scriptoria of monasteries, and figuratively, because the church represented
God. This independent, absolute God actually fit easily with the classical conception
of truth as Immortal Principle. What was written, and in a monastic world,
sanctioned by church process and protocol, was taken up as truth, independent
of human bias or interference.”

Then, of course, everything changed, power-wise. Except for the truth part. We held onto that sacred cow for another five hundred years or so. You could argue we are still grappling, culturally, with whether to let it go, or not. In a sense, that’s what this course is about: this watershed period of the digital doesn’t just usher in new ways of reading but far broader ways of knowing.

But long before our contemporary digital communications revolution came the print communications revolution.

The Gutenberg Revolution
“In approximately 1453 C.E., a German named Johannes Gutenberg
transformed a wine press into a functional printing press equipped with
movable type, and the print era was effectively brought into being. The concept
of print had not been inconceivable before Gutenberg, and his use of movable
type was an adaptation on a much older Chinese system, but his press is
thought to have been the first in Europe to function effectively and make
printing a reasonable enterprise. It was certainly a successful enterprise, and
within a very short period of time, printers and presses were springing up all
over Europe (Spender, 1995, p. 4). These printers were, for the most part,
entrepreneurial folk who would have had more in common with mechanics and
businesspeople than with clerics, and though the content of almost all known
early print texts was religious, it was not all as pious in its nature as the
church might have hoped.

While Gutenberg’s press was used to publish his famous edition of the Bible,
it was also used from its earliest days to print indulgences, or tickets that
absolved the purchaser from punishment for sins. The existence of
printing presses and printing businesses whose goal was economic rather than
spiritual soon had an impact on the types of texts in circulation: for the first
time in centuries, secular tracts, pamphlets, and books came into being and
into the hands of citizens. The church’s monopoly on information
dissemination — on knowledge — was broken: other ways of “[E]xplaining the
world, apart from the religious version which represented the church as
all-knowing and all-powerful” (Spender, 1995, p. 3) had begun to take hold.

How the Printing Press Ended God’s Monopoly on Truth
The church’s monopoly on education was undermined by the secular
information and institutions made possible by the printing press, and as a
result, its power over the literate practices used to create knowledge also began
to slip. Texts began to be published in the “vulgar” spoken languages of Europe
rather than in Latin, thereby undermining the doctrine-based education system
of the church and enabling people who wanted to challenge the status quo to
spread their ideas. A German monk named Martin Luther harnessed the
capacity of the printing press to spread information quickly and in common
language so effectively that his “Ninety-five Theses” fractured the church itself,
commencing the Reformation movement and even drawing the church into use
of the printing press to defend itself. As Spender succinctly explains: “The
Church was caught in a bind. It could ignore at its peril the leaflets and
posters which were circulating so widely and which were so critical of its8
practices. Or it could descend to the same vulgar level…so began the first
poster war in history. The Church’s critics leafleted the masses; and the
Church tried to defend itself in a medium that it despised and condemned. The
winner was the printing press” (Spender, 1995, p. 4).

The printing press also changed what it meant to create text, taking it out of
the monastic confines of individual scholarship and placing it within a new
structure of power grounded in economic principles. This redesignation of text
impacted the societal image of knowledge, since the two had been so thoroughly
intertwined, and made it something it had never overtly been before: a
commodity, a product with exchange value. Removed from the hallowed
domain of God, words and ideas and various wisdoms became articles of trade.
As Paul Levinson puts it: “Knowledge has always been power, as witness the
role that monopolies of knowledge among priests and others have played
throughout the millennia. But knowledge first became a commodity in mass
culture, to be bought, sold, traded, and otherwise exchanged, in the aftermath
of the printing press. Today, computers have quickened, expanded, and
otherwise amplified this process into the ‘information society’ that we now
inhabit” (Levinson, 1997, p. 34). Such commodification laid the foundation for
many of the principles that inform societal operations today, with our memoirs
and our educational packages and our digital information systems all for sale.
This departure from the medieval conception of the knower as the instrument of
God opened the door for the eventual development of familiar concepts such as
intellectual property, patents, and copyright.

How The Church Responded
The book, then, symbolized an end to church hegemony over knowledge,
but it was not the political danger to the dominance of the
church that was addressed in its resistance to this change. Rather
the church emphasized the purported dangers of embracing the new and
unholy technology, positioning its opposition in moral terms.
Like the modern critics, the Church did not state its grievances in
terms of self-interest. Religious dignitaries did not go about
complaining that the book was challenging their power, reducing
their influence, and marginalising their professional skills. Rather
the objections were all about the damage that was being done to the
individual and the community…discipline would disappear, brains
would go soft, honour and uprightness would be sapped by all this
salacious, violent, permissive literature. (Spender, 1995, p. 48)”

Recognize any parallels yet between these claims and contemporary pearl-clutching concerns over digital media? Not that many of the concerns aren’t legitimate, on the terms by which we were raised to understand life and knowledge and education and ourselves. But there are power interests involved and invested in these understandings.

One of the key threads of my M.A.Ed thesis traced these previous cultural shifts in power and knowledge that occurred when past communications revolutions took place. Socrates lamented the loss of memory to writing. The monastic culture – and the all-encompassing authority – of the Catholic Church suffered irrevocably when the printing press made not just hand-copying but the whole idea of knowledge AS copying obsolete.

And all the hand-wringing about the terrible things happening to our children because of digital practices? They read a lot like Don Quixote, published in two volumes in 1605 and 1615, wherein the protagonist buries himself in his books so deeply – individual, independent reading was a new practice in European culture at this point – that, from so little sleep and so much reading, loses his wits and his capacity to distinguish real from imaginary. He then, of course, became an icon for all the generations after who saw in his story the possibilities of literary imagination and format.

That doesn’t mean the losses for those invested in monastic culture in 1500 or so weren’t real. It doesn’t mean Socrates wasn’t right about memory. It just means that when we talk about reading in a digital age, we need to think carefully about what is being protected in the lamentations and critiques.

Truth: from God to Gatekeepers
The gatekeeping of knowledge practiced by the church became gatekeeping
practiced by publishers and scholarly institutions, based in the class values
and practices of those who owned the technology and those who controlled
what knowledge meant. The democratization of knowledge was minimized
by these gatekeeping entities, and by access to reading itself. Schooling in
alphabetic literacy remained the province of relatively privileged social
elites — or more particularly, of the males of those elites — in most European
countries until the nineteenth century (Spender, 1995, p. 52). Thus the
majority of people who lived in the Europe so dramatically affected by the
printing press likely never had the opportunity to read a book, let alone write

Eventually, alphabetic literacy spread, and reading and literate
practice became societal goals by the nineteenth century (Spender,
1995, p. 46). Still, this did not represent democratic access to the status of
knowledge-creation, as the gatekeeping surrounding publishing and
the culture’s texts of truth, canonized by academia, remained intense.

The concept of absolute truth did shift in its embodiment from God to
science, eventually, in relation to the changes initiated by the printing press,
but there was no transformation of the absolutism itself, only its qualities.
Likewise, outside science, the authority that had been invested in God became
invested, instead, in writing itself — and the writing of Western culture came to
be understood as representative of that culture and its truths.

Thus the technology which so impacted the conventions of writing, the
conditions of its production, and the issue of access to it, still had little effect
on the cultural attachment to an overriding concept of external, Socratian truth.
Literate practices of the manuscript era and the print era shared the common
bond of faith in a universal principle, however differently conceived, and the
familiar concept of authorship is still grounded in, and etymologically linked to,
a notion of truth beyond human interpretation.

Where Truth in the Print Era Might Have Turned Out Differently
There were moments — in hindsight these are always readily available — when
things might have gone another way. As Janet Murray explains in Hamlet on
the Holodeck, early novels, including the sequel to Don Quixote, played with the
conventions of linear narrative and monologic voice, emphasizing borders and
constructions rather than the seamless representations, apparently whole and
received, which came to dominate the forms and conventions of print. Murray
points out that “[I]n the eighteenth century, Laurence Sterne wrote a self-
deconstructing memoir called Tristram Shandy in which the narrator inserts
black pages, numbers chapters as if they had been rearranged, claims to have
torn out certain pages, and sends us back to reread certain chapters. In short,
he does everything he can to remind us of the physical form of the book we are
reading” (Murray, 1997, p. 104). There were opportunities, then, for multiple
perspectives to emerge, but things did not take shape in that way. Print, in the
maturity of its high modernist form, was predominantly a technology of linear
narrative and hidden construction: a technology whose usage tended to
reinforce the culture’s dearly held beliefs in order, classification, and the
immortal principle of truth.

James O’Donnell suggests that the forms of authorship and narrative that constituted
the hegemony of the printing press era are now being subsumed in a new age:

The author is already an endangered species, and rightly so.
The notion that authoritative discourse comes with a single
monologic voice thrives on the written artifact. Both oral
discourse (before and beyond the written word) and the
networked conversations that already surround us suggest
that in the dialogue of conflicting voices, a fuller representation
of the world may be found. The notion that reality itself can
be reduced to a single model universally shared is at best a
useful fiction, at worst a hallucination that will turn out to
have been dependent on the written word for its ubiquity and
power. (O’Donnell, 1998, p. 41)”

So. There you go. The reading most of us grew up with was deeply tied to cultural concepts of knowledge, status, linearity, and a single version of truth. Thus endeth today’s reading from Stewart, B. (2000). Literate Practice and Digital Worlds.

See, students? Don’t let anybody ever tell you you’ll never use your Master’s thesis again! Ahem.

In the interim, tell me. How do you think digital technologies and digital practices change our relationship to the concept of truth?

Works Cited
Levinson, Paul. (1997). The soft edge: a natural history and future of the information revolution. New York/London: Routledge.

Murray, Janet H. (1997). Hamlet on the holodeck: the future of narrative in
cyberspace. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

O’Donnell, James J. (1998). Avatars of the word: From papyrus to cyberspace.
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

Pirsig, Robert M. (1974). Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance. New York:
William Morrow.

Spender, Dale. (1995). Nattering on the net: Women, power, and cyberspace.
North Melbourne: Spinifex Press.



33 Comments A *Brief* History of Reading and Culture

  1. Joel Arsenault

    There is no doubt that our relationship to the concept of truth has changed exponentially in light of technology and digital media! I often encourage my students to be critical of anything they read online. More on this to come…

    The CBC podcast from ED 673 Moodle (@UPEI) poses the question “Is a book still a book when it’s no longer between two covers or on paper?”

    Both Librarians @ Three Oaks Senior High in Summerside, PEI say NO. This is what they essentially told me…

    “There are so many different forms of writing. There needs to be more clarification in order to call something a “book”. You wouldn’t read a magazine on your Kobo and call it a book. The most accurate description of any reading you do on a kobo would be a fictional novel or a nonfiction story. A book is a physical thing! If it’s in your kobo it’s a story (fiction or non fiction)! You don’t have the book… Same goes for audio books. You didn’t read the book. You don’t have to be literate to listen to an audio book!”

    *Not sure where I stand just yet. Keep in mind I am a PE teacher :)

    Thanks for reading,


    1. bon

      interesting positions from the librarians, Joel…so for them, a book is a particular kind of physical artefact. the scrolls of medieval times wouldn’t be books any more than what’s on a Kobo, i assume. i wonder, though, if the word book means – or signifies, in culture – more than just the physical artefact?

      otherwise why do people get so upset about burning books? wouldn’t they just be paper? if we ban a book, and we ban its e-copies too, are they part of the “the book”?

      i hadn’t thought about this angle before but i’m glad you brought it up. the course should make for interesting conversation. :)

  2. KeAnne

    Are we the same person only a few years apart in age? English degree: check. I also completed all the requirements to teach high school English (my fave subject was world literature) but decided not to teach. Anyway, back to the topic at hand.

    In library school, how to think about, incorporate, mange, curate and preserve new forms of writing (ebooks, websites, etc) was a hot topic. Imagine what a paradigm shift it is for we poor librarians to think about a book as something other than a tangible item after thousands of years!

    Along the same line of Tristram Shandy, have you read Danielewski’s House of Leaves? He does some really cool stuff with the format.

    I like the idea of writing and reading being divorced finally from the tangible book. I never thought about how much the physical nature of a book could limit us, make us more likely to take the truths outlined within the pages as gospel (even though that feels a bit blasphemous from an English major and library science grad).

    When I first learned HTML in 1999, I remember how excited I was by the idea that I could link to the items I referenced and they could be accessed and read right then and there, immediately incorporated into the reader’s experience and comprehension. It took content from a two-dimensional experience into 3D. While I’ve always had a soft spot for Plato, Socrates and absolute truths, I recognize that truth is relative, and I think digital writing reinforces that.

    One more point, and I’ll be quiet. In library school we also talked a lot about the need more than ever for the librarian to help users understand how to discern quality content from crap content. Since we’ve been conditioned to perceive the written word as fact, we’ll definitely need to make sure we’re providing better info literacy skills as digital expands.

    1. bon

      The new role of the library: discerning quality from crap. Dirty job but somebody’s got to do it?

      The whole question of how our cultural heritage and tendencies towards belief in The Word predispose us to respond in a time of knowledge abundance/overload fascinates me. And disturbs me. Zizek talks about the “decline of symbolic efficiency…where no single meaning can be ascribed to anything anymore. All these things together and I wonder if digital literacies can even begin to cut it?

  3. Mike

    File this under the “for what it’s worth” category. Ivan Illich wrote a fascinating study of the profound shift in reading culture that took place around the turn of the 13th century, “In the Vineyard of the Text.” The transformations Illich documents don’t get nearly the attention that the printing press gets, but I think Illich makes a persuasive case for their significance, and they usefully complicate the story. The shift he describes was occasioned by a series of seemingly minor developments in the technology of writing … things like spacing between words and indexing along with the appearance of the scholastic university alongside the monastery as a center of reading.

    In 2010, I began a series of posts essentially transcribing key passages from “In the Vineyard of the Text” along with a few introductory comments, but for whatever reason I never got to posting passages from the last couple of chapters. The posts I did get to start here: http://bit.ly/M7WQFr

    More recently I wrote a quick post taking Illich and Ong as a point of departure to describe conflation of literacy and orality in digital culture: http://bit.ly/KNZhhf

    Best wishes with the class, sounds like fun one.

    1. bon

      Complications always welcome and appreciated.

      Thanks for both the links, Mike…I actually used a lot of Ong’s work in that thesis so will particularly enjoy getting into that piece…beware, students: if people keep posting cool links you’ll have a lot more to read for this course! ;)

  4. KeAnne

    That’s a great point. Everything and nothing has meaning. I admit that while I accept relative truth, I can so easily see it spiral out of control to a reality in which every point of view is valid despite the quality of content. That is scary.

    1. Bon

      one of the reasons i like material-semiotic approaches like ANT and the work of Donna Haraway is that they deny the God’s-eye view of the world – the possibility of omniscience or one truth – while also providing a counter to the charges of relativism. or i think they offer that? ha. it’s all deep water over there, but i don’t read multiplicity and plurality as suggesting every view is valid, at least on the same terms. rather, ideas like “quality of content” get called into question: what are the terms by which we judge quality of content? how are those terms constructed and supported?

  5. Johanna Rosa

    There is no doubt that the transformation has been significant from the times when Gutenberg created his printing press in 1453. To compare that church controlled knowledge to the overflow of information that we receive through e-mails, newspapers and the digital media on daily basis is overwhelming.
    Therefore it is very important to know what sources are reliable and trustworthy because we need to know what truth if any, we can draw from the information. The digital technology and the relationship we create around the web will come with practice. We become better in searching for information that we are looking for and often Google becomes a helpful starting point (Ramsey, 2010).
    Educators should take up Socrates ways and train students in dialect methods of speech and argumentation. The students would benefit from using face-to-face argumentation in the classroom that they can later turn over to writing practises digitally. Perhaps students would also become more critical on what sources are reliable and true.
    As our economy changes so do our jobs and job descriptions. There will always be a need for librarians as long as they participate in the change that takes place in literacy learning. Perhaps we cannot call what we read on Kobo or listen to as an audio book a book but it can give the reader the same knowledge even though the experience might be different then fiscally smelling the pages when reading a book. Canada is geographically enormous and travelling by car I find it relaxing to listen to an audio book and for young learners it is also a different way of listening to a story.
    The school environment needs to be open to different methods of introducing literacy to early learners. I know from having young children that they are drawn to the technology. It is our responsibility to introduce them to different ways of digital practises and use the tool to help them become critical users and learners in digital times.

  6. Bon

    thanks for the input, Johanna.

    i fully agree that assessing the reliability of sources and knowledge is increasingly important today…we’ll be talking about digital literacies fairly extensively in the course, as a result.

    Socrates’ method of dialectic can be an excellent teaching tool, for sure, in terms of encouraging people to question and challenge their own received assumptions. i’d like, especially in this era of abundant knowledge, to see it go both ways: to have all of us become more practiced at questioning the fundamentals of our own belief systems.

    the whole question of “what is a book” is increasingly interesting to me…this post takes up a bit of how stories became The Book and therefore changed their cultural roles. as Mike points out in the comments above, digital literacy has been argued (by Ong, etc: see his links) to be in part a return to oral cultural practices.

  7. KeAnne

    Quality of content is interesting, especially now that Google has gotten involved. Google’s Panda update is all about grading sites based on the quality of content according to Google’s criteria. I really despise Panda because I don’t think Google has any place deciding what quality content is, but it will be interesting to see how or if Google begins to shape our definition of quality.

  8. Mark Gregory

    My teaching experience has been mostly as a high school English teacher as well. I am, however, very limited in my knowledge of digital reading and the access to information that can be obtained on devices such as Kindles, Kobo, etc. I am currently taking a course in Technology that will hopefully compliment this course in terms of learning more about these types of technologies.

    I feel that that when students and teachers are able to explore new ways of obtaining information, it can be a very positive thing. However, it is important that both teachers and students are fully aware of whether the information they are acquiring through these technological sources is reliable or not. There is so much information now available to students through the internet, digital readers, etc., and it’s critical that we, as educators, need to become knowledgeable ourselves in order to teach students the best uses of technology.

    I also feel that there are many ways of obtaining truth, and writing is simply one tool for expressing one’s self. I liked Socrates idea that dialect is very important. I taught Creative Writing this year, and tried to have a variety of writing activities and assignments, but also got the students to participate in critical thinking and expressing their points of view verbally as well.

    1. bon

      welcome to the class, Mark.

      two points of yours i want to touch on: first, i’m curious about your experience encouraging Creative Writing students to engage in verbal critical activities as well as written. how’d that go? did you see any evident differences in the way they approached knowledge and knowledge-making via the two media?

      second, you mention it’s critical that we, as educators, become knowledgeable so as “to teach our students the best uses of technology.” i agree fully with the efforts to become knowledgeable part…but i have a Socratic question for you: do you think our culture has a handle on the “best” uses of technology yet?

      one of the premises that we’ll explore in the course is that with many emergent new forms of knowledge, best practices simply aren’t yet clear. one of the frameworks we’ll explore is how to identify situations where best practices are an appropriate approach, and where they aren’t. i think this is particularly important when it comes to the intersections between technologies and education.

  9. Jennifer

    As a music teacher, I know this course will be a challenge for me! I must begin by saying that growing up I was not exposed to a lot of literature in the reading sense however, I was captured by musical literacy. I will be honest in saying that to this day, I don’t do a lot of reading for enjoyment and do the required reading that I have to which usually occurs in an online environment.

    I am still early in my career, but my approach to teaching music has been transformed over the last two years with the use of more technology in my classroom. The notion of digital technologies, practice and the concept of truth are a regular topic in discussion in my classes. Most students have preferred musical tastes and styles and with the diverse technology that we have today, the variety of musical genres have expanded. With such a variety of preferred styles, it is easy for a student to voice their own personal opinions and values and my job as a music teacher is to provide and expose students to a wide array of musical styles and to help students respect and find value in all types of music.

    I am a classically trained musician and while I have developed the ability to enjoy and appreciate many styles of music, I feel that digital technology and practice has “ruined” a lot of music (perhaps similarly to books?). Digital technology provides us with new music that couldn’t have created before, but it is changing the way in which we “hear” music. We are no longer hearing real talent in a lot of cases, but many hours of work at the mixing board. Is that musical truth?

    I don’t know exactly where I stand yet on the concept of digital “truth” but I am open to hearing lots of discussion!

    1. bon

      hi Jennifer…really interesting points.

      digital technologies have had a huge impact on music, certainly…and yes, i’d say autotune and its ilk do change our cultural expectations and appreciations for what things sound like. with reading and literacies, i’m not sure there’s an exact parallel: digital technologies don’t change a written voice in the way they change a musical one, i don’t think…though if you read novels from 200 years ago, you’ll note style and voice certainly HAVE changed in the interim. i’d argue that’s culture…but discussing the ways in which authorial voice is produced will make for an interesting conversation in our class time.

      side note: your work sounds parallel to that of one my colleagues in the Ph.D program, Verne Lorway…her research explores how stepping out of the classical paradigm in high school music teaching opens up all sorts of important possibilities for students.

  10. Jennifer Halupa

    Digital technologies have allowed us the privilege of having a wealth of knowledge and information, literally, at our fingertips. Students have extensive opportunity to explore truths through various sources. I found it interesting that Spender said that “brains would go soft” with the evolution of permissive literature. This is a comment that my father has often made in regards to the Internet. He argues that the youth of today have minimal knowledge; they have to find out every bit of information through technology and can’t think for themselves. Although I can’t completely disagree with his beliefs, I find myself as a teacher, moving away from the traditional teacher-directed approach of relaying knowledge towards a teaching of skills (we could call them 21st Century Skills). More than ever, students must learn to read and explore information with an understanding that every statement comes from a perspective. Digital technologies have allowed us the ease of finding information from different view points easily, and they should be explored in an attempt to discover the complete truth behind information. In reading multiple perceptions, students must also learn to distinguish truth from fiction and survey the evidence to create their own personal beliefs. These are proficiencies that students must be taught, along side the base literacy skills.

    1. bon

      i remember when i first read that Spender quote regarding the historical response to novels, Jennifer…i realized, OH. there’s a cycle to this: it’s partly about vested interests as much as anything else.

      it’s one of the pieces of my Master’s thesis that’s stayed with me vividly all these years…and i remind myself of it when i catch myself doing it. ;)

      that said, it doesn’t mean the lamentations about the novel weren’t partly valid – there WERE changes happening and valued practices were lost. but from my perspective as the inheritor of the things that were new and horrible then, hey…the world didn’t end. civilization endured.

      just as your father is probably right, at least by comparison with the most knowledgeable from his era. though i will say, as someone who’s played Trivial Pursuit enthusiastically for decades (because it was a big deal in my family)…estimations of people’s knowledge pre-Internet seem to me to often be inflated (no offense to your dad). the relationship to knowledge has definitely changed, but when i was in college in the early 90s, i was the only student i knew who knew anything about Watergate or Altamont or any of the other content from the Baby Boomer Trivial Pursuit education i’d received. ;) even though those events were only 15-20 yrs previous at that time.

      your comment really got me thinking…how do you think students CAN learn to distinguish truth from fiction? do you see the distinction as a binary?

  11. Rochelle

    I think it is easy to agree that digital technologies have greatly changed our relationships to the concept of truth. Perhaps too simplistically stated (it is June 26th after all), having quick and easy access to the vast quantities of information provided via the digital community, allows us to broaden our horizons and encourages (and enables) us to ask questions about what is true and what is not. Imagine having access to only one source of information as it once would have been? Consider how limited your views would be. Consider too how easy it would be to never ask questions if you didn’t know that there was anything else out there or that there was another way to look at something.

    After reading this post, I also can’t help but to think of John Dewey, constructivism, and Freire. According to Dewey and constructivism, knowledge (and I think we can say our own truths) is constructed through interaction with the environment rather than being handed down. In addition, Freire speaks to the importance of dialogue in learning. I too believe in constructivism and dialogue, and see digital technologies as being an excellent medium for these important interactions to take place (just look at what we’re doing now with this course!). The digital medium, as opposed to written words via a book, takes care of the “muteness” of the audience that Socrates referred to and can be used as a great space for knowledge to be constructed.

    So…long gone are the days when a teacher hands you a textbook and that is the “truth.” Our digital wealth of information allows us to pose questions, and in turn, allows us to do more thinking to form truths of our own.

    1. bon

      so glad you brought in Dewey & Freire, Rochelle…constructivism definitely foregrounds concepts of exchange and mutuality that are perhaps made easier or more visible in networked types of communications rather than those built on traditional hierarchies.

      i’d be interested to know your thoughts on the learning theory/pedagogical concept of connectivism: i’m hoping to explore it with the group and perhaps have George Siemens skype in to discuss it if there’s interest. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Connectivism

      first impressions?

  12. Mike B

    Like Rochelle, I was reminded of John Dewey as I read this text. Dewey advocated a collaborative environment in the classroom. As such, he would not have agreed with philosophers, publishers, or teachers who acted as “gate keepers of knowledge”.
    It’s interesting that this status as a “gate keeper of knowledge” has been popular among educators until fairly recently. Even recently, I can recall a physics teacher I once worked with who loved laughing derisively as his students struggled to grasp skills that came easily to him. (He probably had no recollection of learning the same things in high school.) As such, his students quickly became discouraged and abandoned future science credits because they “sucked at it”.
    When I listened to the CBC podcast, and listened to the academics who snorted at the notion of books being replaced by e-readers, I was reminded of this attitude. I love to read, but I can understand that for many, books seem intimidating. And this can probably be connected to negative experiences with educators who viewed themselves as “gate keepers of knowledge”.
    As far as I’m concerned, if digital technologies can make reading more accessable for more people, I’m all for it.

    1. bon

      interesting point about Dewey, Mike. you’re right, about his advocacy for collaboration and respect for people’s experiential knowledge…though i do wonder whether he would have been able to take that beyond the classroom walls to challenge the broader systems of gatekeeping at work in his time & culture? in other words, respect for a student’s learning doesn’t necessarily equate to the belief that the same student should be published and read…the pre-digital gatekeepers of publishing and expertise often remained “natural” even to exceptionally committed constructionists.

      i don’t know if that’s the case with Dewey…i’m not familiar enough with his own history to be sure. still, in the classroom he was definitely an advocate of what today often gets called “the participatory.”

      i had a few teachers who bore some similarities to the physics teachers you mention…they have been models for me throughout my teaching career of what to try NOT to do, for sure. it’s pretty profound, the power we have as teachers to influence people’s relationships to whole fields of knowledge.

  13. Kathie

    “I read it somewhere, therefore it must be true.” Even as we move into the digital age, I still battle this concept with my students. One of my goals continues to be to challenge them to think, read and generally be critical consumers of information in this technological age.These tools we have open up such an amazing expanse of possibilities; increasing our connectedness, our access to information.

    Rather like Mark, I don’t have much experience with some of the divises used for reading such as the kobo or kindel, or iPad even. My personal experience with all things technological has been to use something when I felt it would be of benefit either for personal or professional use. Part of the reason I”m taking this course it to explore this area and become more familiar with these technologies.

    All of my teaching career has been spent working with students who have challenges with learning. The road blocks that print can be to a student who doesn’t decode well are HUGE and it is exciting to see programs such as Kurzweil, audio books, and other reading programs break down those barriers and open doors for students of all ages.

    However in some ways we are not so different than those in the early days of the printing press, when few still had access to books. In the Western world, many have access to technology but not all, and as we move to the developing world, many of them do not have the infrastructure or the funds to afford such “luxuries”.

    1. bon

      great point about the digital divide issue, Kathie, and yet the ways in which technologies can support students with learning challenges. i think one of the things that digital technologies CAN do is open up the spectrum of what is possible in the classroom, thus opening up participation to a wider spectrum of learners and abilities. one of the things i’d like to discuss in the course is how we can make the most use of the minimum of technology and connectivity: because a lot of “digital practices” aren’t so much about gadgets as about how we relate to knowledge and other people.

      have you heard of BYOD classrooms? it stands for Bring Your Own Device…and cell phones are actually remarkably well distributed even among many global and economically-challenged populations…some folks are doing remarkable work just with the devices people already have and are using.

      the whole issue of critical literacies is one I see more and more teachers identifying a need for, for sure…both at the K-12 level and at the university. part of me wants to hope it’s that we’ve shifted to more constructivist methods of teaching and thus give our students the opportunity to do more than receive and regurgitate established knowledge: but i suspect there’s also a real need for more intensive media literacy work at all levels.

      1. Kathie

        I haven’t heard of BYOD but I spent six years living and working in Bolivia and even then 1995-2001 many many people had cell phones as the cost of a land line was out of their reach. Cell phones in most of the developed world are far more reasonably priced than here in NA, but don’t get me started on that ! In Africa they are using it to do their banking, virtually, very cool. But still when you get out if the cities in to the populated but remote areas, the cell towers don’t reach and there is no service… let alone the finances to purchase. Having said that, I”ll be interested to learn about BYOD…. we are only limited by our imaginations!

        1. bon

          i hope we get a chance to talk about Bolivia during the class, Kathie…i’d love to know more. what did you do there?

          looking at my comment above, i realize it was hasty: i didn’t mean to suggest BYOD addresses the global issue of access. it’s more a small, teacher-led program largely in wealthy countries though not necessarily in wealthy areas or schools…but it has done some cool things and breaks down the traditional media “digital divide” picture of “the poor have NO access.” the disparities of cost & access & service in regard to cell phones around the world really are kind of boggling, agreed. and there are definitely real issues of access and equity esp for remote populations and poor populations around the globe (and here in Canada): the ways in which the digital divide operates and affects efforts to build “a culture for reading” will be something i’m keen to explore in class if people are interested.

  14. Susan Conohan

    I feel like its the first day in my Spanish class- where’s the dictionary! I am lagging in so many respects with my colleagues in regards to my ability to talk about the topic “digital media”- never mind that I took so long to get through the reading and commenting. I will get better. I appreciate the history lesson- I like history and the opportunity to use it in my practice to make links to the present. Thank you, Bonnie, for your keeping your conversation – if I might call it that- frank and real. Back to the topic of the course….I am happy to have selected this course, as it highlights for me the vast opportunities for me and my students to explore and use technology and practices which will open our eyes to new ways of seeing the world! There is so much for me to learn and although I am completely out of my comfort zone, I see that it’s necessary in order to bring me and my students to a new level of knowing, being and learning. HOpe I make sense..it’s the only sense that I am qualified to make at this point; I know that will change in the coming weeks. Look forward to meeting you and others.

    1. bon

      it always takes courage to step out of your comfort zone, Susan…glad you’re with us! and the language around digital media will become more familiar fairly quickly, i’d expect, but to be clear…this is not a mastery course. you’re not all expected to come out with the same level of knowledge around the technologies themselves: in truth, i can see already that i’m going to learn a lot about eReaders from a number of members of the class. which is great. so make sure you ask about any gadgets or ideas or language that aren’t familiar…some of what we talk about will be old hat for some, and totally new for others. all good. :)

  15. atomic geography

    Really enjoyed this essay!

    The Church was ripe for Luther’s attack because it had grown so corrupt. Luther and the printing press certainly are among the proximate causes, but the technology was not itself determinative.

    My guess is that this is generallly the case. So the Internet presents both great opportunities for sharing knowledge and broadening perspectives, it also presents great opportuniites for the powerful to structure realties of the less powerful.

    Verizon is even selling this latter point to business in it’s Uppernet commercials, which I have begun to exlore here:


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  17. Michelle D

    Professor Black was a professor of mine back in 1994. He was the first teacher who explained (at length and with intense emotion) that just because someone wrote and published it, didn’t make it true. What!? It felt like he had slapped me up-side the head. It was such a profound realization for me that I can still picture the classroom, where I sat, where he stood. It was one of those memorable moments that I still reflect on to this day. “You’ve got to learn to think for yourself, child,” was his message. At the time, I was perplexed by his challenge, completely unprepared to think for myself. Examine multiple sources of information? Why? Wasn’t World Book Encyclopedia enough? Extract the important points? But, my teachers had always told me what to look for. Consider the author and the background he/she brings to the work? Wasn’t the author just a byline? Analyze new information within the context of my own background and experiences? Why? I’m really good at memorizing. My critical thinking toolkit was empty. In that moment, back in 1994, I was 20 years old and had not yet been introduced to the “Information Highway”. (That would come the following year, thanks to Dr. Hannaford – another memorable moment that has been seared into my memory… anybody remember Netscape Navigator?) As I reflect on this experience, I realize that part of it is grounded in the notion of “absolute truth” and the historical context of sharing these truths through printed text. “I read it, so it must be true.” This notion of “absolute truth” perhaps, in part, also allowed for the absence of critical thinking skills in my learning experiences. Not that I blame my teachers, because teaching critical thinking can be messy and time-consuming. I think we are getting better at allowing students to be constructivists of their own learning, but we are living and will continue to live in a time that necessitates it. Critical thinking can no longer be absent from our classrooms, regardless of level.
    Digital technologies allow access to immeasurable information sources, each proposing their own “truth”. Our students must know how to wade through the sea of information sources, evaluate them quickly, and extract the relevant points. Digital practices allow users to become not only consumers, but also producers of information. Our students must know how to analyze and evaluate information within the context of their own experiences (thus creating their own truths) and how to communicate this succinctly, all the while recognizing that we are all doing the same thing – creating our own concepts of what is true (or true in that moment). We can no longer navigate our world without critical thinking habits of mind. Thank-you Professor Black!

  18. Natalie Boyle

    I found it interesting to read about Socrates because I studied history for my bachelor degree. Actually, I studied local oral history where we researched the elderly people to experience what they had lived. Then, I recorded it and made it part of history. Some of these people I researched have since passed away and I think back about how their stories would have been lost if Socrates would have continued to get his way. The language they spoke, the ideas and thoughts they expressed, along with the terms they used that were unique to them and their time period.

  19. Frances Bell

    Thanks Bonny for a very useful post. I will be looking back on this one often. I lit in here from #rhizo14, so this post just hooked itself on to that rhizome through, no doubt several click and reads, and my comment here.
    I smiled at the digital trace of your thesis, and thought what would have happened if it hadn’t been published digitally. Have you got a copy on your shelf or in the university library?


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