I was at a dinner party recently with colleagues and, per usual, the conversation at some point turned to bemoaning students' sometimes less-than-ideal language skills. The complaints were standard fare-- what ever happened to proper grammar? to sophisticated and orderly essay construction? to close and careful reading skills? to the capacity for clearly translating ideas into words?-- and they concluded with the customary exasperated sighs and eye-rolling. Kids today! I'll admit that I've engaged in my fair share of teeth-gnashing over these very same issues, but over the past couple of years I've seen my frustration abated, or at least qualified, by a corresponding observation: Kids today may still leave a lot to be desired in the word-skills, but they are incredibly sophisticated when it comes to deciphering, manipulating, interpreting and "reading" images.
I don't suppose this should come as much of a surprise, really, given the image-and-media-saturated millieu that serves as their natural environment. Everything about that environment suggests that many words are a waste where an image will do. One only need watch the 24-hour news cycle for a bit to see just how dramatically the importance of carefully-chosen and intelligently-combined words is being reduced. It's talktalktalk all the time, to be sure, though the cumulative vocabulary-count is compromised by ever so much stupid repetition. But the images continue to stream over, under and through it all like unfolding fractals, iterations on a theme, repetition in difference. Word-deficient and image-heavy social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter reinforce the same, promising implicitly that individual identities, whole communities, even "movements" can be constructed in 140-characters-or-less. Alas, yes, blogs constitute another head of the beast. Even the one you're reading now.
At the risk of dating myself, let me say that my "adult" life has straddled the transition from the old world (before the Great Technology Divide) and the new one. I didn't have email in high school-- hell, there really wasn't even an Internet when I was in high school-- though the change was already underway within my first few years of college. MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, Blogger, YouTube and the many other Digitizations of Everyday Life were for the most part inventions of my graduate school years. But I was then, and still am, a bit of a technophile, so I've kept up. The two image-based medium that I've pretty much missed out on entirely are comic books (er, I mean, graphic novels) and video games. (Though I did read Asterios Polyp recently... on the recommendation of a student, of course. And, god bless my parents, mine was a household that did have the original Nintendo, back in the day.) It was only recently that I realized just how sophisticated video games are now. Just for an example, take a look at this advertising trailer for Halo Reach:
There you have it. No words at all, not a single one. And yet, a whole world of social, political, moral, emotional and psychological complexity delivered in just under 3 minutes of (entirely technologically manufactured) images. There's a lot of debate about whether or not video games are really "art," but that's not really my concern. I'm more interested in whether or not things like video games have enabled students to THINK in a way that the rest of us Old Farts are unable to recognize as thinking. That is, to ACTIVELY think. That is, to actively think WITH IMAGES. Lest you think that such media only encourages passivity on the part of its consumers, let me speak for a moment on behalf of those young consumers.
Last year, in my Existentialism course, I decided to try out an experiment to test my intuition that students have a special talent for working with images. I gave my class the opportunity to create a short film on an existentialist theme. There were only three guidelines to the assignment: (1) The film could be no longer than 6 minutes. (2) They could work in groups of no more than three people. (3) Each film had to be accompanied by a one-page "artist's statement." (So, if they wanted to film a guy sitting on a park bench doing nothing for 6 minutes, that was fine by me, but I needed some kind of explanation as to how that was "existential.") Take a look one of my favorties that was submitted: a less-than-2-minutes, stop-action film called "Little Freedoms." It's a simple little film, but my experience was that hearing the students talk about it revealed that they had engaged the text-- and the IDEAS-- in a much more nuanced and sophisticated way than I often see evidenced in their essays.
Now, let me say that I'm not about to give up on essays, or reading, or translating ideas into words, or any of the other age-old practices of the Academy. But it's a shame, I think, to not recognize that our students have a different flavor of smart going on here, cultivated and shaped as it is by the world in which they live. I don't see anything gained in the dimunition of that skill. In fact, I wish I had more of it. We've got to find a way to make the old world and the new world complementary, not contradictory. I've tried to do this with my practice of class blogs for several years now, and I plan to incorporate a section on social networking and image-effects next semester in my class on "Humanism and Human Rights."
It's a brave new world, folks, and the train is leaving the station.