The lecture at Shimer yesterday was very good. One point that Prof. McKenzie kept highlighting is that we in the liberal arts are “overdeployed” in text-oriented activities, while other forms of cultural production are seemingly outside our purview. He gave the example that we all learn to draw in some rudimentary way in grade school, but then that stops early on for most of us — and once we come around to teaching college, we’re lost as to how we would assess a visually-oriented student project. I know I feel pretty out of my depth when it comes to grading creative projects, and I’m not even one to think (as many academics do) that choosing a creative project over a paper is per se a scam to avoid genuine work. Overall, he argued that if we can find ways to help students generate arguments and narratives in media other than text, we’ll be better equipping them for the digital world.
One reflection that came to mind as I pondered this argument is the fact that texts are hard, on every level: production, consumption, distribution…. Even with our “overdeployment,” the fact remains that people are, generally speaking, not very good at using texts outside of a fairly narrow range of clarity and density. They are very easily misled into overemphasizing or even outright decontextualizing isolated claims in a text. Meanwhile, generating a sustained text-only argument is an incredibly laborious process. Attaining the appropriate level of clarity and density is not only a matter of acquired stylistic skill, but requires exceptional clarity of thought. And all this labor is for very uncertain rewards, on both ends: writers have no guarantee that people will actually read their long texts, and readers have no guarantee that they will derive any benefit from a long text. The modes of connecting writers to readers remain primitive and scattershot.
All this is not to say that other media are “easier” tout court. Many wind up requiring a lot more intensive and tedious labor on the production side. Consumption is “easier” on some level, though the text-intensive emphasis of most eduction means that people generally lack the skills to take a step further and begin analyzing or seriously assessing non-textual works. But it’s hard not to conclude that we’ve placed all our eggs in a very questionable basket.