Texts are hard

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.

4 thoughts on “Texts are hard

  1. It isn’t so much that texts are harder to take seriously, deeper in their explorable depths than auditory or visual arts. However, it might be that they are harder to take casually, without being the kind of text that lacks intensive depth—or being bound up into a system that generates a paratextual apparatus that artificially reduces that depth (like the typical religious use of scriptural texts, or the cultural deployment of classical quotations and philosophical tropes, which strip context to increase accessibility). Listening to music is easier than reading a text; viewing a piece of art is easier than listening to music; but that surface accessibility does not automatically convey meaning. And yet if I’ve heard a piece of music or seen a piece of art, I have more of the gestalt of the thing in my head than if I have started to read a book.

  2. Poetry strikes me as the obvious exception, short poetry in particular, which may be more a lack of extensivity—and comparable to the fact that I will as likely get bored in a long complex piece of music as a long complex piece of text.

  3. Yes, the required investment in sustained attention may be more problematic than the time in and of itself — after all, people quite happily watch TV marathons and play video games for hours at a time. Both require attention, obviously, but of a different kind.

  4. Thank you for this, Adam. It’s thought-provoking and particularly with reference to work done between languages, where texts (in non-native languages) are EVEN harder, requiring a much greater energy to negotiate and thus more time consuming. I’ve just come across Alan Jacob’s (5.11) post over at the Atlantic on ‘rewiring the reading organ’ and coupled with this post am thinking about ‘consumption and production’–such Industrial Words!– and time and attention. And I am wondering about eggs and baskets.

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