I Can’t Brain Today. I Have the Dumb.

I read Carr’s article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” last Wednesday, on a day when I couldn’t brain. It was one of those days when I couldn’t articulate my thoughts, when I had to sit and stare at something I’d written before it made sense… and unfortunately, it was a day I taught two composition classes. I felt sorry for my students as I struggled to explain the rhetorical situation in a way that made sense. I posted the above meme on my Facebook, as I do on all days when I have the dumb. (The plush in the meme is Styx, a handmade Drifloon [a Pokémon] plush I bought on eBay. His facial expression sums up how I felt.)

The one thing I was able to process was Carr’s article, and it presented the first argument against DH with which I could agree: “The result is to scatter our attention and diffuse our concentration” (par. 19). I found his claims to be well-supported and his tone far more measured than that of most of the authors we’ve read, both pro- and anti-DH. I also appreciated his balance of personal and anecdotal experience with hard research—and that he offered a counter-argument: “Maybe I’m just a worrywart. Just as there’s a tendency to glorify technological progress, there’s a countertendency to expect the worst of every new tool or machine” (par. 31). (And I loved his references to Hal. Since I was a kid, I’ve been defending Hal’s actions and his humanity when he was ordered to act against his protocol in keeping the true nature of the mission to Jupiter secret from Dave and Frank. But that’s another blog post.)

Still, I don’t think Carr is just a worrywart, although I only have anecdotal evidence: my own experience reading and teaching. I myself don’t have trouble concentrating on and processing long printed texts (not yet, anyway). I can concentrate on books and articles just fine. However, I experience Carr’s description of drifting concentration when reading online. I get distracted by other Firefox tabs, or my eyes jump over the page. I think this reaction is the main reason I prefer to print out articles and read them on paper. I’ve also noticed how television has come to mimic the Internet, which Carr points out in paragraph 20. I had never connected the infuriating text crawls and lists of which segments are coming up next with the Internet, but now it makes perfect sense.

As for teaching, I can’t vouch for how my students read, but I’ve seen the Internet creep into their writing, from texting abbreviations like “u” turning up in academic essays to entire papers which seem to be typed on cell phones judging from odd, “auto-correct” style substitutions for words (not to mention the complete lack of capital letters). Much composition theory has turned to multi-modality, coming up with ways to use texting, Tumblr, Facebook, and other forms of Internet composition to teach. I tout these methods as a way to use students’ extracurricular writing strategies, and others embrace multi-modality as a way to make composition easier for students of different abilities. But Carr makes me wonder if we’re just old media playing by the new media rules (par. 20). Is composition’s real reason for adapting our teaching to the Internet that we want to stay relevant?

One thought on “I Can’t Brain Today. I Have the Dumb.

  1. Loren Springer

    Joanna, I agree with your critique of Carr’s measured tone, evidentiary base, and counterargument. The historian in me says that it’s our presentist view that blinds us to seeing that digital reading will not decompose the substances of our brain and attention span. Though, I have found for lengthy and hard readings for my other HY 500 class this semester I like to print the readings. I like to see how the paragraphs are set up on the page. I like to highlight and write with my hand. Maybe I’m in an odd in-between generation of not quite digital natives because I wasn’t digital in elementary and the extent of my high school computer usage was to type out an essay; very Web 1.0 and not Web 2.0. This of course has changed through undergraduate and graduate studies. Maybe real digital natives don’t have these struggles that we have, but it needs to be studied further. Definitely multi-modality will continue to take over in our comps classes, and I think too that using social media and such is comps way for staying relevant because I can’t imagine an English scholar that embraces the degradation of spelling and vocabulary thanks to autocorrect and texting.

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