Reviewed by Bob Whipple, Creighton University
That writing courses are in an exciting state of change is well-known to many. Many teachers are putting their classes online in whole or part, exploring issues specific to the transitional zones between traditional print and online culture, adding hypertext to the rhetorical canon, and generally making the technology part of the tenor, not merely the vehicle, of writing. However, until recently, techno-teachers haven't had a large body of textbooks from which to choose that would complement their new types of class investigation. This is changing, and for the better.
Let me give this review some background: last Fall I taught two advanced composition classes: one almost completely online; the other in a computer classroom. I wanted the students to do some significant in-depth consideration of the issues concerning literacy at the end of the century. I used Julie Bates Dock's The Press of Ideas. It was, for us, a good choice, and I think it's a good candidate for any other writing classes exploring the history and future of personal and cultural literacies, and the impact of emergent technologies thereupon.
Dock's subtitle is Readings for Writers on Print Culture and the Information Age. In truth, the book goes further than that, for it touches the larger issues of multiple literacies and their implications throughout. Dock states in the instructor's preface: "What could be more central to becoming a strong writer than an understanding the interactions between writers and readers that take place through printed texts?" (v). I'd add my own expansion of this: what could be more central to becoming a critically literate person than looking at the ways cultures create and control literacies?
One of strongest parts of the book is Dock's focus on many different aspects of literacy. The first section, "How Do We Read? Interacting With Print" explores the ways that humans approach literate culture and its associated imperatives; "Who Reads? Access to Print", the second section, looks at ways that access to print is controlled. This section seemed especially insightful to my students, for when I asked them to note their favorite essay from the book, one of the single most mentioned essays was that section's "The Civilizing Machine" by Zitkala-Sa (Gertrude Bonnin). One student noted that the essay "put the views of other people besides... fast-paced Americans better into view." This section, and essay, provoked a stimulating discussion in one class of ways that, in their own experiences, cultures or other entities had controlled and/or required certain ways of writing. Another stimulating section is the fourth section, "What Should You Read? Popular versus Official Culture," in which essays by E.D. Hirsch, Joan Shelley Rubin, and Janice A. Radway on subjects such as national cultures, the impact of the Book-of-the-Month Club on popular literacy, and romance novels stimulated discussion on the relative values of different types of popular writings, and got many students to examine what they enjoy reading, and why they enjoy reading it.
I try very hard in my classes to follow James Berlin's injunction to be honest about "terministic screens"--existing preferences, for example, or scholarly likes and dislikes. Thus my colleagues and my students know me from the start as an unabashed technophile. And thus it's important for me to make clear in class that the range of opinions on the value and effects of technology on literacy is enormous. And Dock does this in her book, which made this task of mine somewhat easier. One student remarked that "the most interesting part of the book was that essays both pro and con about writing and technology were included." Another student noted that the essays were "not all from the same mind." A number of students noted that the essays did not agree with each other, either about technology or about literacy and its future. (For example, M. Kadi's "The Internet is Four Inches Tall" has darkish view of online communication, as opposed to Umberto Eco's essay on "The Future of Literacy," which admits a more pro/con, mixed perspective). This is good (and students thought so, too), because the breadth of perspectives added to their development of critical discernment.
Another largely positive element of the book--and this is wholly my own view here--is that the essays, while a mix of traditional (e.g., Franklin's Autobiography) and modern (Umberto Eco's "The Future of Literacy"), were largely, and fortunately, timely. To put a finer point on it, The Press of Ideas seems to have been the right text for this class at the right time. This is, of course, a benefit, for students are likely to be at least liminally familiar with many of the current issues from their own reading, news, and personal online investigation.
But it can be a potential problem, as well--timeliness can generate obsolescence. It may be that The Press of Ideas is a reader that will need constant updating (not that this is inherently a bad thing for this or any other textbook). But what, for example, will be the effect on the reading of D.T. Max's "The End of the Book" when technology reaches the point where his statement "Paper has its limitations, but the computer may have more" is no longer accurate? Perhaps this essay, if retained, will be in a more historical context, and no longer in the "What's Next? Communication in the Electronic Era" section. But it bears thinking about, for we're now at the point where more technical guides aimed at introducing writing students to the online world run the risk of becoming obsolete within a year of printing, if not sooner.
I find ultimately that the Eco essay in the last section--"The Future of the Book"--is an appropriate one to begin and end an examination of The Press of Ideas, or literacy, or of technology's place in literacy. Eco's essay has the same eclectic flavor of the whole reader; it samples, juxtaposes, but is light on absolute judgments. Eco's injunctions to consider multimediate literacy and to avoid "false enemies" (e.g., the positioning of technology as inimical to books) (543) seem a concise summary of an implied thesis for The Press of Ideas. As such, this text opens discussions without being overtly polemic, and in this case (and these classes) succeeded.
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