Classroom Prep: Required Reading

by Kasyoka Mwanzia — Nairobi


“My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.” – Nicholas Carr

Part of the segue into a career in academics involves the daunting task of preparing sample syllabi and the selection of reading texts for prospective students. Enter stage right: The academic text. Returning to academia after almost a decade of professional experience, I often got bewildered by academic writing. See my previous post “No More Passive” and the use of nominalisation. Studying in a multi-university and inter-disciplinary program, I discovered how each “academic tribe” maintained its own language structure – creating what my fellow students and I began to refer to as academic echo chambers. Professors and lecturers get wrapped up in an intellectual layer of likeminded scholars, publications and courses of study. I get it, in a world of publish or perish, academic writing needs to speak to my colleagues who sit on peer review boards of A-list journals and my language therefore needs to be their language.

But that’s not the only problem, enter stage left: the “staccato” reader. I got this label from the brilliant article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” by Nicholas Carr that is required reading for all of my proposed syllabi. Previously voracious readers, our ability to read long pieces of writing has almost completely disappeared. Even this blog post, that I shall attempt to keep to just a handful of paragraphs for this very reason, is too much. As Carr points out, we are probably reading more than we did before but it’s a different kind of reading – we skim and decode, rather than absorb and interpret.

So if I’m struggling with long prose and complex vocabulary, then I can be sure that my students will too, as will the community conversations I hope my classes will foster. For certain the solution is not to dumb it down, for after all “the kind of deep reading that a sequence of printed pages promotes is valuable not just for the knowledge we acquire from the author’s words but for the intellectual vibrations those words set off within our own minds”.

As I contemplate strategies to deal with being driven to distraction – perhaps just one book per course or just a short article per class? - I will intentionally disconnect my HAL-esque thinking circuits and re-attempt Kubrick’s cryptic 2001: Space Odyssey. Perhaps there are parallels to be gleaned in not grazing through a tv-series either.