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 Middle Ground:
Hard Books, Deep Reading, Electronic Text

"Who among us can generate regularly the stillness and concentration and will to read Henry James, or Joseph Conrad, or James Joyce, or Virginia Woolf as they were meant to be read?" --Sven Birkerts

This lament from Birkerts' The Gutenberg Elegies, "the price of retooling for the electronic millennium" (p. 191) resembles many complaints that I have heard from colleagues suspicious of the habits of mind encouraged and discouraged by electronic media. If those suspicious of computer-assisted learning are correct, my attempts to bring computers into Core are mistaken, even subversive to a nebulously defined mission in the humanities to "make you a better thinker and citizen." After all, the common syllabus promises education "by having you do hard thinking about hard books. The guiding assumption for this is that one of the best ways to learn to read, think, and express oneself well is to study the work of proven good readers, thinkers, and writers" (Core Syllabus, 1998). I would unpack the word "study" here to include active debate and discussion more explicitly. I would also add that I hope students use events from the texts to scrutinize their own deeply held beliefs about, in terms from the common syllabus, moral, social, and cosmic order.

I was not a wild-eyed enthusiast for electronic communication when I began teaching Core. I shared (and still share) some of Birkerts' suspicions; today academics in the humanities have daily lives that work against what Birkerts calls "the slow, painful, delicious excavation of the self by way of reading" (p. 146). I would modify the statement to read "excavation and creation of the self." This is a difficult undertaking. As Birkerts and Gergen (1991) make plain, the constant bombardment of images and ideas, the continual access to one's time, and the siren song of global consumerism can be antithetical to a "life of the mind" in the Enlightenment sense of that phrase.

In trying to find a quiet space in which one can pursue intellectual inquiry, Lanham finds our current practice of working with texts questionable and Birkerts contends that the world of commerce and technology have already left us behind. He notes, bleakly,"Literature and the humane values we associate with it have been depreciated, reincarnated in debased form. . . .they have been rendered safely, nostalgically, irrelevant" (p. 184). Although I find the large chain bookstores sinister in their relentless attack on small booksellers, I wish that Birkerts would spend more time watching patrons in his local Barnes & Noble. People are there, in large numbers, buying and reading books while sipping cappuccino, but Birkerts' conclusion suits the elegiac tone of his essays.

The biologists, classicists, mathematicians, and English teachers who volunteer to teach Core have decided to challenge any assumptions that the humanities are nostalgic, irrelevant, or nearly extinct. Reading the Core texts enables faculty and students to ask questions that apply across times and culture. Core may provide the only instance of "stillness and concentration and will" that students have with sustained reading in the humanities. After Core, they may never move beyond the popular fiction aisle at Barnes & Noble, but they will, at least in the Core classroom, encounter the sorts of books that can lead one to reevaluate fundamental assumptions and values. It is curious, in fact, to encounter this sort of questioning, in passionate debates, among faculty in the Core seminar, where participants read the books together before entering the classroom.

Hopelessly conservative assumptions in "prefigurative" times when, as Hawisher's and Selfe (1993) note, "adults are trying to prepare children for experiences that adults themselves never had" (p. 160)? We need not assume that reading in a class such as Core, with both Western texts and world literature, would affirm students' preconceived ideas or provide a smooth sequence of new platitudes to replace old ones. Instead, Core faculty hope to provoke students to begin a dialectic about the issues raised through careful reading, an act very close to Birkerts' (1993) "deep reading," which he identifies as "the slow and meditative possession of a book" (p. 146).

In my first semester of Core, at the end of a synchronous conference in which the class grappled with a large number of surahs from the Koran, I asked students to list the questions that most troubled them. One student's reply struck me forcefully--it cut through the overheated, face-to-face discussions we had earlier that week about Islam, Islamic law, and American stereotypes of Muslims. The student quoted here engages in the sort of intellectual synthesis, by jumping back to the reading of Genesis we did, and fundamental questioning that Core tries to encourage:

    I guess my biggest questions are:
    • Why do the Qur'an and the Bible begin with such a small group of people to spread their messages?
    • During church I always hear about how much God loves us and protects us, then why, in the Bible, does it talk about God only helping his followers?
    • I thought God loved everyone--so why has he changed to restrict his love?

There exists a middle ground between giving up books in favor of hypermedia and circling the wagons. The act of interpretation can become subversive or affirmative when it leads the reader to question texts and the author(ities) who write them. In the example above, I let the question hang in the air during the next class. Rather than providing my own deistic answers, I warned students that they would have to read more, mull the questions over, and decide. It might, I added, take years.

Such missions are not uncommon in the humanities and the issues raised by such questions are neither "tender" nor "inert." The process involved in pondering the questions through deep reading is inherently hypertextual: after a few texts have been read, each page has lexia with links to other passages in the text, to other texts already read within the course and outside it (as when students used 1984, a text we did not read, to make a point). This type of reading, and the writing that resulted, showed me that my students had taken up the challenge that Lanham proposes, the challenge that Birkerts says we have already failed to meet.

Can such goals--ones that I cherish (dare I use that word) be met? Depending on the teacher and the mix of students, Core can be stimulating, provocative, even life-altering. Ideas count there, every faculty member proves that by deed and word, and many students become involved in the process. But Lanham's quaint metaphor of the pickle factory has troubled me since I first encountered it. Statements in the common syllabus proclaim that Core is unlike anything else the students have done or will ever do again, except for the shrinking number who pursue a major in the humanities.

Other students finish their year-long vinegar bath and leave.

Piles of Used Books