At a recent presentation to English students, MSU Rhetoric Professor Doug Downs probed the meaning of reading in the digital age.

By JESSE POWELL/Montana State News

A gathering of writing students recently drifted into a student union meeting room. There they chatted in excitement about Tolkien, the WordPress blogs they were making and some of the latest news from the Writing Center. Some of the talk drifted to the speaker they were waiting for, Professor of Rhetoric Doug Downs.

The room the lecture was to take place in was small in comparison to the various rooms available in the SUB. There was little, if any, trace of worry and concern by these writing students, despite the title of Downs’s lecture: “Screen Literacies and the Death of Reading: Why It’s Going to be Okay.”

In June 2010, New York Times writer, Julie Scelfo wrote an article entitled “The Risks of Parenting while Plugged In.” Scelfo showcased a study that found young children have to compete for their parents’ attention with digital devices, namely, smartphones and the computer.

The article pointed out a growing concern that there is a lack of interaction between child and parent. Scelfo cites the “little research on how parents’ constant use of such technology affects children, but experts say there is no question that engaged parenting – talking and explaining things to children, and responding to their questions – remains the bedrock of early childhood learning.” The ominous tone is that children will become developmentally disabled with this generation of parents.

The parents in question were born between 1965 and 1980 and are known as Generation X. In the early ‘90s, they were often coined the “problem-solver” generation in the hope that because they were post-cold war and post-Vietnam, they would focus on resolving domestic issues that had arisen from the previous period.

This was the generation that experienced the largest explosion of television entertainment and personal computers and witnessed the advent of the video game. With cable television and VCRs, the limiting factors of entertainment, such as off-air times, signal reception and the doldrums of summer reruns, disappeared. The social concern became greater that the “problem solvers” did nothing but watch TV and play Atari.

Generation Y, those born between 1980 and 2000, are associated with being immersed in the “Information Age.” This generation is characterized as being completely tech-savvy. Cellphones, internet communication, and DVD-RW are not “new” but old technologies. The trajectory of the computer had the goal of portability and became fashion, i.e., the cyber-café.

What these two generations have done is incorporate these devices into their lives. For most Boomers and some Gen-X parents, they see it as “technomania” with toys.

Another article written by Jeana Lee Tahnk and published in October 2011 describes parents flooding their children with digital devices and making child psychologists reel in horror from studies finding 4-6 year-olds logging hours on the Internet. Tahnk then relates guidelines for age appropriate times and devices. For example, at 3-4 years a child should handle a tablet device a la Angry Birds.

What does this have to do with Dr. Downs’s lecture? Everything.

Tahnk posted again in November 2011 a piece called “Kids in the 1980s Answer the Question – ‘What is a Computer?’” The article has a source clip from Sesame Street. The children of the ‘80s answer is, “something that you can write on,” “something that can help you to read” and “something that you can make designs on.” Tahnk concedes that young children now, born after Y2K and known as Millennials, would “innocently give much the same answer.”

Downs enters our room of writing students and begins to hastily set up. He needs two items, a compact projector and his laptop.

In less than five minutes Downs’s PowerPoint is off and running. He gives a short apology that his first “slide” isn’t as visually rich as the flier announcing this event.

The flier was created in 45 minutes using Photoshop, the stock images gleaned in 20 minutes from Google.

“What I am going to present has been a moral dilemma in Western cultures. What kind of reading are you supposed to like and value? What kind of reading are you supposed to be interested in?” Downs asks his audience.

He says English departments at universities, as well as prior generations, view the long-form text (thick books) as the pinnacle of writing. The presentation approaches technology as a fundamental part of writing, a guiding light, of sorts, leading us in the direction of where reading is going.

“Should you feel guilty for reading something short and with a lot of pictures,” he inquires. This is the direction of Downs’ research at Montana State University. Rhetorical writing in this branch of the English department looks into where readers are going, what they are interested in,\ and where writers should be. The discussion then opens the forum of thought to contemplate technological aspects of reading and writing.

“There was a time when writing involved an oven,” Downs jokes.

Thinking of writing in this way may not be “traditional” in some circles but it does push budding rhetoricians to reconsider how the children of Tahnk’s article define a computer. Something that you can write on, something that helps you read, and something that you can make designs on. The lexical term “tablet” for a small handheld computer connected to the internet becomes something of a hauntingly proper word. A website changes into a specimen to be examined.

One of the more interesting points Downs addresses is his pairing of oppositions. Concepts of writing that are serious vs. frivolous, information vs. entertainment and mind vs. body become entangled when he asks, “So where is imagination?”

“We tend to view texts filled with pictures as childish but scientific texts are full of them,” he says.

The educational term “the concept may be too hard to grasp unless you can visualize it” comes to mind. This creates a difficulty that Downs assesses when he explains how printed word alone is often a limiter to complex ideas being communicated.

“The English department is not set up to address podcasts,” Downs explains to the room of English students that do not shudder at the portents of such things. Some of the questions Downs leaves them with are: What kinds of reading shall we not recognize as reading altogether? What kinds of reading do we have to do to be recognized as intelligent?

“That was our first mistake, back in the 19th century … associating literacy with intelligence. That was not very intelligent,” Downs says in response to a student’s question on gauging reader acuity.

Edited by Brianna Schutz.

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