Saturday, January 4, 2014

Blogging to My PhD: The Future is Full of Disaster (And Other Non-Problems)

There are many ways to tackle a PhD exam reading list. I'm sure that some of them make sense.

For instance, you could line up all the texts in chronological order and move through them step-by-step, getting a sense of the field unfolding before you as it did in its own time (or at least as it did according to those we canonized).

You could group the books by theme, reading first all of the pedagogical histories followed by the ancient primary texts and top it off with contemporary communication theory.

Or, you could do it like I did. I stacked up (almost) all the books in a big pile and started digging through them at random over the course of several months.

The impact of this latter strategy is that you get a bizarre mishmash of ideas from a wide range of time periods. What makes that most interesting to me is the grappling with postmodernity. 

You can read all about postmodernity here, but for the purposes of this post, it's enough to say that it is a cultural condition marked by a sense of de-centeredness. In the postmodern condition, ideas (including our sense of selves) are often fragmented and quick to change. There is little stability. It's a condition closely connected to the work of the Structuralists and Post-Structuralists, most of whom dealt with the way that language is less fixed than we would like to think. 

For many of the authors on my list, the postmodern condition is a perilous monster poised to consume all future generations and deposit them in a godless, meaningless pit of despair. 

Postmodernity. Results not typical. 
It's interesting to see many of the writers from the 1970's, 1980's and 1990's worry incessantly about what postmodernity means for us as writers, scholars, teachers, and students. They particularly worry about the students. They worry that the students will have no sense of self from which to write. They worry that the students will have no fixed formats in which writing is acceptable or understandable. They (literally) make entire careers out of worrying about what the state of postmodernism will mean for their field and education in general.

And they worry with reason. For many the things that they saw as happening to education have happened or are happening. They weren't just blowing smoke. 

But now I'm reading Writing New Media, particularly a chapter called "The Database and the Essay" by Johndan Johnson-Eilola. In it, Johnson-Eilola writes:
Over the last few decades, the fields of literature and rhetoric and composition have more or less agreed that authors are not omnipotent (except as literary devices). We are comfortable with unreliable narrative. We speak of texts as intertextual networks of citation, reference, and theft. We observe how different readers make different meanings from identical texts. We understand reading and writing subjects as ongoing, contingent constructions, never completely stable or whole. In short, we're at ease with postmodernism. 
And, for me at least, this rings completely true. I was born in the mid-80's, and that means that postmodernity is all I've ever known. I don't know how chaotic it is to exist without (the illusion of) a stable center because I've never had (the illusion of) a stable center

When you've been jumping as the ground crumbles under your feet your whole life, it doesn't really seem like that big of a deal. 

It made me wonder if at least some of this worrying isn't just the academic version of "kids these days" syndrome. 

See, every generation thinks that the next one is doomed. This Mental Floss article shows some great quotes about how kids today are ruining everything--except they were said by people throughout history. Now that we have social media, we can share our "kids today" lamenting quicker than ever, which is how we know that the Millennial generation (my generation) is filled with lazy, shiftless, freeloaders. 

As George Orwell once said, 
Every generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it.
It makes sense that we would project these same concerns onto how the next generation will handle major cultural shifts. I am sure that learning the Earth revolves around the sun was a major game changer when heliocentrism made it into the mainstream, but for the generation that was raised with that fact drilled into them from birth, it wasn't really an issue. 

My own daughter will never learn My Very Excellent Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas because, for her, Pluto will never be a planet. She'll just go along mumbling My Violent Evil Monster Just Scared Us Nuts to herself during trivia games and the only ones who will be impacted by the trouble will be the people straddling the two worlds.  

We're living in a time where our perception of reality is changing faster than ever because our technology advances so quickly. That means there are a lot more straddlers. There are a lot more disruptions. Fewer and fewer people can spend their lives without some major truth being overturned on them. 

But for those of us who have never had that luxury, it's really not that disrupting at all. Sure, we might need to make 453 Buzzfeed posts about the toys we miss each week, but the fact that nothing stays the same for long isn't keeping most of us up at night. 


  1. " They particularly worry about the students. "
    Won't somebody please worry about the children!

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