Wednesday, January 7, 2009

(Re)Creating Culture: Cell-Phone Novels

Last year, our freshman English sub department decided to stop teaching The Odyssey. This year is being spent reevaluating the kinds of literature that make sense for our technology-enhanced students. I don't teach the course this year, so I'm not sure what they're finding out. I was the leader of the group throughout the process, and sometimes I feel a pull, a guilt, for abandoning a classic, especially one that has meant so much to me at different times in my life. But I spent a chunk of time today reading an article that Bruce forwarded to me. It's from the New Yorker and takes a fascinating look at Japanese cell-phone novels and how they've shaped culture and modern publishing. All that, of course, interesting. But what got me thinking, or what aligned with what I think about a lot, is down near the end of the article, a comparison of cell-phone novels to The Tale of Genji. Here's an excerpt:

“The Tale of Genji,” considered by many to be the world’s first novel, was written a thousand years ago, in the Heian period, by a retainer of Empress Akiko at the Imperial Palace, in present-day Kyoto. The Heian was a time of literary productivity that also saw the composition of “The Pillow Book,” Sei Shonagon’s exquisitely detailed and refined record of court life, and a wealth of tanka poems. We know “Genji” ’s author by the name Murasaki Shikibu—Murasaki, or Purple, being the name she gave her story’s heroine, and Shikibu the name of the department (Bureau of Ceremonial) where her father at one time worked. Told episodically, and written mostly in hiragana, as women at the time were not supposed to learn kanji, it is the story of Genji, the beautiful son of the Emperor by a courtesan, who serially charms, seduces, and jilts women, from his rival’s daughter to his stepmother and her young niece Murasaki. “Genji” is the epitome of official high culture—it is to the Japanese what the Odyssey is to the Greeks—but some have noticed certain parallels with Japan’s new literary boom. “You have the intimate world of the court, and within that you have unwanted pregnancies, people picking on each other, jealousy,” the managing director of a large publisher said. “If you simply translate the court for the school, you have the same jealousies and dramas. The structure of ‘The Tale of Genji’ is essentially the same as a cell-phone novel.”

Yesterday, I was working on the "technology's effect on school culture" section of my Plan B literature review, and it got me thinking about how we might start to build unpredictability and cultural change into curriculum. For example, the guiding questions for our freshman English course are: Who Am I? How does my use of language shape me? What if they started to sound more like: Who Am I in person? Who Am I online? How does my creation of digital media and text shape?
Our sophomore questions are: What kind of world is this? How should we live in it? What about: What kind of world is this? How does technology shape and change our world? I don't know, something to that effect.
Point is: I get excited about the idea of taking classic sensibilities (literary structures, as discussed in the NYer article) and holding them up to modern uses of language. I moved a little in this direction this past semester by asking my students to analyze facebook correspondence as a way to improve the way they give feedback to each others' writing and ideas on blogs.


Dan said...

Who Am I? How does my use of language shape me? What if they started to sound more like: Who Am I in person? Who Am I online? How does my creation of digital media and text shape?

Chris, I think that is a great point. I think we miss the elephant in the room by continually ignoring the power of the kids' interest in themselves. And all the English lessons and skills we would want for for them could come out of such a framework, including looking at the limits of something like cellphone writing.

C. Watson said...

Dan (I had to check to see if was the Dan I thought it was),
You're exactly right. We keep trying to figure out learning and technology on our own as the adults in the school. When the most powerful learning happens when teachers and students engage in honest inquiry together. But it takes a certain letting-go of authority and content ownership to create this kind of environment. If you have 40 minutes, check out this video interview of a project that fuses Socratic methods and web2.0: