tl;dr and the death of reading?

The Feb. 9th Chronicle of Higher Education had an interesting article (here is the link but it is behind a subscription firewall) on the idea that too many of us lack the attention span to read longer and more complex articles. This is not a new argument, but it is a very popular and timely argument–our common reader for First Year Seminar makes a similar argument.

I admit–I have yet to be fully convinced by this argument, but I can see the initial appeal. 

As I think about this, a few thoughts come to mind.

First, one of my contributions to the university dialogue fell victim to this claim–at least for one reader. Instead of holding a campus-wide meeting and presenting a speech this spring, I wrote a message to campus for the spring. Worthy or not, I did hear from one person who said it was just a little too long to read all the way through.

A second thought–more a remembrance: First year, first semester in my doctoral program at the University of Iowa, and I am taking a course in Rhetorical Criticism–lots of reading, complex (if not arcane) theory, and, I suspected, massive amounts of writing. I was wrong on the last count. The professor–a visiting scholar from the University of Utah by the name of Malcolm Sillars (a legend in the discipline-and simply one of the best people I have ever met)–told us that all of our papers had to be no more than 5 pages in length. That’s right–5 pages for theoretical analysis and critical judgment.

All of us students went nuts–there was no way we could provide substantive analysis in five pages. Malcolm’s response: Anyone can write long papers; it takes skill to make a good argument in a short space.

OK–so that claim is also a debatable one, but it is a claim I have come to appreciate over time, and one of the reasons I have yet to be fully convinced by the “death of reading” crowd who claim that web sites, blog posts, twitter feeds and the like are destroying our capability for deep and critical thought. I have more and more appreciation for the writer (or speaker–I am a speech teacher after all) who is concise and efficient in her or his use of language.

I also wonder, from time to time, if the claim that our attention spans are dying is another example of a paradigm shift in how we think and learn. Before we wrote, we memorized–great, monstrously long works–we were an oral culture. Then we created writing (which was not exactly good for our minds, as Socrates notes in Phaedrus). After writing comes printing presses, radio, television, the web–and so on and so on. All of which, to some, are just more examples of how we are dumbing ourselves down.

There is another school of thought, however, that holds that these changes are not devolving our thinking processes–but they are changing, and they are changing our thinking processes because our society is changing.

Much more to this discussion, but alas, it is probably already tl;dr material.

But if you are interested, there is a lot more out there on this topic to catch your attention if it is yet to be limited.