Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Try Middle Ages Spread Instead: Books

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Try Middle Ages Spread Instead: Books

Article excerpt

Sandra Leaton Gray on why old-fashioned recipes would benefit undergraduate fast food e-junkies.

Digital Dieting: From Information Obesity to Intellectual Fitness

By Tara Brabazon

Ashgate, 342pp, Pounds 35.00

ISBN 9781472409379 and 9393 (e-book)

Published 3 October 2013

Once upon a time, university lecturers swanned around market towns and small cities across Europe wearing impressive black gowns. They spent their days earning a decent crust teaching the teenage sons of the middle classes and nobility how to read books and understand them. Indeed, if you walk around modern Cambridge and Oxford, you can see the vestiges of this post-monastic university structure in the design of the colleges and the rhythm of the day. It weaves its way through the curriculum as well - it's hard to leave there as a student without inadvertently experiencing some of the joys of the medieval trivium and quadrivium in their various contemporary forms. This might mean learning the point of mathematics from someone sat next to you at dinner, discovering how to debate (aka "disputation", albeit no longer in Latin) and being encouraged to take a casual interest in astronomy via open evenings at the university's fine observatory. The medieval curriculum and its quest for knowledge may be under the modern radar, but it is certainly still there - quiet, timeless and deep.

This respect for the life of the mind is something all universities still aspire to. We see the words "knowledge", "scholarship" and "collegiality" in most of the documents that pass across our desks as academics in the 21st century. Students are encouraged to visit libraries, to read and to discuss what they are learning. We gently try to share this knowledge, so carefully nurtured, with the outside world. We hope that students will be of like mind and that they will, in turn, take over the baton of knowledge from us on behalf of mankind. In many ways, to be an academic is ultimately to have faith in human nature.

That's the ideal, anyway. In her book Digital Dieting, Tara Brabazon highlights how precarious this model of learning has suddenly become in the aftermath of the post-1980s technological revolution. (Before that, all lecturers had to worry about was the introduction of the printing press, making dictation by candlelight unnecessary, and forcing them to raise their game a bit when actually interacting with students.) If you want to feel frustrated and anxious in equal measure, read this book's introduction, which includes extracts of student emails sent to Brabazon in the course of her work and which she carefully analyses. It is clear in reading these spurious essay excuses, cheeky requests for editing services and frankly lazy demands for bullet-point summaries of complex subject matter that education has become as commoditised as it is possible to be, enabled all too often by university administrators keen to force lecturers to use clunky and frustrating multimedia delivery tools in the name of progress.

Linked to this commoditisation, argues Brabazon, is the newly unlimited access to knowledge. Previously if you wanted to know something, you searched in an archive or library and gradually drilled down into the subject matter. Building one's own knowledge from this process was often uncomfortable but was immensely rewarding. Much has changed. We are now presented with large volumes of knowledge that satisfy us easily with comparatively little intellectual effort. Brabazon uses the analogy of fast food to represent this shift, which links nicely to the title of the book. Yet it leaves any sane lecturer feeling hopeless and rather depressed at the apparently sinking prospects for students' intellectual development. Even those who do read books and journal articles often do little more than skim the surface, plucking quotations out of context and bandying around half-understood nuggets of knowledge in order to sound scholarly. …

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