No, I’m not going to say anything about CUNY’s experience with Blackboard 8. (Later.)

Yesterday, a colleague at the University of Central Florida, Chuck Dzubian, wrote to ask what I thought of Kathleen Blake Yancey’s “Writing in the 21st Century.” Here’s what I wrote back:

I like Kathy’s piece. It is a little like the presentation she gave as the keynote for the big e-portfolio conference we had here at LaGuardia last year.

BUT (that’s a big “but”) ….

I think it’s all very oversimplified — a cartoon history and a cartoon call to arms. I acknowledge the inevitability of reductive thinking — one of my heroes, Terry Eagleton, says that without it thought itself would not be possible — but this ultimately is a serious flaw with the piece, and it needs some redressing.

KBY is a real assessment guru, and she has certain traits of a folks of that ilk. (Pardon if I offend.) She likes generalizations, patterns, models. This makes her history pretty bad, and her assessment of the present (“a new age”) worse — if quite thought-provoking. Her argument verges on technological determinism (of that rather more rare variety, the Pollyannish) at several points, but it is really most dangerous and dubious when it comes to her rosy examples. The “THIS IS SPARTA!” example (did she see “300“?) is, for instance, an elevation of a kind of verbal tic or literary/networked echolalia to the status of liberating collective/self-expression. You need to go to something like the beginning of Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody (with its analysis of an affluent couple exacting networked vengeance on an Hispanic teenager who didn’t return a cell phone) to get a fuller consideration of the not-so-smart mob behavior that KBY is celebrating here.

I don’t mean to be too negative, but this is way too pat. The great lesson of the history of literacy is that there never is a “new age”: change is always underway, but nothing is ever lost — old prejudices, old behaviors, old forms keep persisting. Her two great examples are really testimonies to two very old acts of communication persisting in slightly new forms, two acts which might be reductively described as “SOS” and “Kilroy was here.”

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