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ENGL 481 Is Writing a Fad?
This senior seminar explores the question of writing by exploring both ends of written culture: debates about writing in ancient Athens and the perceived decline in literacy brought about by computers. We will be reading a variety of works from both periods, exploring them from within the rhetorical tradition, and generally attempting to account for the way media, most prominently writing, structures culture and the transmission of knowledge.
Writing. All the cool kids are doing it these days. But it’s just another flavor of the month. Smart people like us see through all that hype. Speaking is solid, trustworthy, and the thing that will last.
Computers! Because of them nobody reads anymore. Books are a dead. Why would anyone take them seriously? Computers are where it’s at, they’re the new thing that will last. Writing is dead.
The first argument, a parody of one advanced by a group of Greek orators and philosophers around 370BC, dominated the early moments of literate society. What if writing was just a trend? A passing fancy? Intensely anxious about what writing was doing to their brains and their ability to think differently, they argued for the importance of speech and the many problems with the written word, but, of course, they advanced these arguments in writing.
The second argument, a parody of one advanced over the last fifty years primarily in the field of media studies, suggests that, perhaps, writing actually was a passing fad, something that we are now done with. Asking if we are instead entering a world of second-order orality or electracy, in which the image, the hypertext, and sound replace the written word as the key site at which knowledge is produced.
This senior seminar explores both ends of this era, the age of literacy, to ask the “simple” question: what was writing, after all? We will read works from the Greeks who first worried about what writing was doing to their brains before reading accounts of the end of writing at the dawn of computation. All told, this seminar will explore texts from moments of transition, in which the structures that circulate knowledge are reimagined and reinvented.
- Readings are listed on the schedule page. Please read the indicated reading before class on the day on which it is listed.
- If a reading is not a link, it will be posted as a PDF on eCampus.
- If a link does not work for you, email me.
- Instead of taking attendance, you will complete a participation card before each class.
- If you cannot attend class, for any reason, please send me the make-up participation card via email to get credit for that class period.
- If you email me 24 hours before an assignment is due, I will grant you an extension. Please include when you would like to turn in the assignment in the initial email.
- There are four required books for this course.
- There are many translations of Phaedrus and Symposium, please buy the ones listed on this syllabus. They are the best translations available (and they are also fairly cheap).
- There is no final exam in this class.
Hours for Spring 2019: Tuesday & Thursday, 12:45-2:15
My office is LAAH 417, which is in the northwest corner of the building. Office hours are your time to ask for any help you may need in the course. If you are unsure of an assignment, if you would like me to look at a draft of an assignment to see if you are on the right track, if you have questions about how class relates to your other interests, or if you want to chat about something else I’ve said in class, office hours is your time to ask for that help. Office hours are generally student-directed, in that it is often easier if you come prepared with questions to ask me, but I can also ask you questions if you prefer. Please take advantage of this time; I do not schedule anything else during office hours because it is your time, so dropping by will not bother me.