Tuesday, March 16, 2010
The Deep, Webbed Rabbit Hole in the Center of Campus
Here's a question: what is the proper role of professorship in an age of world mind? Last night, after spending some time in class discussing ancient sources of Odysseyan legends, Homeric and otherwise, I found myself following a series of hyperlinks concerning fairytales and legends deep into the labyrinth of the oh-so-aptly named World Wide Web. Living as I do in a rural area with no cellphone service and only a weak internet connection at home, I do not often run the risk of losing myself in the Web, but last night using speedy campus servers as my wings I found myself as quickly entangled in my informational misadventure as any foolish fly. When I retraced my breadcrumb trail of links back out of the rabbit hole ("block that metaphor!"), I discovered I had gone about 2 hours and 50 links deep (and/or sideways), and had not only encountered a great deal of reputably documented information I had not known about, as well as a number of questionably sourced articles I could more or less ignore, but had wandered into realms so far removed from my original query as to be in some ways absurd--the later colonial history of Trinidad and Tobago, the lore of spectral hounds in the British Isles, the impact of Isidore of Seville on the medieval preservation and distortion of classical learning, and so forth.
Can a hyperlinked world be anything but interdisciplinary? Is the best role of the lecturer/professor/mentor now to be a guide, a pointing finger only, a Virgil to the myriad student Dantes who have stumbled from their various thickets into the swirling limbo of facts and fictions that is this Web, this Matrix, this human-tended, human-groomed, superorganismic termite underhill of world mind? How should we then teach, when information itself is so superabundant that the single brain is stunned on contact? As the oracular Web itself reminded me, the world of scholarship was once so different. Back when that learned 6th-century Spanish Catholic and "last scholar of the ancient world," Isidore of Seville put together his compendium of world knowledge, the Etymologiae, it was brutally reductive and biased, but it was still a single, manuscript volume compiled by one scholar and then used as a primary source for nearly a thousand years by several thousands of later clerics, including the first teachers of what would become the great European universities. Yes, long, long ago, and yet. . . . Are we still teaching in a way that tacitly presumes such weighty tomes are the anchors and guarantors of our knowledge, when knowledge and lies alike now form one bewitching, fay electric swirl that halos and tempts astray each of our confused little heads? Is it even possible for individual human minds to follow the eerie, flickering lights of the Web, to wander into that world "under the hill" and safely return at all, much less with only true stories to tell?