This is how things have changed. I needed another grade in my grade book, so I gave an assignment on Emerson or Thoreau: take a quote, any quote, from either of them, then tell me what it means to a transcendentalist like E and T, then tell me what you think.
Weird. It's not a question of interpretation only, but a question that asks my students to interact with the quote personally. There was a time in the history of English teaching at the college level where personal opinion simply didn't count; what mattered was how many sources you had studied or scanned, how you marshalled those sources out in a paper--what you did, in other words, with already existing scholarship. In some ways, what profs wanted was to know that a student had spent some significant scholarly time in library stacks.
But what I know, by personal experience, is that if you want to be reading up on a Dickinson poem these days you can simply let your fingers do the walking--no more card catalogs, no more Dewey Decimals, no more thumbing through indexes. To be sure, on-line scholarship still requires discretion--not all sources are created equal, after all--but gumshoe scholarship, at least at the lower levels of college work, is history.
Next semester I'll teach an intro to lit course again, first time in years. All my assignments will be--or so it seems--this new kind of interactive, personal assignments because if I simply toss out something more traditional--"What does Dickinson's attitude toward death in the following three poems?. . ."--it takes little more than a few key strokes to come up with an answer, or a few bucks to find a paper that'll do the job for you.
The internet has changed all of our lives.
Five years ago I wrote a short story about a small-town preacher who'd found a wife on the internet because I knew one who did. I loved writing it because I thought the whole narrative was such a strange phenomenon, and would have been his own little country church full of old people. Today, tons of searchers find their dreams on the net. Nobody's shocked anymore. Happens all the time.
The digital revolution has made me a photographer, at least by my own meager definition. Blogging has changed me as a writer--this morning's post, Blogger tells me, is my 750th. Imagine that. Anyone with a computer can be a writer today; just like anyone with a camera can be a photographer. Pity the real photographers. Pity the real writers. Pity the musicians especially--the internet has destroyed what was. On the other hand, lo and behold, there's room for more and more and more.
Everything is here. If I were smart enough, I could cobble together a hydrogen bomb from instructions on this screen. Right here, in the semi-darkness of my basement, I can watch panting human beings do incredibly strange things, bare nakedly, to each other. I can enlist myself in jihad, become a communist or skinhead, find a thousand a friends a minute, start a rumor, pass on a lie, dirty reputations; with the right pitch, I can send my content--whatever it might be--all over the world almost instantaneously.
On May 25, 1844, Samuel B. Morse sent a telegraph note from the Supreme Court room in the U.S. Capitol in Washington to his assistant, Alfred Vail, in Baltimore, producing, on Vail's end, a paper copy with raised dots and dashes. Famously, that message--the first on the telegraph--was a question: "What hath God wrought?"
In the broadest possible sense, God certainly had a hand in creation of the internet, just as he had a hand in the telegraph and the printing press. But, here as elsewhere, just exactly how we use it is a determination he leaves to our own very human devices.
For good and ill, this medium has changed everything, even the way we think.