Web Exclusives:On the Campus...

February 27, 2002:
It's either empty or shallow
The email discussion pool provides little value

By Abhi Raghunathan '02

In many courses these days, the shape of class discussions has been sketched out in e-mails and postings on electronic message boards before any meetings. A growing number of professors now require everyone in a precept or seminar to send a response or question about the week's reading to the entire class. The reasoning is that this allows discussions to be sharper and more relevant to the needs of students.

And so every week, electronic mailboxes and message boards across the campus are cluttered with e-mail and postings that no one seems to care about very much. I tend to skim them for a few late-night laughs — they arrive during what could be considered study hall in college, at times like 1:37 a.m., 2:03 a.m., 4:41 a.m. You can almost smell the Wa coffee coagulating into questions and bullet points to be addressed at the next class meeting.

Why do I think no one takes them seriously? Here are a few tidbits on Don DeLillo's novel White Noise that come from a class I took last semester called American Literature: 1930 - Present.

"I think the title of the novel is important. What exactly is 'White Noise'?"

"the idea that only the media has the power to authenticate, to make a situation real. a plane dropping four miles in the sky, the deadly spectre of the airborne toxic event, somehow these events and the people who are forever changed by them require television footage and frontpage newspaper status to make it all complete, to make it at all worthwhile. without that recognition, something is presumably lost, the experience now supposedly less valid, any possible insight gone. why is the coverage missing in the first place and can value be found without it?" [sic]

"I'm sorry to bring up such an obvious matter, but I was wondering what the title has to do with Delillo's style of writing."

I'm not trying to be mean or pick or any people here, it's just that the records from this class are the ones that are most easily accessible to me right now. (Remember when I told you that I tend to delete these after skimming them for a few chuckles?) And besides, my responses aren't much better. Here's my take on Art Spiegelman's Maus:

"What should we make of Spiegelman's promise to his father not to use the biographical info and the broken first romance in book 1?"


As you can see, asking about the "meaning" of a title tends to be a popular topic of discussion, as does trying to be "deep." Rambling stream of consciousness accounts that conclude with a profound question are pretty well represented, too. Many responses are quasi-apologetic, like the one that began "I'm sorry to bring up such an obvious matter," as if the writer recognizes the futility of what he is saying. Of course, every once in a while the writer of one of these postings attempts to say something spectacular. One post about Philip Roth's novel American Pastoral had the ambitious title "failure of post modernism," but the content didn't really have much to say about anything: "On page 241, the Swede goes off on a tirade about the twisted fate of his daughter; how does what he has to say reflect upon our society? Is it not only an example of parental frustration but also, on a broader scale, evidence that Americans have lost faith in America?" I'm quoting the posting in its entirety.

I'm not exactly sure what the Swede's anger at his daughter has to do with the "failure of post modernism." but I suspect that the noted literary theorists aren't scrambling for their texts to find out and stop the collapse of postmodernism.

I probably wouldn't mind these postings so much if preceptors and professors didn't make so much of an attempt to incorporate them into discussions. The results are often painful and filled with deafening silences. My most meaningful discussions in classes have been the organic ones that began rather spontaneously. This whole idea of weekly responses seems to reek of corporate presentations and board meetings and "News You can Use!" But the technique is "hot" right now, possibly because liberal arts professors can't figure out another way to incorporate all of this new technology into their classes. Maybe they'll figure out something better soon. Until then, we'll continue to litter the information superhighway.

You can reach Abhi at abhishek@princeton.edu