This being my ninth course in the program, I found it gratifying in ETEC 540 to have a “classic” of textual and communications theory in form of Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy as the axis around which many of the course’s later readings, discussions and insights revolved. It is quite a unique approach in my experience of ETEC courses, as the core courses especially tended to be much more modularized in terms of the range of topics and readings, and less concerned with theoretical continuities and connections beyond the areas of education and technology.
Ong’s book aims at presenting a coherent and comprehensive account of the technological passage from orality to literacy, which is a huge project, and one that would require many volumes in the hands of a less able theorist. This is not to say that his positions are not very contentious, right up from his use of the smallest anthropological details to his grand theory of literacy shaping the language, consciousness and culture simultaneously.
Of course, there is much to oppose in Ong’s quite monumental work, and our approach in taking on the dimension of technological determinism in particular seemed to be only one of many ways of reading against the grain of Ong’s book. Coming at the subject of literacy and technology in this way tied in well with the fundamental debates we covered over the nature of graphical writing systems and their cultural significance, taken from both totalizing and relativist perspectives. When we started to look at some of the ‘Continuity’ theories (e.g. Gaur, Chandler) of writing and literacy, it soon became clear that the many complexities of literacy in the digital context would require, at minimum, a thorough revision of the historical and anthropological approach that Ong takes to the subject.
Yet there’s no question that the basic terms that Ong brings forward served us quite well in tackling developments that are quite outside the scope of Orality and Literacy, the most important being the rise of hypertext and digital technologies for producing and disseminating texts. It was really thought provoking to look back to Ong’s work when we encountered Englebart’s take on hypertext and word processing, and to start to notice how Ong really doesn’t fully engage with the implications of electronic technologies for literacy, or orality for that matter, that come through in Bolter’s excellent and far-sighted book. I really enjoyed reading that one. This was a very effective turn in the direction of the course, and it helped my to connect contemporary spaces for writing online with the larger phenomena of “new media” as we moved through the latter sections of Module 4.
I’d like to thank everyone for sharing their work on this blog and in the discussions, and I look forward to reading more of my fellow students’ commentaries and projects in the coming few days. Happy holidays to all.