Once upon a time, university lecturers swanned around market towns and small cities across Europe wearing impressive black gowns. They spent their days earning a decent crust teaching the teenage sons of the middle classes and nobility how to read books and understand them. Indeed, if you walk around modern Cambridge and Oxford, you can see the vestiges of this post-monastic university structure in the design of the colleges and the rhythm of the day. It weaves its way through the curriculum as well – it’s hard to leave there as a student without inadvertently experiencing some of the joys of the medieval trivium and quadrivium in their various contemporary forms. This might mean learning the point of mathematics from someone sat next to you at dinner, discovering how to debate (aka “disputation”, albeit no longer in Latin) and being encouraged to take a casual interest in astronomy via open evenings at the university’s fine observatory. The medieval curriculum and its quest for knowledge may be under the modern radar, but it is certainly still there – quiet, timeless and deep.
This respect for the life of the mind is something all universities still aspire to. We see the words “knowledge”, “scholarship” and “collegiality” in most of the documents that pass across our desks as academics in the 21st century. Students are encouraged to visit libraries, to read and to discuss what they are learning. We gently try to share this knowledge, so carefully nurtured, with the outside world. We hope that students will be of like mind and that they will, in turn, take over the baton of knowledge from us on behalf of mankind. In many ways, to be an academic is ultimately to have faith in human nature.
Do not despair. This accessible, informative book is replete with strategies for addressing students’ information-age malaise
That’s the ideal, anyway. In her book Digital Dieting, Tara Brabazon highlights how precarious this model of learning has suddenly become in the aftermath of the post-1980s technological revolution. (Before that, all lecturers had to worry about was the introduction of the printing press, making dictation by candlelight unnecessary, and forcing them to raise their game a bit when actually interacting with students.) If you want to feel frustrated and anxious in equal measure, read this book’s introduction, which includes extracts of student emails sent to Brabazon in the course of her work and which she carefully analyses. It is clear in reading these spurious essay excuses, cheeky requests for editing services and frankly lazy demands for bullet-point summaries of complex subject matter that education has become as commoditised as it is possible to be, enabled all too often by university administrators keen to force lecturers to use clunky and frustrating multimedia delivery tools in the name of progress.
Linked to this commoditisation, argues Brabazon, is the newly unlimited access to knowledge. Previously if you wanted to know something, you searched in an archive or library and gradually drilled down into the subject matter. Building one’s own knowledge from this process was often uncomfortable but was immensely rewarding. Much has changed. We are now presented with large volumes of knowledge that satisfy us easily with comparatively little intellectual effort. Brabazon uses the analogy of fast food to represent this shift, which links nicely to the title of the book. Yet it leaves any sane lecturer feeling hopeless and rather depressed at the apparently sinking prospects for students’ intellectual development. Even those who do read books and journal articles often do little more than skim the surface, plucking quotations out of context and bandying around half-understood nuggets of knowledge in order to sound scholarly. (And if any of my former students are reading this, I’m sorry to say that for quite a few of you it’s true. You are in good company, though, because I can think of at least one government minister who has made this his stock-in-trade.)
Readers of Digital Dieting should not despair, however. This very accessible and informative book may be frank about the down and dirty of teaching in the modern university, but it is replete with strategies for addressing students’ information-age malaise. Brabazon backfills this via her detailed analysis of the problem. Let me give a few examples. Relatively early on in the book, she introduces Jean Baudrillard’s philosophical concept of hyperreality – an unknowing copy of a copy or a representation of a representation, rather than something authentic in its own right – and links it to students’ confusion about the value of different sources. She then maps this across to different courses (the chapter on PhD study is particularly shrewd). Brabazon discusses trying to deliver on that holy of holies, the “student experience”, in the face of organisational techno-panic (here her chapter on developing an online and offline master’s module is very instructive, although it did bring me out in a cold sweat). She uses the work of Paul Willis to highlight the role of social reproduction in compromising educational outcomes in the chapter “Learning to leisure”. It’s a massive undertaking, locating what seems like the whole of higher education within a research-based digital literacy context, but she manages it very well.
Then there’s the Brabazon view of social networking and gadgets, gadgets, gadgets, which appear to have replaced sex as the undergraduate obsessions of choice. Her analysis of the iPad is deployed as a means of discussing obsolescence, for example, but it goes beyond this point to illuminate the lived experience of technology for lecturers and students alike. (It also addresses the infernal problem of how to autocue self-recorded lectures without a handy film crew camped in your study, and for that I am very grateful.) Finally there is a damning critique of the way PowerPoint slides are habitually used and how it undermines students’ abilities to follow a narrative and develop their own notes. I am put in mind of the comments of a chemistry undergraduate I once interviewed for a research study looking at how different higher education courses were structured. As he put it so eloquently: “I felt like saying to the lecturer, hey mate, instead of just reading the slides out in a monotone, why don’t you bugger off and have a coffee and we can read the slides for ourselves?” Out of the mouths of babes…
By the time we get to the conclusion, we learn that the way forward is comparatively simple. We need to discourage social networking, at least at the level of intensity experienced by many students today. We also need to remove a lot of the institutional technology we are using, which involves students experiencing a significant degree of text-based disorientation, before going back to basics and teaching students in a way that our medieval forebears might recognise. In essence, this means teaching them concentration, attention and focus above all else, even if it is uncomfortable for them. Brabazon closes her book with a call to arms, urging us to fight for intelligence rather than ignorance and wisdom rather than gluttony.
I can’t argue with that; can you?
Tara Brabazon, head of the School of Teacher Education at Charles Sturt University and electronic music obsessive, was born in Perth, Australia.
Her birthplace, she observes, is “often termed the most isolated capital city in the world (although Honolulu has a better claim to the title!). Coming from this isolation, I always recognised and valued the incredible strengths of digitisation, to move ideas through time and space. But I also understand the value of independence and innovation.”
After the best part of a decade spent in the UK and then Canada, Brabazon recently returned to Australia. “I feel so fortunate. I’ve worked in eight universities in four countries. I have learned so much from every place and every person I work with and for. Currently - and happily - I live in Bathurst, a regional city in New South Wales. I live with my beloved husband, Professor Steve Redhead, who also works at CSU and is currently acting associate dean of research. He is the light of my life and the love of my life. He makes every single day an adventure!”
She and her husband, she says, “have a wonderful time. I feel so privileged that Steve came into my life. We have a house that is filled with laugher and ideas. We both write, so we have a house geared to research and music and sport and popular culture. I don’t get in the way of his Bob Dylan fixation. He leaves me alone with the Pet Shop Boys. We share Manchester City and Perth Glory. Plus we now have a permanent home for our 12,000 books, and sundry cameras and microphones. It is an absolute dream.
“I loved living in the Northern Quarter of Manchester. I miss the North of England every single day. But the light, the freshness, the landscape and the countryside of Bathurst are simply glorious. It is a place of space, and it gives me a lot of peace, quiet and happiness,” she enthuses.
“I think it is important to occupy the present without regrets or nostalgia, and I truly love my present life. But my home remains Perth. My parents have a glorious house in Mandurah - south of Perth - with a vista of the Indian Ocean. It is a beautiful place of sunlight, walking, laughter and community. A big chunk of my heart still lives in Mandurah.”
Brabazon says she “had the great fortune to be born to parents who did not have the chance of higher education, but wanted to give that opportunity to their children. My role models - the most significant people in my life - remain my parents Doris and Kevin. Their tenacity, their capacity to manage delights and tragedies, has remained the key inspiration and propulsion of my life. I did not enjoy my schooling, but university was a revelation and I have taken every chance to learn, think and create. Life presents a lot of challenges, but as Doris told me, ‘If life knocks you down seven times, it is important to get up that eighth time.’”
Her university studies were fruitful. “I have completed three bachelor’s degrees, three master’s degrees, a graduate diploma and a PhD. I have enrolled in the best universities in the world, and some less well known. But I felt so lucky every day to have the chance to learn. Learning is a profound gift, and I remain so thankful to my teachers and librarians who gave me so many opportunities.”
Reflecting on the various institutions she has worked at, Brabazon says: “The differences are instructive, but there is a lot that is the same. A truth I’ve learned is that if a university has an imaginative vice-chancellor and a great dean, then the workplace is a joy. I have both at Charles Sturt University. That combination makes it a privilege to come to work. I miss my friends, colleagues and students around the world, but Facebook makes it easier to maintain those personal links.”
Of her return to Australia, she says, “To be honest, it was great to be home. I missed the sun and the spark and the naughtiness and the honesty of Australia. It is a tough place, but it brings out the best in people. Charles Sturt was surprising. Its multi-campus locations mean that I have the great opportunity to be the Head of School for three places: Bathurst, Dubbo and Burlington in Canada. I love the diversity of these locations. I love the quiet of Bathurst, the inspiration of Dubbo and the creativity of Burlington. The remarkable students and staff from rural and regional Australia have created a beautiful environment for me to work. After all the moving around the world, I have a great sense of home.”
Her non-scholarly pursuits are as exuberant and lively as Brabazon herself. “I am at the gym at 5:30 every morning. I love movement and exercise and it is a personal time to set the agendas for the day. I am also completely obsessed by Star Trek: Voyager. I really want to be Captain Kathryn Janeway. And yes - sigh - I know she is a fictional character. But I adore science fiction and - yes - there is a light sabre in my office. And I like dancing. A lot.”
Music is a longstanding passion. “My iPod has 16,000 sonic objects - don’t ask - on it. So my taste moves from Eno’s Music for Airports through to Lady Gaga’s Applause. I am fixated on dance music, and live my life to about 135 beats per minute. On a bad day - which is rare - I listen to the Undertones’ Teenage Kicks interspersed with Joy Division and Green Day. Green Day can get me over the weirdest meeting. But after - and through - a great day, I listen to electronica. Visage to Ultravox to New Order to the Pet Shop Boys. But in the car on the way home, it’s always Gaga. I do a mean po-po-po-poker face.”
Digital Dieting, Brabazon observes, “is the conclusion of my Star Wars trilogy. Digital Hemlock  was angry. The University of Google  was seething. But Digital Dieting is my Return of the Jedi. It shows that Darth Vader - neoliberal higher education - is merely an old white guy in a helmet. So it is a book that acknowledges what we have all been through in universities during the past decade or so. It takes a breath. It exhales. And it asks us to do better, be better and remember the gifts of learning.”
Digital Dieting: From Information Obesity to Intellectual Fitness
By Tara Brabazon
Ashgate, 342pp, £35.00
ISBN 9781472409379 and 9393 (e-book)
Published 3 October 2013