Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Teaching and learning in the ‘network society’

Teaching at university in the early 21st century requires of lecturers that they take the “lifeworld” in which students live seriously. This lifeworld comprises what Manuel Castells (2010) calls the “Network Society” (see here) – a global society that has actualised an ever-expanding web or network of electronic means of information and communication. The fact that the latter has been the basis of transforming the very notions of space and time does not concern me here, but that our students live in the thick of this unprecedented communication hub is of decisive importance for successful, edifying teaching today.

This has nothing to do with being “Eurocentric”; anyone who believes that it does, does not understand the concept of globalisation. The latter implies that we live in an interconnected world, where everything is connected to everything else – not only ideas and political events, but ecological systems and subsystems as well. When 9/11 happened in the US in 2001, images of the passenger aircraft and the collapsing buildings were being transmitted around the world as the attacks unfolded, and the economic and military consequences were not slow in coming either.

Hence, when one adopts an interdisciplinary approach to teaching (and research), it does not matter whether one uses a novel by John Fowles or by South African author, Bessie Head, in conjunction with Lacan’s psychoanalytic theory. In both cases Lacan’s theory will enable one to understand aspects of the novels that other theories would not resonate with in the same manner. Besides, Lacan can be used in conjunction with an African thinker like Fanon. And when it comes to global awareness, one’s students are likely to be more aware of living in an interconnected, globalised (and still globalising) world than many of their teachers. Unless one keeps it in mind all the time, you are likely to experience far-reaching misunderstandings with your students.

What I mean is this: I have taught the philosophy of architecture to final-year students for many years, and while the question of reading prescribed texts and writing essays was not an issue in the 1980s, more recently it has become one. As one final-year class told me: “We are the video and DVD-generation; don’t ask us to read and write too much, please!” My response was to explain to them that, while working with images – as in design and in cinema – is exciting and imaginatively rewarding, there was something that images by themselves do not allow you to do the way verbal and written language does. The image is more conspicuously multi-vocal than words, although in principle the latter are multi-vocal too, especially in different contexts.

For example, a picture of a rose signifies in a different way from the word “rose”, because the manner in which its colour (red, pink, or black), shape (open or still as a bud) and condition (fresh or wilted) are depicted, points one’s interpretation of its meaning(s) in a certain direction. But the important point is that, without words at one’s disposal, you could not articulate such an interpretation in a critical, reflective manner. You might respond to the image of a wilted rose by producing one of a fresh-looking rose, but whether anyone would understand what you mean by this is another matter.

As I explained to the class, the written text is particularly powerful in this regard: when one is reading and a word or phrase catches your eye – either because it is unusual, or striking, or new, it forces one into reflective mode. You either have to look it up in a dictionary, or re-read the pages preceding its specific use, or reflect on its implications for the subject of the book you are reading; in other words, one might say that written texts have a “reflective moment” built into them, which is not the case with the unfolding image-sequences of film, which succeed one another along the “syntagmatic axis of sequential meaning” (meaning altered by “what follows what”) at such a rate that one usually only reflects on them afterwards, if at all.

This is the reason for doing both – reading as well as viewing images. The former provides the verbal and conceptual means that are indispensable for “distance” and critical, comparative reflection; the latter supplies holistic totalities at the level of the “paradigmatic axis of association” (meaning derived from “what belongs with what”) that one can grasp and assimilate at the level of the imagination. We live in an audio-visually dominated culture, but as university teachers that is no reason to give up on inculcating in students the ability to think critically on the plethora of images that inundate their senses every day.

Another way of teaching students to read critically without neglecting the realm of images, which they hold so dear, is to let them read a written text and show them a film based on it, followed by a discussion of the differences between the two experiences. In one instance I invited them to read the autobiographical novel, Eat Pray Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert (2006), and then showed them the film based on the novel.

It was not difficult, via a discussion where I asked them questions such as, “What is the theme of the novel?” and “Does the film approach this theme in the same way?”, to get them to recognise that there was a world of difference between the two. The novel traces the difficult quest, on the part of a woman writer experiencing a painful divorce, for meaning in her life; the film ostensibly follows the same narrative trajectory, but with a crucial difference: it becomes the tale of a woman’s quest for a (new) man in her life (which is unfortunately often the case in Hollywood movies).

Needless to say, critical attention was given to the choice of actress for representing the writer, as well as to the different emphasis that was placed on events in the narrative as presented in the novel and film, respectively. Importantly, the difference between reading the novel and viewing the film also received extensive attention, with some satisfying results on the part of students regarding their increased comprehension of what is at stake.

One should remember, however, that it is not always the case that a movie based on a novel compares unfavourably with the literary work; there are many instances where the film turns out to be as outstanding a work of art as the novel, as is the case with the films that took as their point of departure Michael Ondaatje’s novel, The English Patient (1992) and Anthony Burgess’s novel, A Clockwork Orange (1962). What makes the difference is whether the directors of such films know cinema as medium well enough to make the most of its capacity, which differs fundamentally from that of literature. In the case of the two films mentioned here – directed by Anthony Minghella (1996) and Stanley Kubrick (1971), respectively – it is undoubtedly the case, judging by the finished product.

Instead of trying to “translate” the literary artwork into an audio-visual medium in a literal, one-to-one manner, these directors set out to find the iconic and auditory counterparts to the written literary signifiers, but without attempting to retain the exact sequential narrative structure. Even literary tropes such as metaphors and metonymies usually have to be replaced by image-configurations that convey the same idea, but in a way suited to the audio-visual medium, where a verbal description of a landscape is matched by a panoramic shot of such a landscape, for instance, making a voice-over description redundant.

There are therefore numerous ways in which one’s teaching can take the fact into account, that our students live in the “Network Society” – it simply takes some imagination on the part of the teacher.

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