Tuesday, November 10, 2009

iPhones in the classroom

This is not a post about how annoying it is when phones go off in class, nor about how amazed I am when a student decides to take only one little white earbud out during class, and leave the other one in, softly playing something that only the self can hear. Rather, in this post I want to discuss a few ways in which I have found iPhones to be quite useful in what is mostly an old-school, book-oriented introduction to literary theory classroom.

The other day, we were discussing Simulacra and Science Fiction by Jean Baudrillard, and we were grappling with the concept "pantographic." I said, "Does anyone have a dictionary handy?" No. "How about an iPhone with a dictionary 'app'?" Of course. A tech-savvy student looked up the word, and then we talked about how the epoch of 'hyper-reality' (according to Baudrillard, our age) dispenses with the "pantographic excess" (massive scale shifts) of traditional science fiction (such as we see in imaginary parallel worlds that look eerily similar even when detail are exaggerated or shrunk) in exchange for pervasive models of simulation that have the feel of the 'real'—and iPhone apps turn out to be an apt example of what Baudrillard is referring to. We talked about all the 'real' things that one can now do on an iPhone—such as look up a word in a dictionary, play music, consult a map, identify birds—and considered why none of this seems magical, but rather appears as a simple, natural extension of daily life. The iPhone served as a pedagogical help-aid, and as a quotidian object to be unconcealed in the classroom—we could actually treat it as a living text, through its own access to language.

A week or so later, we were discussing a short story and a student conjectured that the word "torrid" might come from the same word root as the astrological sign of Taurus the bull (we were tracking metaphors of animality in a fictive landscape). This time, I simply said "Who has an iPhone etymology app ready?" And promptly a student was tapping away and informing the class that torrid comes from the Latin torrid-us (to dry with heat).

There are, then, real uses for iPhones in the English classroom. Still, as we move closer to the possibility of full immersion, paperless 'new media' classrooms, there are pressing questions to pose. In the name of online education, one recent blog post that has now disappeared recommended "75 Apps to Turn Your iPhone into the Ultimate Personal Library." The post claimed:
There’s something to be said about the weight of a book in your hand and the feel of the pages, but iPhone apps now give you an option.

I wonder, though, what is this mysterious "something to be said about the weight of a book"? That it is heavy? That it feels nice? And what is the singular "option" that an iPhone phone offers here? It seems caught up in a swarm of exchanges having to do with weight, feel, ease of consumption, access, energy—in other words, a whole world of experiential preferences are assumed when we exchange a book for an iPhone. Perhaps these experiential preferences need to be discussed more directly as such.

So what are the remaining arguments on behalf of (traditional) books? One gripe that I often hear is about annotation: you can't take notes and highlight in an e-reader like you can in a book. Well, not yet you can't (or at least not yet very well). Another one has to do with smell: books take on smells that are unique to each book, whereas the e-reader is seen to be a sterile object. Actually, though, electronics have their own abject qualities, as anyone in tune with their senses who has had a phone or a computer keyboard for a long time gradually becomes aware of. Plastic can come to stink and accrete bodily stuff, too. Maybe soon e-readers will be able to smell like books (and a different book each time you download a new one), and keyboards will be able to emit a new plastic aroma (like that "new car smell" spray that one can buy), rather than excrete an old-plastic-coated-with-food-and-earwax-and-boogers smell. But is this merely a question, then, of how good the simulation gets? Once an e-reader can really simulate a book to exactness, will we no longer miss the book? And if we still will miss the book, why? What are the experiential strongholds—and what are the fantasy objects—of 'old media' nostalgias?