Mark Brenden played power forward on his high school basketball team in South Dakota, and he speaks as much with his voice as he does with his hands: adjusting his round tortoiseshell eyeglasses, pushing his laissez-faire hair away from his forehead, and running the palm of his hand over his beard as he italicizes particular words and phrases. It occurs to me that, even slouching, he is a good five inches taller than I am. We talk for the better part of half an hour about our mutual love of the NBA (though we disagreed about the Golden State Warriors), about living in Durango, and about our favorite novels, before I realize that my recording app has failed to do its job. Being a Midwesterner, Mark is effusively polite and indulged me a few more questions about teaching his students at the Fort Lewis College Writing Center – this time with the recording app ON. Here are his thoughts, in his own words.
“For as much as I claim to be a Luddite and espouse these values of resisting technology, I’m also very susceptible to it. I’ll find myself some evenings, losing hours just [makes swiping motion on imaginary phone]. I don’t feel good about myself afterward, either. It’s all about pursuing quick rewards versus the fuzziness – the messiness of contemplation. Nicholas Carr, who wrote a book called ‘The Shallows,’ which is about what the Internet might be doing to our brains, says (contemplation) ‘… is a bug to be troubleshot, not embraced.’ Our culture just wants everything faster and more efficiently. Hyperlinks demand to be clicked; a footnote (in a book) really doesn’t. We’re terrified of interminable time, and we certainly don’t want to be accused of naval-gazing, much less to be caught actually doing so.
It makes me think of David Foster Wallace and his novel, ‘Infinite Jest.’ Even as a physical specimen, it’s a lot. If you’re going to read it, you’re going to lug it to the coffee shop, not carry it. You’ve got to have two bookmarks, if only because you’ll be reading at one spot and then the footnote is 30 pages long. It’s intentionally difficult to get through, but I think that his point is, ‘OK, if you can get through this, there will be a reward that doesn’t come from watching a 30-minute sitcom’ or, in our age, playing Candy Crush and what have you. Then there’s something like ‘Moby Dick.’ That novel is – have you read it? It’s not fun in some regards, but in others, it really is. It’s a lot different than you think it is, too. It’s funny, and singularly strange. One chapter, he’s talking about whale anatomy and the next might have stage directions in it.
Any writer is trying – or should be trying – to tell the truth in some way. Oftentimes, telling the truth takes 500 pages or more; 140 characters won’t do it. Again, I think that because it’s long, it’s worth – [laughs] I was about to say “students’ time”, because that’s what I’m always thinking about – but it’s worth people’s – anyone’s – time. (Reading) is subverting the order of the day which is speed, efficiency, clicks, likes. But there are different, more lasting rewards.
I don’t get a lot of pushback when I assign reading for my students. I do suspect that we don’t give them as much reading as maybe we should give, but there are different philosophies on this. Some of my colleagues would disagree with me and argue, pretty convincingly, that less is more. That there’s no point in inundating (students) with reading. But I think the point is what I said before – that it’s important to take the time to engage in deep, critical, long reading that might take you two hours of just sitting down and doing nothing but reading for that time. Maybe some of my students don’t really read anything that I give them, but maybe they do. I have heard, if I assign a 10-page essay to read, “Oh, that’s so long!” I have to laugh when I hear that. It’s 10 pages! But I don’t want to criticize my students too much because they didn’t create this problem, they were born into it.”
Cyle Talley misses South Park. You can email him at: [email protected] if you’re so inclined.