The Heroic Age

A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe

Founded 1998   |   ISSN 1526-1867

Issue 14 (November 2010)  |   Issue Editors: Eileen A. Joy & Andrew Rabin

Old English Literacy, the Digital Revolution, and New Media Aliteracy

Mary Dockray-Miller

Lesley University

© 2010 by Mary Dockray-Miller. All rights reserved. This edition copyright © 2010 by The Heroic Age. All rights reserved.

Abstract:  In light of current debates about literacy, critical thinking, and foundational knowledge in the undergraduate curriculum, this essay argues for an expansion and redirection of the discourse of Old English studies to include issues of literacy and aliteracy, language history and change, and interdisciplinary communication with professional training programs as well as other liberal arts disciplines.

§1.  Questions about literacy and culture are very much in the foreground at this moment in western history. From the Atlantic Monthly's July 2008 cover story "Is Google Making Us Stoopid?" to Mark Bauerlein's The Dumbest Generation, the meeting—or perhaps the collision—of digital media with America's intellectual abilities has become a cause for inquiry and concern both inside and outside the academy (Carr 2008; Bauerlein 2008). Frequent columns in the Chronicle of Higher Education and other venues document and bemoan the lack of cultural knowledge and the short attention spans of both undergraduates and the population at large (Benton 2008 and Schuessler 2009 are exemplary of the wide variety available). In February 2008, the liberal arts advocacy group Common Core surveyed American 17-year-olds to discover (or confirm) that a significant proportion of teenagers live in "stunning ignorance" of history and literature (Hess 2008). Advocacy of the study of Old English and the history of the English language may seem like an idealistic or even ludicrous suggestion as a way to begin to deal with these cultural problems, and yet that is my intention. In more general studies of the history of language and literature, we must take a conscious theoretical step toward interdisciplinary accessibility and critical literacy in our undergraduate curricula.

§2.  This cluster of essays in The Heroic Age and postmedieval seeks to interrogate the relationships between postmodern critical theory and Old English studies; I would like to direct that inquiry most specifically to the relationship between Old English studies and our culture's hermeneutical understanding of the use of language as a tool of communication and expression. Ultimately, I wish to argue that study of Old English and the history of the English language performs the crucial task of emphasizing contemporary Modern English as simply another iteration of the process of linguistic and literary communication. Old English is not the beginning of a teleological line that triumphantly ends with "us" (however that pronoun may be defined); our students and our culture need to connect issues of literacy and New Media with the history of our language in order to become aware of the ways in which literacy and language have informed and created culture throughout human history—and how they continue to do so today. This connection will probably entail, however, an expansion and metamorphosis of Old English studies outside of their traditional realms of upper-level and graduate literature classes; Anglo-Saxonists will need to collaborate in the classroom and in curriculum design with colleagues in other fields and other disciplines.

§3.  In addition to theoretical and pedagogical advantages, such collaboration will bring new perspectives into the ever-more-isolated world of early medieval literature. Taking a step back to survey the state of our field within academia and western culture more generally tends to have a sobering effect. Humanities PhD programs are limiting their acceptance numbers in response to the continually declining job market for full-time faculty. Most undergraduate English programs and many graduate programs do not require courses in Old English or the history of the English language (as some used to). Anglo-Saxonists need to acknowledge and work within the unhappy reality that most undergraduate English majors will encounter Old English only briefly in anthologized and translated versions of Beowulf and perhaps of Caedmon's Hymn or The Wanderer or The Seafarer; non-majors may encounter translated Old English literature even more briefly in a general-education literature course, if at all. Despite Seamus Heaney's brief flare of celebrity with the publication of his Beowulf translation in 2000 and the 2007 release of a Beowulf movie starring a computer-enhanced Angelina Jolie as Grendel's mother, Old English tends not to register on the monitors of popular culture.

§4.  More specifically, Michael Drout's contribution to the "State of the Field in Anglo-Saxon Studies" cluster in the May 2008 issue of The Heroic Age focuses on the state of the field within the narrow confines of the academy and the even narrower confines of the English department (and he makes some very good, if polemical, points). Drout argues that English departments are currently spending too much time studying arcane literary theory and not enough time teaching about basic language structure and function. He surely exaggerates (I hope he exaggerates) when he states that "Only English Professors think that the English language is not one of the most important topics of study in departments of English" (Drout 2008). Currently, it is only in English departments that undergraduate students can discover that the English language has a history at all. I completely agree with Drout's argument that all English majors (not just those who focus on medieval or early modern literature) should know the history and structure of the language "so that they understand to some degree why English is the way it is" (Drout 2008; italics in original). I would like to take Drout's point a step further and argue that most (ideally, all) undergraduates should acquire some basic acquaintance with and understanding of the history and structure of English.

§5.  The History of the English Language (HEL) course is usually taught by one of the medievalists in the English department (or by the medievalist, depending on the size of the department), usually as an upper-level undergraduate course with some prerequisites, often cross-listed as a graduate course as well. As such, its students tend to be limited to self-selected English majors who already have some familiarity with medieval English literature and language (probably through The Canterbury Tales). This isolation needs to be replaced by infusion throughout the curriculum of an awareness of language as an evolving communication process with both a history and a future.

§6.  Most undergraduate mission statements make some mention of the need to develop students' communication skills, notably in critical thinking, speaking, and writing. Our students need that critical literacy to function fully and successfully in twenty-first-century culture, but the sheer amount of information available seems to be crushing our students' ability to evaluate it. Using Web 2.0 as its primary tool of communication, twenty-first-century culture is in a crisis of information overload. Even in the relatively small and confined discipline of medieval studies, the proliferation of available information is overwhelming. New books, journals, essay collections, web sites, and blog posts appear with such frequency that an essay's bibliography is out of date hours after it is sent to an editor.

§7.  We've all heard the statistics about the continuous doubling of numbers of available web pages and the continuous shrinking of the American attention span. Information that university faculty consider basic and essential is no longer even acquired, let alone mastered, by our students or the population at large. Rather than simply complain that our students don't know how to read or write critically, we need to take the time to teach them those skills, build that pedagogy into our syllabi, and send them out of our classrooms with twenty-first-century literacy skills that will allow them to access new and old media in an intellectually engaged way. We must teach our students how to filter, evaluate, and reflect upon information, not just collect it. The culture of New Media—the world of the web, video, cell phone, text message, and blog and all of the connections within and across those media—is ironically dependent on written communication even as our cultural critics decry the lack of general communications and cultural literacy of the millennial generation. Today's undergraduate students are immersed in the world of New Media, of course; part of the challenge of the years ahead will be to teach students ways in which more traditional skills (lucid presentation of an argument, incisive evaluation, and synthesis of information) are not only transferable but also essential to the New Media they value so highly.

§8.  This sort of New-Media literacy shares numerous philosophical goals with the current focus on "active literacy" in American K–12 education. Heidi Jacobs' book, Active Literacy Across the Curriculum, advocates not just reading instruction in elementary grades but a pedagogical focus on speaking, listening, reading, and writing skills in all classrooms for all age groups (Jacobs 2006). When I began learning about this movement, which I wholeheartedly endorse, I was struck by how medieval it seemed with its breaking down of "literacy" into separate but related skills, just as reading, writing, and composing were considered discrete skills in the Middle Ages. D.H. Green, Linda Olson, and others have argued as well for an auditory literacy acquired by medieval people who intellectually engaged with texts by listening to them read aloud (Green 2007; Olson 2005).

§9.  Streaming video and DVD technologies certainly present the possibility of similar "literacies" in our contemporary culture: we are moving towards a world in which people will not need to read at all to acquire information. News and entertainment are available through film, television, webcast, and podcast; major purchases come with video instruction manuals; advertising and consumer information is available as video through TV and internet services. Graphic interfaces use icons instead of or in addition to words; the pictograph is making a comeback after thousands of years of the ascendance of the morpheme. The word "aliterate," describing "a person who is able to read but rarely chooses to do so," is now in the Random House Dictionary, and a frightening new study shows that 15% of new and prospective teachers are aliterate (Nathanson, Pruslow, and Levitt 2008). Yet our universities are charged with providing critical literacy skills to our students and, by extension, to our culture at large. The term "literacy" now means much more than the simple ability to decode words in the early elementary classroom. "Literacy" encompasses skills necessary not just for success but simply for survival in the New-Media information age, skills that seem to be less and less valued as our culture becomes more and more aliterate.

§10.  The solution here is certainly not a nostalgic return to the traditional disciplinary curriculum, as advocated by Anthony Kronman in his 2007 Education's End, a complaint against postmodern theory and call to arms for a return to the good old days when students talked about the meaning of life with professors in oak-paneled rooms with no fiber optic wiring. The solution is to acknowledge and work within the reality that substantial numbers of American undergraduates have few basic literary critical skills, let alone awareness of or engagement with postmodern literary theory.

§11.  To return to the subject of this essay cluster, how does the study of Old English intersect with contemporary literacy issues? As experts in the history of the language, Anglo-Saxonists are uniquely poised to provide historical depth to any discussion of language as our primary tool of communication. Rather than teaching with only an overly specialized focus on individual and isolated texts, medievalists can and should deliver a number of undergraduate classes that provide an interdisciplinary focus to engage more evidently with the objectives of general education and cultural literacies. In the process, we would contribute historical and linguistic depth to the academic programs of the general student population, rather than simply to the English majors who elect our specialized courses.

§12.  To do so, we will have to step out of our hermeneutical comfort zone of the medieval English seminar, even if only temporarily, to engage with students in more heavily populated classes like Introduction to Communications or an education department's course in the teaching of reading (in my university, this course is called "Literacy Learning"). One would hope that a collegial offer from a medievalist to guest-teach one meeting of a communications or education course would be accepted and possibly even reciprocated. In addressing in these general classes students who would probably never consider taking a course in the history of the English language, medievalists can encourage a wide range of students to consider language as a process, to think about language use as a political and cultural issue in which they have both a stake and a voice.

§13.  For example, students who have no familiarity with Old English tend to be intrigued when they are taught about its dual pronoun. When introducing the concept of the dual first person to a group of communications students, I avoid the grammatical distinctions among wit, unc, and uncer and focus instead on situations when it might be nice to have a first person dual pronoun today (tennis games, family dynamics, and office politics come to mind). The students think about why Anglo-Saxon culture may have needed that usage and try to draw some critical conclusions from the pronoun's existence; they become engaged with speculation about how and why that usage disappeared from English. One student noted that the dual pronoun just makes the language that much more complicated; she compared it to the formal and informal second-person pronouns available in many European languages but not in Modern English. This comment led to a short discussion about the trade-offs between convenience and precision; at some point, English speakers must have decided that the convenience of not having a dual pronoun outweighed the precision the pronoun would provide. Those students have never read any Old English (except perhaps in translation), but they now have a firm and specific sense of one case of historical language change.

§14.  In a perhaps more contentious example, I try to get education students (who will be teaching grammar to the next generation of K–12 students) to think about the current use of "they" or "them" as a singular pronoun. Most people are comfortable with it in casual conversation: "If a student has a problem, they should go to the dean's office." Whether that usage belongs in formal written work is a matter of intense debate both in print and online; a number of dictionaries now include a definition of "they" as a singular pronoun, as does Fowler's Modern English Usage (Burchfield 2004). I ask education students if the following table of English pronouns may sometime replace the ones they have in their current books:

Person Nominative (grammatical subject) Accusative (grammatical object)
first singular I me
second singular you you
third singular he, she, it, they him, her, it, them
first plural we us
second plural you you
third plural they them

Education students at Lesley University have a vested interest in this discussion, as the Massachusetts Test for Educator Licensure notoriously includes exercises that need correction for use of singular "they." Yet "they" has become accepted as a singular pronoun in most parts of American culture, including presidential campaign commercials; for example, Obama's half-hour pre-election commercial included the statement, "Every parent in America wants the same thing: A good education for their child" (Vosgerchian 2009). Framing the use of singular "they" as a discussion about the evolution of language rather than a lesson on (in)correct mechanics allows students to see themselves as actors in a moment of linguistic change. They can reflect upon the reasons why we use singular "they" and thus make connections among issues of gender, language, and politics—most Americans would probably prefer to be accused of grammatical incorrectness than gender discrimination. Like it or not, use of singular "they" will probably evolve to the point where it is accepted by the major style guides and provide an option that is considered both grammatically correct and gender neutral.

§15.  These two examples of pronoun usage illustrate ways that even a very basic understanding of linguistic history can contextualize contemporary debates about literacy and about the purpose of the humanities in general. The recent Modern Language Association (MLA) whitepaper on the goals of a liberal education, bland as its conclusions are, also emphasizes the need for specific curricular focus on precise and clear writing, articulate speech, close reading, and accurate evaluation of evidence (MLA 2009).1 We medievalists need to realign our epistemology so that we think of ourselves as teachers of a certain kind of literacy: a historical awareness of literacy that is deeply needed and is immediately relevant to the majority of Americans, especially undergraduates. This role need not preclude our more traditional work in Old English studies, but it is certainly more urgent. The Heroic Age's and the BABEL Working Group's joint session on theory and Old English studies at the 2008 Kalamazoo Congress prompted the contributors to this essay cluster to suggest some of the most critically promising directions in Old English studies; one fruitful direction should be an expansion and redirection of our discourse to include issues of literacy and aliteracy, language history and change, and interdisciplinary communication with professional training programs as well as other liberal arts disciplines. In the very practical sense, to do so will help to emphasize the usefulness of the humanities at a time when our departments are faced with increasingly aggressive accusations of irrelevance. More ideally, such a focus will enrich and strengthen undergraduate general education in ways that could have immediate and wide-ranging effects in our increasingly aliterate culture.


1.   The executive summary outlines the paper's recommendations: "To meet the demands of technological innovation, globalized societies, and the explosion of disciplinary knowledge, we recommend four basic elements in the baccalaureate degree program in English and other languages: a coherent program of study, collaborative teamwork among faculty members, interdepartmental cooperative teaching, and the adoption of outcome measurements" (MLA 2009). The paper is full of similarly jargon-infused phrasing that advocates for similarly amorphous platitudes. Who would advocate for an incoherent program of study?  [Back]

Works Cited

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Vosgerchian, Jessica. 2009. Everybody does it, don't they? The Michigan Daily 6 January.  [Back]