Saturday, November 03, 2007

Bodies of information

Over at Post-December, KR writes about the effects of the information economy on bodies. On graduate student bodies, at any rate.

She notes that the time to complete a PhD in her field seems to increase by a half year or so every year, just because of the increase in knowledge. More past knowledge, more time sitting and stuffing it into the brain cells. She wonders about the physical effects of all this consumption:
The immediate consequence of having to go over the sheer volume of material, is the exponential increase in time you spend sitting, reading, straining your eyes, and writing your fingers to the nubbins. I have succumbed to the pains of being serially sedentary, sacrificing for the knowhow. I have gained physical mass, as well as intellectual mass. It seems that the two can be connected all too easily.

So what comes next: the physical limit--in which our body mechanically fails to deal with this job? Or the time limit, where we literally won't have enough time to learn it all? Or the limit of thought?

Her question about the physical limit of the job reminds me of those studies done of college composition teachers back around the turn of the last century. The famous (well, in some circles) Harvard Report of 1892 estimated that 38,000 separate writing exercises were handed in to the composition faculty each semester. This work, according to the Report, overextends the limits of body and mind:
Few persons not intimately connected . . . with the existing Department of Rhetoric and English Composition . . . have any conception of either the amount or nature of the work now done by the instructors in that department. In quantity this work is calculated to excite dismay; while the performance of it involves not only unremitted industry, but mental drudgery of the most exhausting nature (qtd. in Brereton 75).

The information society is often connected to the virtual, to things we can't see. But the load of information is exhausting. The load of teaching students to work with information (which is what composition classes do, I would say) tests the physical limits of teachers, not to mention students.

Of course, there's the idea of "pathways, not things," that what we need to teach (and learn) is how to store, categorize, and work with information. And so that might lead to a more problem-based curriculum, as is used often in medical schools.

Does that work for all disciplines? And what about KR, who is educating herself to be a scientist (as if she isn't one already)? Is it possible to use pathways to avoid the physical breakdown? Or does the physical necessarily strain with information, no matter the path?