My Journal



It’s Still Orality to Me – or – But, We Still Teach Orally

In Chapter Two, “The Theory of Transformative Technologies,” in Michael Heim’s Electric Language, he discusses Walter Ong and Eric Havelock and their (separate) studies of orality. The background for my next point is essentially his discussion of the reason for epic poems and sagas of oral cultures being not for poetic purposes as we generally think them to be. That is, they were not for any aesthetic purposes, but rather, they were tales constructed in very structured, rhythmic style for the purpose of memory. Because oral (preliterate) cultures preceded writing and, of course print, speakers came up with various methods, such as these to enhance both understanding and retention of anything that was to be remembered. To help one remember something that was taught, he or she (mostly “he” in ancient Greece) repeated the speech, sometimes many times.

I agree with this point and will soon expand on it, bringing in other examples, such as the passing on of the Koran for many years before it was finally written. However, it was a different point of Heim’s that sparked today’s entry. In discussing the transformation of oral to written culture (and Ong’s theory of the chirographic culture), Heim writes:

Memory, the storehouse of knowledge, no longer depends on repeated vocal performances. Manual writing preserves knowledge beyond ephemeral speech and beyond the lapse in memory. In chirographic cultures, the performance of language by a speaker is no longer essential. (Heim pg. 62).

In some ways, this citation refers to instruction, and the relationship of teacher to learner, not just speaker to listener, in that in oral culture, one reason to repeat a speech so many times was to pass it on and, as Heim notes, writing it it down preserves knowledge in tht it can be more easily and accurately (presumably) passed on. However, I immediately thought that his statement is not wholly true – that the speaker is no longer essential if all text can be put into a book. What of the classroom?

We still teach largely in person (orally). Granted, there are many textual elements still used. We supplement the oral instructions with hand-outs, PowerPoint presentations, quizzes, etc. But, we also have students get into groups and have discussions, thus placing them into the role of orator. One must also acknowledge that a thesis or dissertation defense is still given orally [more on this topic later].

Given the current conversations that occur about collegiate (and K-12) instruction, much of it comes back to teaching online. In this method, we are removing, at least in part, the orator. While many people embrace the technology, desire to keep up with cutting edge methods, etc., on the whole instructors have many issues dispensing with the orator, the in-person person leading a class, in order to go online.

Debates and conversations regarding classroom vs. online seem to always enter into discussions about how to assimilate or replace that human (oral) classroom experience. One obvious response is that if one is trying so hard to assimilate something else, why depart from the primary element at all? Naturally, we should not be so quick to suggest such an action; there are strong, identifiable, and traceable advantages to online instruction. So, what is it that we’re really missing?

In speaking about the decision of Texas Tech’s Technical Communication and Rhetoric department to develop an online PhD program, Dr. Joyce Locke Carter has made the point that the instructors and administrators realized they could present the classes on line, students could write at a distance, etc., but would students really get “It”? Those discussing the possibility of such a program were not even sure what the “It” is. They determined that the “It” is that personal experience that students get in the classroom, in the hallway, in the library, in pub, when they’re talking about the class, readings, topics, etc. I believe this missing personal experience is largely orality and the human experience that comes with it.

We are aware (even subconsciously at times) of the need for orality. We do attempt to assimilate or replace it in the online environment, but can we? The synchronous classroom is live, which, with its spontaneity and more natural speech, is a bit closer to oral communication than is the polished prose of the planned asynchronous online class. However, the experience is still very different than being in a live setting. One cannot express emotion accurately in a textual setting. With emoticons, all caps, excess punctuation, spacing, etc. we try to express emotion (there’s a paper in that). However, we are really trying very hard and grasping at ways to express emotion beyond the written word. And we never quite reach that ability.

My intent here is not to enter into an in-depth discussion on the advantages and disadvantages of online learning. Rather, I merely want to point out that orality is still a major part of our instructional methods today. It is true that the written word radically changed oral culture and, essentially, removed the necessity for mnemonic methods and devices to remember content. Textually, all content could be recorded and revisited. To tie this in to my larger discussion of new media and orality, there are many questions I have and intend to answer in future posts.

What of communication today; is there something lost without solely oral communication? What is gained by bringing it back (in the form of podcasting and other new media)? To begin, there is a humanity, a personality that is lost in the purely textual word. Of course many writers are masters at displaying emotion in their writing. However, it can still never perfectly reflect the intended thought and emotion of the author. In this way, there is also a clarity lost without seeing the orator. This too is brought back, to some extent, by something like a video podcast in which one can see the presenter’s facial expression, gesture, and movement and hear the voice intonation and inflection. Even an audio podcast reflects these latter points. So, new media may bring us the best of both worlds in that we can have all of the positive aspects of the live, human, animated speaker, but we are not required to apply complex methods to recall every point, since it is recorded and can be recalled at any time.

    • Time Barrow
      Oct 9, 2010 at 10:09 PM /

      Reading through this, I see that I continuously use “assimilate” to mean “simulate.” Not sure why this occurred or why I did not catch this, but it is surely an oversight.