Making the Past ‘Relatable’


Tape deck in RCA’s legendary Studio B in Nashville, hit factory favored by Elvis, Roy Orbison and hundreds of other big names.

The digital/mobile ether that our undergraduates float in these days seems to make the historical past even less relevant than it used to be. Or less “relatable,” the word they use to replace “relevant.” (Check out the two words in Google Books’ remarkable Ngram Viewer, and you see that relevant nearly doubles in use between 1960 and 1980, while relatable doesn’t even appear in that fever chart – but this may be because our students haven’t started publishing their books yet.)

Does the past have a future? When I bring up the invention of the typewriter or the radio in my 101 intro class, it seems as weird as the worm-eaten body of King Richard III being exhumed from under a parking lot in Leicester, England.

At least they’re writing it down now, pen on notepaper. Several of us in my department recently decided to ban laptops as note-taking tools in class. This was prompted by a colleague who shared research published in Psychological Science (APS) that found that students typing notes on a laptop fail to retain or think about the material as well as students taking notes by hand.

Of course. We teach journalism, so we should know the advantages of scribbling notes during an interview or four-alarm fire. When you can’t write fast enough to transcribe every word, you have to listen more intently, process the ideas, use key words and choose good quotes. Students without their laptops must “reframe” the lecture in their own words, as the research article says. Another colleague pointed out that Clay Shirky, New York University’s evangelist for disruptive social media, banned laptops in his class after realizing that whenever he said “lids down,” it was as if fresh air had flooded into the room.

But even requiring quill pens and foolscap wouldn’t be enough to open a window on the past, or as Neil Postman put it in one of his book titles, to build “a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century.” They need something like a mental map.

This was my father’s project after he left nearly 25 years of reporting on the South for Newsweek and was teaching journalism at West Georgia College. He realized that it wasn’t enough to have a “time line.” Memorizing dates was stupid, and he could tell by what his students knew of sports, Greek life, movies or whatever they were interested in, they weren’t stupid. He exploded the one-dimensional “time line” idea into the two dimensions of a map. Picture each of the last three centuries as a football field, 100 yards is 100 years. Now place four big wars (e.g. the Revolution, Civil War, and two World Wars) around their proper yard lines. And four big Presidents. Now, like colors on a map’s legend, add four Big Ideas: democracy, checks & balances, free-market economics, and free press. My old man has a love of the theater, so his image of each century sometimes turned into a proscenium stage, curtains opened on the costumes, music, technology and famous speeches of each. Good period movies helped fill in the mental map.

Teaching an intro to mass media this term, I have struck on another thought-model. Like the marvelously varied traits of an organism, our ways of consuming mass media today contain almost all the previous forms of communication media. These older forms lie buried within, like the genetic material inherited from a species’ evolution or vestigial limbs that have found new uses as fins or wings.

Let’s see how this works. The iPhone and laptop my students use (but not in class) carry the video of CNN or “House of Cards,” which are simply new forms of TV and movies. Yes, Twitter and Facebook and Google are disruptively new, but they mostly take the user back to older forms – news or commentary from a newspaper, photographs, audio recordings, advertising.

There may be a “rear-view mirror” effect, as McLuhan pointed out. We fail to appreciate the newness of a medium because we’re seeing it in terms of the old. We “text” as if we were merely writing interoffice memos at hyper speed. E-mail is just snail mail, faster and free. Files and folders are named for things in a 1950s office; icons for things from the Dark Ages.

Still, the links to the past are real. If you look deep enough, you see that almost nothing disappears. It just takes up a new task or a new shape. One thing leads to another.

Random ancestors: upper left, my great-grandfather Walter Rufus Boyden Whittier, and in front of him and his bride Mimi Fletcher, Mimi's grandfather, Lowell, Mass., newspaper editor, congressman and abolitionist Chauncey Knapp.

Random ancestors: upper left, my great-grandfather Walter Rufus Boyden Whittier, and in front of him and his bride Mimi Fletcher, Mimi’s grandfather, Lowell, Mass., newspaper editor, congressman and abolitionist Chauncey Knapp.

I think this is more true with human communication than it is with, say, artificial light. Since Thomas Edison, we’ve had basically three forms of the light bulb. Incandescent, with a filament glowing and growing hot resisting an electric current. Then the fluorescent bulb, the electricity making a gas fluoresce. And now, the most efficient and practically heatless: the light-emitting diode (LED), coming to your home real soon. Each one has evolved with engineering, but they are completely different ideas one from another.

Human beings have been building one communication system on top of another, or around another, for as far back as you want to go. The effect of this Darwinian evolution is the way the past can begin to seem relatable. Radio began by adopting the arts of vaudeville and the opera house and a whole new kind of news, immediate and unedited. After that, Murrow and others had their radio experience in mind when they switched to TV. The wireless technology of Marconi advanced to carry television signals. Telephone wires, changed to coaxial then fiber, bring us our ESPN and Comedy Central.

The real fun is to take it back a lot further. When you’re texting with thumbs, it goes back to Gutenberg, in a way. That’s type in its most moveable form; press “send.” A book called A History of Communications by Marshall T. Poe names five major stages of mass communications as if they were the taxonomy of humankind’s evolution: Homo loquens (man talking), Homo scriptor (reading/writing), Homo lector (printing), Homo videns (electro-imaging) and Homo somnians (sleepwalking in our web-digital age). I like to remind students that the first of these – encoding meaning into the sounds we make with voice-box, tongue and lips – has got to be the greatest technical invention ever, and it saturates our digital, mobile communications.

The next breakthrough, encoding those weird spoken sounds as phonetic symbols on stone or scroll, has got to be the second greatest engineering feat ever. And this too is as vital to our iPhone functionality as all those microcircuits.

About Doug Cumming

Writer, W&L journalism professor emeritus
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