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  • Conrad Don't Surf:Teaching Modern Texts to Digital Readers
  • Tom Henthorne (bio)

I want to begin this paper by focusing on its title: "Conrad Don't Surf." The reference, of course, is to Apocalypse Now, particularly Colonel Kilgore's dismissal of the Viet Cong because they "don't surf "—because they live, think, and believe differently than he does. When I formulated this paper, I wanted to write about how students often dismiss Conrad and other difficult writers because they lived, thought, and believed differently—because Conrad and others seem irrelevant to the lives people live now. My task, as I conceived it then, was to discuss strategies for convincing students that Conrad and others are relevant, why they at least should matter.

This, I thought, would be easy to do, because, of course, Conrad does matter, at least to me. I could talk about how, in my classes, I try to demonstrate Conrad's importance by teaching Conrad and imperialism, Conrad and racism, Conrad and terrorism, or Conrad and globalization. I could also talk about how I try to make Conrad interesting and even fun by teaching Conrad and The Simpsons or the Conrad and the Titanic or even the Conrad who rolled bread into little pellets and threw them at people when he dined out.1 I could, in short, try to show that Conrad does surf—that he was actually pretty cool.

Or I thought I could talk about the Conrad who matters because I say he does—I being the one who orders the books, assigns the paper topics, and determines the grades. I certainly make my students read Conrad and write about him. While I don't expect students to interpret Conrad just as I do—indeed, I encourage them to come up with independent readings—I do expect them to say something interesting about Conrad, to come up with an interesting thesis, a process that in itself assumes that there is something interesting to say. Students who do not find something compelling to say—students who do not find Conrad compelling—are unlikely to do well on the assignment unless they [End Page 123] can fake it. If they don't "get" Conrad or don't think he's worth reading, I may get defensive and think they are being lazy or ignorant or worse. It's almost as if in rejecting Conrad, they are rejecting me—or at least the things that interest me personally and professionally. Although I can usually cajole most students into writing an acceptable paper, I can't help but feel that some leave my class hating Conrad and, perhaps worse, still not "getting it."

What I want to address in this paper is why such approaches are so problematic—why insisting that Conrad is cool makes him seem even more uncool, and insisting that he is important makes him seem more unimportant. From what I can tell, insisting on anything just makes people resist more. What I'm coming to realize is that such resistance may very well be a good thing. What we are experiencing, perhaps, is a democratization of literature, a democratization that has a lot to do with ways in which students encounter texts in the digital age. In particular, what I want to suggest is that students increasingly expect to take part in the meaning-making process and that shutting them out of that process in effect shuts them out of the text.

In Digimodernism: How New Technologies Dismantle the Postmodern and Reconfigure Our Culture, Alan Kirby argues that post-modernism may be giving way to what he calls "digimodernism"—that new technologies are remaking our culture, to paraphrase his subtitle (1). Digimodernist texts, he asserts, are fundamentally different from modernist or postmodernist ones since they are open rather than closed—since they allow readers to participate in authorship to varying degrees. As he puts it, readers now create content and shape "the development and progress of a text" (51). He adds that the content they add is "tangible"—not just personalized or subjective. To an extent, of course, this has always been true: as Joseph Conrad observed, "one writes only half the...


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