Required Reading | Cultural literacy in the 21st Century

By Eliza Mills


Required reading is a term that no longer applies only to text; as modern storytelling changes to accommodate new media, the meaning of “well read” is being redefined. We now measure cultural literacy in a variety of ways—from New York Times reviews and YouTube hits to viral moneymakers and critics’ darlings. Understanding and keeping pace with culture largely depends on one’s ability to stay well read. In a time when “well read” begins to take on new meaning, how do we keep up?

Living in an era where something can spread like wildfire overnight, it becomes hard to stay up to date with culture. Is it equally (or more?) important to have seen last night’s Breaking Bad as it is to have read Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad? Is Downton Abbey as must-see as the weekly discussions of the show on Slate and analysis in The New York Review of Books and The Paris Review would have you believe? Who decides what’s worthy—what’s “required reading” for the Millennial, and what’s not? The arbiters of taste-making are no longer exclusively reviewers at established magazines and newspapers. In a world full of zeitgeisty blogs and online personalities competing for attention, creators and taste-makers have become more diverse and eclectic, but perhaps less reliable. As everyone on the web tries to tell us what to like, and as sites like Tumblr and Twitter transform into cultural curators, who are we supposed to listen to?

The shift in the definition of “well read” has made its way onto our campuses as well. Professors teach film and text alongside one another, and the documentary is in a golden age. In short, modern education is being heavily impacted by technology. As advancements in visual storytelling start to transform art and academics, we’re left to decide: are films literature? Lee Edelman, Fletcher Professor of English Literature and Chair of the Tufts English department, says that film “has to be taught as a hybrid form in which language, sound, and visual image all combine to produce a distinct aesthetic experience.”

“But when I’m teaching film, the central practice remains the same as when I’m teaching literature,” he continues. “We look closely at the text to see how it works, what it does or doesn’t do, what it doesn’t seem to know it’s doing, [and] what it claims to do but doesn’t.”

Edelman teaches several courses that use film as a sort of literature, including a class on Hitchcock and another called “How Films Think.” He says that cultural literacy is not the same today as it was 50 years ago, when “high culture kept itself rigidly separate from the products of ‘popular’ culture.” Instead of a “familiarity with the touchstones of a common Western literary tradition,” today’s cultural literati must be “versed in the various genres of literary production (poetry, novels, drama, and non-fiction prose) as well as in cinema, television, and other forms of popular cultural narratives.”

Universities have already begun to help their students become more modernly culturally literate. Tufts offers several courses devoted to film and television, centered on both analysis and production; a standard syllabus for a Tufts humanities course is bound to include at least one or two film screenings. In English classes especially, “Required Films” and “Required Reading” are listed side by side. Film has become an important enough method of storytelling that it is now a requisite part of academic and cultural literacy.

Meanwhile, outside of the classroom, anyone and everyone is using video to tell stories. Cell phones and computers take video, and almost all allow users to upload and showcase their work. Navigating the Internet and blogosphere has become a basic resume skill, as has mastery of certain types of editing software.

If reading is changing, then so is writing, and education in the digital age should encourage us to become fluent in the languages we use to express ourselves. Just as it was crucial for us all to learn to read and write, it should be important for students to use film effectively today. We should be taught to operate a camera and use video and audio editing software. We should learn to code so that we can run our own websites.

It is imperative that in a culture whose modes of expression are dominated by new media, people know how to use new media. It’s thanks to multimedia expression that our culture is so fast paced and that there is so much relevant and important information to take in. Daniel Rosen, producer for the multi-million view YouTube channel KurtHugoSchneider, argues, “Culturally literate people don’t relegate themselves to one medium of culture; they’re well versed in multiple forms of culture that we consume today.”

Rosen is a Tufts alum who moved to Los Angeles after graduation to work in television. Instead, he found a job with Kurt Schneider’s YouTube channel. He’s had to teach himself to use a lot of editing software and media tools, and he thinks that part of modern education should be technological. “Reading and writing aren’t like coding; they’re fundamental skills,” says Rosen. “If you’re doing anything with creative production, those skills are fundamental too. If you can read and write, you’re probably going to be a consumer of culture, but if you can code and edit, you can be a producer of culture.” And aren’t universities trying to prepare their students to be producers of culture? Shouldn’t they be?
Budding producers with successful YouTube channels can make hundreds of thousands of dollars yearly; their channels reach millions of viewers. An especially successful video or channel might even inspire more far-reaching fame. Dean Fleischner-Camp’s “Marcel The Shell” took the world by storm, and “Marcel the Shell” is now being adapted for television and even a children’s book. As virality rapidly accelerates across the web, cultural relevancy is no longer in the sole hands of esteemed critics and reputable publications. The idea of something being “viral” isn’t necessarily new, but it’s certainly never been speedier and more commonplace. Taste making is in the hands of a wider audience; the result is that being cultural literate means “reading” a greater variety of “texts.”

The breadth of what may be considered “Required Reading” is overwhelming. Rosen cites Showtime’s Shameless and HBO’s Boardwalk Empire as must-sees, while Edelman says he’s reading Proust in French on his iPhone and watching the Bond parody films that Michel Hazanavisius, Jean Dujardin, and costar Berenice Bejo made together before The Artist: OSS 11: Cairo, Nest of Spies, and OSS 117: Lost in Rio.There is enough required literature written before film was ever created to last a lifetime. Still, being well read is contextual, and by the looks of our syllabi, even the most devoted academics seem to agree that we can’t ignore modernity. Text and literature are no longer synonymous, and the line between high culture and pop culture is more ambiguous than ever. Literature and culture are unlimited, and in a visual society, literacy means film literacy, television literacy, and YouTube literacy.

So what are we to do? Read as much as we can of the New York Times Book Review’s favorites while catching up on the classics? Stream BBC hits on the PBS website while recording the best of HBO, Showtime, and FX on our DVRs? Listen to podcasts of This American Life and look over our friends’ shoulders when they say, “Oh my god, you have to see this video?” There is too much to keep track of to follow it all, and the question remains: in today’s increasingly digitalized society, what does being “well read” really mean?

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