A group of SUNY Cortland students soon will embark on an “exotic literacy adventure” to New York City, as their professor has called it, to understand how their current use of smartphone technology relates to ancient practices such as Egyptian hieroglyphics.
Ten students in “The Evolution of Writing” and “Rhetoric,” a pair of Professional Writing electives offered at the College, will depart Friday, April 11, for a two-day, faculty-led trip that includes visits to the New York Public Library and the Morgan Museum and Library. During their travels, they’ll get an up-close look at many ancient texts — from an original copy of the Gutenberg Bible to the oldest existing remains of Homer’s Iliad.
The technologies that faded long ago, such as typewriters, printing presses and parchment, will help demonstrate one of the course’s main arguments — that habits of inquiry change with shifts in media.
“The focus of the course is technological crisis,” said Professor of English David Franke, referring to “The Evolution of Writing” class.
He described three crises: the invention of the alphabet, the development of the printing press and the advent of computer-based technology.
“What we’re leading to is trying to develop a large body of critical perspective so that we can talk about these major shifts and the way that a culture operates, information circulates and people understand themselves,” Franke said. “Identity, culture and knowledge all shift with these crises.”
Franke offered the example of mining technology spreading quickly after the introduction of the printing press, thanks to diagrams being copied and distributed quickly. In short, printing technology nudged mining.
“The culture is changed by these new tools in major ways, and we’re looking at the tools because they are beautiful, powerful and because as artifacts, they help drive home the concepts we’re covering in class,” he said.
Very simply, the New York City trip will provide students with a unique hands-on opportunity that few places in the world can replicate. Among its many artifacts, the Morgan Museum and Library houses ancient scrolls made of papyrus harvested from the Nile River in Egypt. The students’ visit to the New York Public Library will include a private tour of its rare book room.
“They asked for the course syllabus and said they’d match the tour up carefully,” Franke said. “It’s just off-the-charts crazy exciting.”
SUNY Cortland students took a similar trip last year, but this year’s group includes writers from more classes. The course content shifted slightly too, focusing more specifically on certain kinds of artifacts as well as the importance of the library as an institution. Students will discuss the spaces that house books and the roadblocks to distribution and access that libraries have faced over time.
Support for this year’s trip was provided by the President’s Office, the College’s English Department and a grant from the Faculty Development Committee.