FLAGSTAFF, ARIZONA – This morning at the National Association of Science Writers meeting, Esther Thorson gave a riveting plenary address on “The Digital News Consumer.” Early on she put up a slide showing how baby boomers refuse to ever see themselves as old. For the most part, I suppose I subscribe to this. Despite the loss of hair and neurons and the accumulation of pounds and pain, I don’t feel old. But after hearing Thorson describe the transformation of news consumption into an increasingly shallow, banal, attention-poor activity, I have to admit I felt about 102 years old.
Of course I already suspected much of what Thorson made frighteningly manifest with data. My undergraduate students–like most of their peers–don’t read newspapers in any kind of committed way. Most of them don’t read books regularly. I don’t say this with contempt; it’s simply a fact (albeit one that saddens me). I text and blog and tweet, too. I watch YouTubes, I’ve got my laptop open and phone next to me while I watch TV with my kids. My wife will tell you how easily distractible I am. I am not proud of this. Too often I am looking for the same shot of dopamine as my students.
One of my favorite songs about unrequited love goes, “Well, it’s over, I know it, but I can’t let go.” At my lowest moments, this is how I feel about teaching science writing: that, at some level, what I am doing is akin to teaching conversational Latin. It is a pursuit with diminishing returns, at least in financial terms. So maybe there are a zillion blogs and perhaps science blogs like this one have finally “found a place at the table,” even if the table has been deserted because, like, hey–someone’s playing Angry Birds in the next room!
But I can’t let go. And in particular what I can’t let go of is story: how we tell stories, how we respond to them, what works and what doesn’t. A good science story must first of all be a good story (here’s a definitive example). My worry (old fart alert!) is that as an ever growing number of sources of “content” compete for our attention and students like mine choose “strategic communication” over, you know, actual writing, then teaching science-writing-as-storytelling, i.e., what I try to do, will increasingly come to be viewed as an ossified, ivory-tower pursuit.
As we used to say back in the day, “Quod me nutrit, me destruit.”