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Colombia: Professor's Resignation Sparks Debate on Writing

Last week, Camilo Jiménez [es], a journalist who has been the editor of several magazines, posted an entry [es] on his blog where he explains why he resigned from teaching a class (“Evaluation of Non-Fiction Texts” [es]) at Pontificia Universidad Javeriana's Social Communication undergraduate programme after nine years.

He claims that, despite their privileged, upper-middle class background, their educated parents and a lack of material concerns, his students weren't able to draft a summary of a paragraph of a text without making writing mistakes (3 out of 30 “were close” and another 2 “did their best”). Later he writes he might be behind the times, then describes his class, and finally admits that:

Image by Anonymous Account on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Image by Anonymous Account on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Dejo la cátedra porque no me pude comunicar con los nativos digitales. No entiendo sus nuevos intereses, no encontré la manera de mostrarles lo que considero esencial en este hermoso oficio de la edición. Quizá la lectura sea ya otra cosa con la que no me pude sintonizar. De pronto ya no se trata de comprender un texto, de dialogar con él. Quizá la lectura sea ahora salir al mar de Internet a pescar fragmentos, citas y vínculos. Y en consecuencia, la escritura esté mudando a esas frases sueltas, grises, sin vida, siempre con errores. Por eso los nuevos párrafos que se están escribiendo parecen zombies.

I leave my professorship because I wasn't able to communicate with the digital natives. I don't understand their new interests, I couldn't find the way to show them what I consider essential in this beautiful job of editing. Maybe reading is already another thing I couldn't be in tune with. Perhaps it's no longer about understanding a text, having a conversation with it. Maybe reading is now to go to the Internet sea to catch fragments, quotes, and links. And in consequence, writing is changing to those loose, grey, lifeless sentences, always with errors. That's why the new paragraphs being written look like zombies.

There were some early reactions in the post's comments section and in a post [es] by Katina, a Chilean former university professor who mostly agrees with Jiménez but, after telling her personal experience, asks him not to “completely lose [his] faith in this generation.”

But after the post was republished [es] by the newspaper El Tiempo (Jiménez had to explain [es] it was sent by the university's academic vice-president), it gained wider exposure. The reactions exploded and the debate began. “Camilo Jiménez” [es] was a trending topic on Twitter in Colombia on Friday, December 9, and he was even interviewed [es] on national radio.

Journalist Daniel Pardo has a request of Jiménez [es], which starts by claiming that he [Pardo] lives out of writing despite not knowing how to draft a summary:

[L]e quiero pedir que no se vaya. Le quiero pedir, respetado editor, que investigue sobre nuevas formas de educación vía Internet. Su blog es un comienzo. Sigamos. Yo creo que las aptitudes que tienen sus estudiantes son valiosas. Tal vez no para la literatura como usted la aprendió. Pero sí para una nueva literatura: una que, de golpe, venga con un video, con diseño; una que el lector incluso pueda modificar.

I want to ask you not to leave. I want to ask you, dear editor, to research about new education methods using the Internet. Your blog is a start. Let's go on. I think the abilities your students have are valuable. Maybe not for literature the way you learned it. But they are [valuable] for a new literature: one that, perhaps, comes with a video, with design; one that the reader could even modify.

Hyperconectado [es] also comments about Jiménez's posts and gives some ideas: he welcomes the debate, mentions Newsgames and other new ways to educate in journalism. He criticizes the “blind faith” of a Colombian State obsessed with increasing Internet access without leaving the “feudal era”, which asks students to study and analyse seemingly trivial internet phenomena, and puts into question the whole “digital natives” notion.

From Mexico, Marco Gómez quotes and comments on[es] Jiménez's letter paragraph by paragraph, and writes that although his generation (the same as Jiménez's students) has issues, “there is hope”. José Luis Peñarredonda writes [es] about how the public debate on Jiménez's post in some ways deals with the difficulties faced by professors, students, and the Colombian educational system in general.

Humberto Ballesteros, a teacher of Italian, also sympathizes with Jiménez but recognizes [es] that,

afirmar que la cultura o el conocimiento mismos están desapareciendo por esa causa no es otra cosa que fetichismo de lector.

claiming that culture or knowledge themselves are disappearing because of that cause [changes brought by the digital age, including the loss of tolerance of silence and introspection] is nothing other than the reader's fetishism.

Alfonso Cabanzo proposes [es] putting Colombia's educational system “upside down” by increasing quality in secondary education, implementing a new college admission exam that includes interviews, and assuring state-funded education so universities start worrying less about their students’ money and more about teaching and researching.

At Hipermediaciones [es], Argentine researcher Carlos A. Scolari links Jiménez's pessimism and boredom (the latter shared with the students) with the ‘boreout syndrome’, and asks us to forget prejudices against the changes of the digital age and instead put these changes in an ecological and evolutionary perspective.

Students also reacted: 20-year-old Victoria Tobar wrote Jiménez a letter [es], where she criticizes him but at the same time thanks him for having the “good sense” of leaving. She writes:

Si usted se queja de que ya no hay estudiantes con un espíritu curioso y crítico, yo me quejo de que no tengo profesores que siembren en mí la duda y las ganas de saber. Por que si hay algo que creo firmemente, es que las ganas de aprender por parte de un estudiante reside, en gran medida, en las ganas del profesor de que sus estudiantes aprendan.

If you complain about the lack of students with a curious, critical spirit, I complain about not having teachers sowing the seed of doubt and the desire for learning in me. Because if there's something I firmly believe, it is that students’ desire to learn comes, to a large extent, from their teachers’ desire for their students to learn.

Richie Tamayo, a former university professor, replied to Tobar's letter [es]. Although he praises her writing skills, he criticizes her for not knowing her university's administration, faculty selection process, and internal government system, and for questioning an educational methodology which she is not familiar with. Though he doesn't entirely agree with Jiménez's letter, he defends his decision to resign (in an earlier post [es], Tamayo writes that the university should promote a serious, informed, and participative debate on the academic quality of its Social Communication programme).

Finally, María Camila Rincón, one of Jiménez's last students, confesses feeling ashamed after reading the letter, and renews the debate it prompted (her post was originally published on Facebook [es] and later reposted by one of her classmates on her blog [es]):

Es curioso ver cómo venimos de una lucha que logró la disolución de una reforma (¡y de qué manera!) pero cuando el fenómeno es más local (no menos importante) nos quedamos sólo con el chisme de quiénes eran esos tres que se acercaron al párrafo que Jiménez con tanto ahínco nos pidió. Aquí nadie se ha preguntado qué va a pasar con esa cátedra que no sólo es obligatoria sino pertinente para el oficio del editor. Suele pensarse que como ya pasamos por ella, pues nos salvamos de un profesor menos exigente o de uno con menos experiencia. ¿Y los de atrás qué? ¿Merecen recibir una educación de menor calidad porque a nosotros no nos importó?

It's curious to see how we come from a fight which was able to dissolve a reform (and how!) but when the phenomenon is more local (not less important) we settle for gossip about those three who were close to the paragraph Jiménez eagerly asked us [to write]. No one here has wondered what's going to happen with the class which is not only compulsory but relevant for the editor's job. We often think that, since we have already taken it, we are saved from a less demanding professor or one with less experience. What about the next students? Do they deserve to get an education of less quality because we didn't care?

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