Monday, July 16, 2007

Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure

Robert Blechman's insightful article, at blogcritics, on how science fiction has depicted time travel in terms of the dominant media of the time (vehicles and roads in the print era, portals and beams of light in the early television days), set me thinking about one of my favorite movies of all time, Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure.

Blechman's piece reviews Paul Levinson's novel The Plot to Save Socrates, which presents an intricate tangle of time jumps instead of a linear journey to another age and a return trip back. Blechman notes that Levinson's characters "hypertext" across time.

Like Dr. Who, the title characters of Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure use a phone booth as a time machine, but the movie (released in 1989) is eerily prescient of student research techniques of the 21st century.

In the film, Bill and Ted are high school friends whose plan to become heavy metal stars is threatened by the fact that they're both failing history. When they need to give an "excellent" report in order to fulfill their strangely significant destiny, a force from the future provides a time machine so they can travel into the past and capture historical figures (Abraham Lincoln, Billy the Kid, an hilarious Socrates, and others) to give the report for them.

Many of our students have become Bill and Ted. They hyperlink, following trails of embedded associations rather than pre-structured routes laid out by inductive or deductive logic. They gather raw source material, often with randomness that frustrates their professors, and present what they've collected as finished work, something they view as original because of their novel juxtapositions of items that had never been brought together before.

Our students, I believe, sincerely interpret what they do as research. We academics, of course, dismiss this kind of work as slapdash laziness. The disagreement represents a gap in training and experience in professional research. It also represents an age gap, however, between one generation that's grown up with hypertext and the internet, and another that mastered research techniques using print.

Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure should probably be required viewing for both students and professors in every Introduction to Research Writing class around the country, with a question for class discussion: "Did Bill and Ted make an excellent report? Why, or why not?"

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