Wednesday, April 27, 2005

I was interviewed by Eira Joy Aringay, a Media Studies student at RMIT University in Melbourne, for a course project she is working on -- an Ong Wiki that I'll link to once it's finished. She sent me six questions to answer, and I'll post them and my responses over the next few days. Here's the first:

Q1. How did you first come across Walter Ong?

I first came across Fr. Ong's work back in early 1995 in an Old English language (Anglo-Saxon) course while working on a masters degree in English literature. To help broaden our knowledge of Anglo-Saxon England and Old English literature, our professor assigned each of us a book to report on, and a class member reported on Orality and Literacy shortly before the term ended. The book sounded great and I got a copy as soon as the term was over.

Orality and Literacy appealed to me on a few different levels. First, Anglo-Saxon England was an oral-chirographic transitional culture and I was deeply intrigued by oral-formulaic theory and the notions of oral and chirographic/manuscript culture. I also had a strong interest in computers and the potential for digital texts. I was first introduced to hypertext in 1989 through Apple's HyperCard program, and during that entire year I was taking Old English, a fellow graduate student and I spent much time talking about the HyperCard's potential to help teach Old English through the creation of hypertext editions of Old English literature. So, as you can see, I was ready to read Orality and Literacy, not in the sense that I needed intellectual preparation to read the book. but in the sense that it spoke to me in a way no other work of scholarship had yet done so.

My second introduction to Fr. Ong came in September 1997 as a Ph.D. student in a composition pedagogy class. While my first introduction to Ong was as a literary scholar, this was an introduction to Ong as scholar of rhetoric, composition studies, intellectual history, and noetics. The professor of this course had written his dissertation on Renaissance rhetoric and had drawn heavily upon Ong's work. Knowing my interest in Ong and my interest in computers as a tool for education and research, my professor pointed me towards scholarship in computers and composition. I was quickly drawn in, and the rest of my graduate career has been negotiating the two poles of being both a medieval literary scholar and a technorhetorician.

My third introduction to Fr. Ong, which really may have been my second, was also in September of 1997 when I met Fr. Ong in person at our department picnic. When I applied to Saint Louis University, I was under the impression that Fr. Ong was already dead. I had heard that he would have been old, and when researching the school, I learned that there was an endowed chair named after him, the Walter J. Ong, SJ, Chair in the Humanities. It wasn't until after I had arrived that I'd learned Fr. Ong was still alive. When I first met him, we only talked for a few minutes, mostly because I was intimidated by my own conception of him. During my M.A. program, I'd had two professors who had met him and both spoke of him with awe, an awe I never heard them use when talking about anyone else, and that awe had brushed off on me. Unfortunately, later that term Fr. Ong suffered a fall, was hospitalized, and subsequently diagnosed with Parkinson's disease.

I did meet with him many times before he died, but never as often as I should have. I think we had what you could call one intellectual discussion, about computer-mediated communication, in the dozen or so times I met with him. But by the time I felt confident enough to really talk to him, his health was always hit and miss, and I didn't want to seem like a pest. I do want to point out that this was all really a feeling of inadequacy on my part, and goes back to that sense of awe which had been instilled in me. Fr. Ong was always more than happy to talk, and we always did talk when I saw him at department functions, which was generally once or twice a year, and when a small group of graduate students would go to meet and visit with him at Jesuit Hall (the Jesuit residence at Saint Louis University).

I did once get to go to dinner with him, Kathleen Welch (author of Electric Rhetoric: Classical Rhetoric, Oralism, and a New Literacy), and four other professors in my department. I was the only graduate student at the dinner. I was at the far end of a long table from Professor Welch and Fr. Ong, and as he was hard of hearing, I wasn't able to participate in any real conversation them.

And while this may sound a bit silly, I think it's fair to say I was introduced to Fr. Ong a fourth time beginning in July 2004 when I started the Walter J. Ong Graduate Research Assistantship and began work processing the Walter J. Ong, SJ, Collection for the Saint Louis University Archives. This time around I was introduced to Ong the Jesuit priest and Ong the man.

Of course I was aware of Fr. Ong as a priest. It's hard to miss something like that when you're at a Jesuit university. But not being Catholic, I hadn't really processed this fact. I knew that some of his scholarship dealt with religious issues and themes, but I never realized -- and I don't think enough people do -- just how deeply rooted in religion all of his scholarship is. It took a while for me to realize that Fr. Ong saw all of his scholarship as part of his Jesuit ministry, and I see from looking back through my blog Notes from the Walter J. Ong Archives, that it wasn't until November that I began blogging about this notion.

In short, Fr. Ong saw himself, and viewed all of his scholarship, as describing God's creation. New knowledge, even knowledge that seemed to contradict earlier knowledge, never bothered him because he believed our understanding of creation was revealed to us by God through time. For a better understanding of this, see his essays "Knowledge in Time" in Knowledge and the Future of Man, "Evolution and Cyclicism in Our Time" in Darwin's Vision and Christian Perspectives, and "Secular Knowledge and Revealed Religion" in American Catholic Crossroads. You can read some passages from "Secular Knowledge and Revealed Religion" in my Nov. 10, 2004 post.

This philosophy, what Fr. Ong calls the "Scotist view of creation" (after John Duns Scotus), is probably root at least in part in Fr. Ong's interaction with Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ, whom Ong met in the early 1950s while in Europe doing research for his dissertation. The two both lived in the same Jesuit residence in Paris for a period of nine months or so. In fact, they had rooms diagonally across the hall from each other. It's also rooted in the Jesuit motto Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam (the Greater Glory of God), which Fr. Ong believed in deeply. For Fr. Ong, all knowledge, "religious" or "secular," gives us a greater understanding of God's creation, the creation into which Christ entered. So, for Fr. Ong, writing about orality and literacy, about Jacobean punctuation theory, and deer in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was as much a part of his ministry as any other work he did.

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