How and What Do We Keep (and What Do We Lose) in the Digital Age?

My grandmother used to clip and save everything; it wasn’t a successful reading session if she hadn’t marked off at least two pictures she wanted to eventually paint and clipped an article that she thought one of her daughters, grandchildren, or friends would be interested in reading. When I went away to university, I used to get letters from her that contained articles that mentioned my old high school, my old swim team, or future job possibilities, among other things. I always loved getting those letters. 

I also have very clear memories of my grandmother wanting to show me an article or picture she had found and being completely unable to find it among the piles and piles of magazines and newspapers. She was in no way “drowning” in her magazines and papers; she recycled out what she didn’t need or want every week. And once she had showed you what she wanted you to see, out it would go. But my grandmother used to get so frustrated when she knew exactly what she was looking for but could not for the life of her find it.

I wonder sometimes how my grandmother would be in this more digital age; would she be emailing me links, bookmarking page upon page in Delicious? Would she still get overwhelmed, even without the physically piles and pages, and lose what it is she is looking for? I’m not very good at bookmarking links, marking tweets as favorites, or starring emails; I tend to get overwhelmed and purge frequently. I also figure that if I need it, I can google it. And then, I, like my grandmother, couldn’t find an article I knew existed. I knew what site it from (nas.org), and I knew what it was about (the university of the future), but I didn’t have the right keywords in order to find it (kept searching university and future, rather than Academic things to come).

Thank goodness for Twitter.

An article about teaching students about how much the internet remember about them and the value of erasing parts of ourselves from the net got me thinking about how much is gained and lost, remembered and forgotten, in this digital age. I’ve worked with archives for my dissertation research, and the idea that these letters and manuscripts could be more readily and easily available both excites and dismays me. I’m excited because, hey, we all like easy access and dismays because I loved being able to hold the letters in my hand and read not just what I needed but also what was there. Having things easily indexed and searchable may be faster, but sometimes the joy is in the journey. What could be lost is something extraordinary that you weren’t necessarily looking for.

I also lament the potential loss of future archival materials because we no longer write physical letters; I know that gmail now archives EVERYTHING, but my old university email addresses did not; I’ve lost poems, important and meaningful letters, and fantastic conversations because I didn’t realize that my emails weren’t being automatically archived on the server. As I’ve already written about, I save everything I can when it comes to my informal writing; losing these emails actually bother me. I don’t think that they’ll be worth anything to any future scholar, but how many future subjects of interest’s letters have been lost because they didn’t realize that they messages weren’t automatically archived?

We also, for a time, have lost the ability to see the evolution of a piece of writing; unless you purposefully saved versions of the same draft, or the version with the feedback/Track Changes, then all we have left much of the time is the final version. Part of my research involved watching how a translation came to be, looking at various drafts, edits, and feedback the translator did and received. Google documents could allow us to watch a document be shaped and evolve, but unless we consciously save the steps, then the process will be lost.

Digitally, I’ve lost my wedding pictures when my husband’s computer’s hard drive was replaced without them first asking if he wanted a back-up of the old one. I lost all of my poetry from a period of five years because I accidentally left my diskette (yes, it was that long ago) behind in the computer lab; I don’t actually have a complete hard copy of them all, and, at the time, I didn’t have my own computer to back them up on. We have learned the hard way that ebooks can be taken away quite quickly and easily, making it hard to predict when our notes and annotations could be unceremoniously ripped from us.

Then again, I’ve had my “office” broken into when I was a PhD student (just before my final comprehensive exam) and all of my books stolen; pictures and documents can just as easily be lost in a fire, flood, or other disaster; and an irresponsible, careless, or oblivious person can just as easily throw out a physical letter as they could delete an email. My own research has gaping holes because a flood wiped out almost all of the personal papers of the author I was studying. And I also know first hand how fantastic it is to physically find something you might not have been looking for but because you had to search through everything.

As academics, whether you are a digital humanist or not, we need to pay attention and rethink how and what it is we keep and what might be lost.  

It’s OK to Fail

Today, I had my usual second-class lecture on the advantages of active reading and how students usually read for pleasure/emotion and thus need to change how they read “school work” in order to engage their brain. It always goes over well, as students realize that basically staring at words on a page for two hours every week  and then living off of energy drinks and little sleep for a week while they cram for finals is really not a pleasant, effective, or ideal way to spend four years and thousands of dollars. But today, I added a little unplanned and wholly instinctive wrinkle to the second-day lecture: I don’t expect perfection and it’s ok to get the answer wrong.

I mentioned this at first in regards to their in-class free writes and homework: they get credit for making an effort to understand and engage with the materials, regardless if their engagement takes them in wildly strange directions. It might seem really touchy-touchy to reward effort, and I always shudder when students cry about a bad grade on a paper, claiming they worked so hard on it, but when we’re talking about the process of learning, then mistakes and misdirections are as important as eventually getting it right. Their mistakes are as important to me in my process of helping them learn so I can adapt my teaching in order to meet them where they are. 
I’ve always tried to set up my classes in such a way that if the students give an honest effort, they will produce work that is of good enough quality to have earned them an A. We read and reread. We discuss and debate. We write, revise, and rewrite. We give and get feedback. I am the first person to admit a mistake when a class or assignment clearly didn’t work the way I had envisioned. I’ll meet them where they are, but I’ve got to know where that is. And that means I need them to be honest about what they are learning and what they aren’t.
In other words, they have to be ready to possibly fail the first time they try something. They don’t want to think too hard about what they’ve read in case their reading is wrong. They don’t want to try something different in how they read/write/study because it might not work and thus their grade will suffer. They don’t want to put too much effort into something that might not pay off. I think a lot of students’ current apathy or laziness stems from fear: fear of being wrong, fear of wasting their time, fear of looking foolish. I told them today that if they learned something, even if that something is “this really didn’t work”, then they are further ahead than when they started.
I try to remember that lesson myself when I teach. It’s never going to be perfect. And sometimes it will fail. But as long as I am open to recognizing and then fixing whatever went wrong, then I think I’m doing ok. I hope to get my students to understand that, too.
PS You have just read my 100th post here on College Ready Writing. Thank you so much for reading, sharing, commenting, and generally participating in my ongoing conversation about teaching, higher education, and beyond, mistakes and all.

What difference does it make that you get an “A”?

The students are handing in their papers and writing final exams. Once the grades are in (and even before that), it will begin. The grade grubbing. It’s my least favorite part of the semester. It has already started; students who have missed a lot of assignments and then have not done well on major papers are at my desk before and after class, asking if there is anything they can do (build a time machine, go back to the beginning of the semester, do better). But the students who really frustrate me are those students who come to me demanding to know:

“Why didn’t I get an A” or “How can I get an A”? 
I tell my students at the beginning of the semester that if they work hard, attend class, do the assignments both big and small, take it seriously, and take advantage of the services and support offered to them, then there is no reason why they can’t all get A’s. But as the semester progresses, it becomes clear that some of the students’ only motivation is to get an A. It doesn’t matter that becoming a better writer is a valuable life skill, they just want to know what list of changes they need to make in order to make something into an “A” paper. It’s one of the reasons why I try to keep from too heavily editing students’ papers; the students don’t see it as an opportunity to learn, only an opportunity to get an A. 
There has been a lot of debate recently about how we evaluate students and how pressure to do well (get a high GPA) is leading to an erosion of the educational experience. Students increasingly don’t see anything wrong with cheating; all that counts is that, in the end, they get their high grade and their degree. I try to work with my students on the process of writing, in order to make the writing the focus, instead of the grade. But it doesn’t work. Especially since many of my classes are general education requirements that students think should be easier because they have to take them, in part to make up for lower grades earned in their more demanding classes in their major. 
And so the student who comes to me complaining about a B will be met with one question: why is it so important that your grade be an A? What are your priorities? Why? And then, what didn’t you do this semester that kept you from getting an A? Earning a B in my class may be the opportunity a student needs to really take a hard look at why they are in school and how their behavior and choices are undermining their ultimate goals and aspirations. But, it is also a good time to ask, what difference will that A really make? 
I’ve earned A’s and I’ve earned D’s. I’ve had wild successes and massive failures. If all I did was stop at the letter grade assigned to any project or assignment, where would I be? I was wholly unprepared for a job because there wasn’t the finality of a grade one way or the other, and that my bosses we not as ready or willing to reward me with the same accolades my work had previously earned. In school, the grade is final. At work, my writing was constantly being edited, revised, rewritten, and, worst of all for me, heavily critiqued. While I would always forget about a good or bad grade immediately after it had been posted, I didn’t really learn anything, or was I ever motivated to improve. Working was a rude awakening to how inadequately I was prepared, despite my stellar (and not so stellar) grades.
What difference is that A really going to make? 

Deadlines: Nice or Not?

It’s that time of the semester. The time when students who have been mysteriously absent all semester start showing up, wondering what it is they can do in order to pass my class. My immediate response: “Build a time machine, go back to the beginning of the semester, attend class, and do the work you were supposed to have done up until now.” I hold my tongue, but the kids have mostly been trained to expect bonus work, or credit recovery, in order to salvage their semester. Didn’t do anything all semester? Here’s a small assignment that if you complete it, you’ll not only pass, you may earn an A! 

Not in my class. But I have developed a type of compromise: you have until the day before I hand in my grades to submit any and all major writing assignments from the semester. Now, I don’t go advertising this policy on my syllabus or in class. But nor do I advertise any penalty for late work. In my writing class especially, the deadlines are built into the syllabus, but the deadlines are preceded by in-class exercises and homework that guides them through a process for writing their papers. If you attended class and did all of the in-class and homework, your paper will be ready by the deadline (not to mention be a much more polished piece of writing).
But my students always seem to have excuses. Some are valid (freshmen especially seem to end up in the hospital due to the fact that they have taken really poor care of themselves during the semester). Some are suspect (your friend was in the hospital, computer virus, had to go home to babysit). Other are outright ridiculous (I didn’t know we had a paper due, I didn’t understand it, I swear I emailed it to you because I don’t have any money left to print it). I’m tired of trying to figure out who is lying, who is trying to take advantage of me, and who really needs the extra time because of circumstances beyond their control. So, while it’s better for my students to hand things in according to the schedule, at the end of the day, as long as they get it in to me before my grades are due, that’s fine.
I have this policy in part because of karma; I was a terrible student as an undergraduate, and I rarely handed in assignments on time. I used every excuse in the book and sometimes didn’t even bother offering one at all. But all of my professors allowed me to hand in my work and gave me full credit, however grudgingly. I can’t help but smile inside when my undergrads come in, begging to be able to hand in their papers just a little late. Take your time, don’t make yourself sick with stress and worry, and just hand it in to me when you have it done.
Is this an accurate reflection of real life? Probably not. Real life has hard and fast deadlines that need to be respected or else there will be some very real and potentially serious consequences. Don’t ever miss an application deadline, and if your boss asks you for something by a certain day or time, you’d better make sure you do it. But in real life, there are always backup plans that can be put in place in oder to be able to mitigate the negative consequences of unforeseen events: work assignments can be handed off, divided up, or reassigned if you really cannot complete the work. There is also something to be said about the ability to say no, knowing when you have enough (or too much) work already, and thus telling your boss that if s/he wants it done well, they should assign it to someone else or give more time. But school doesn’t allow for such flexibility. You are assigned work in each class, almost without regard to what else is being asked of you, and expected to get it done.
I know that students need to learn time management as well as the ability to take responsibility for their (often stupid) choices.  But this is the beauty of my system: the students who really want to do well (and typically have a legitimate reason for missing the deadlines) will take the extra time, come and see me to talk about what they missed, and turn in their work in a reasonable timeframe, not falling so far behind that they now owe two or more major pieces of writing. Everyone else will keep putting off their work, scrambling at the end of the semester to hand something, anything, in to me to grade. And the work that they do hand in is rarely, if ever, good enough to earn a passing grade. Because they missed the process, the work is sloppy, and often doesn’t even meet the assignment requirements. The students work harder than they have all semester in a desperate attempt to pass a class they put off, only to (usually) fail anyway.
And those students who do manage to hand in work that’s good enough to pass the class? Good for them. When they become a professor later on in life (like I did), hopefully they’ll pay it forward as well. But I also know that, one day, what they have done in the past won’t work anymore. I also know that it is only then that they will learn the lesson. And those students who participated in the process? They are rewarded with a relatively stress-free semester (at least for my class) and a good grade. 
I’ve always tell my students: I’ve got carrots and I’ve got sticks. Pick the one that works best for your motivation.