As I mentioned in my last post, last week I ended up in the hospital for what we feared was a stroke. The symptom? I was no longer able to speak coherently. All of a sudden, what I meant to say and what I actually said no longer matched up. I was playing with the kids at the preschool, and suddenly, nothing I was saying to them made any sense. It wasn’t gibberish, but it wasn’t related to what I we were doing or talking about. Thankfully, kids are more accepting of silliness, so they were easily dissuaded from asking too much about what was wrong, and I was wearing sunglasses so no one could see the abject terror in my eyes. My head had been hurting and so I had previously texted my husband to come and pick us all up. By the time he got there, all I could manage to (haltingly) say was: can’t talk. He promptly took us home, scared one of his colleagues into coming over and babysitting, and we were off to emergency.
Sundown Friday saw the start of National Day of Unplugging. I didn’t know anything about that when I decided, on Thursday, to unplug as much as possible over the entire weekend, starting at about noon on Friday. Events this past week have left me…unmoored, and I needed time to think about what happened and what I want to do with the information. Some of it I will write about here. Other things will be referred to vaguely, much later, for fear of my job.
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.
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.
The movie Pump Up The Volume came out when I was 12 or 13 years old. It starred Christian Slater, who, at that time, was my super-dreamy dreamboat. And in this movie, more so than say Heathers, he pulled off being both rebellious and insecure, which is like candy to a 13-year-old’s fantasy life (that metaphor made no sense). Slater plays quiet, insecure Mark Hunter, a new student at a large high Arizona high school. But at night, he becomes Hard Harry, broadcasting an illegal radio show using the ham radio his parents bought him so he could theoretically talk to his old friends back on the East Coast. As Hard Harry, he behaves outrageously and says outrageous (but truthful) things, things that “the man” doesn’t want to hear (and plays awesome music; this movie was my introduction to Leonard Cohen). Mark doesn’t have an audience; he broadcasts his show for no one but himself and a theoretical audience of his peers.
I’ll admit it. I made a mistake this past semester. It’s the kind of mistake that seems trivial at the time but can quickly escalate into a crisis. And I should know better. I’ve been warned repeatedly against making the kind of mistake that I made. I’ve read about other professors who have made the same mistake and paid dearly for it. Yet, there I was, unable to stop myself, only seeing the error of my ways after it was perhaps too late.
*I wrote this post before Christmas. Last night, I participated, on Twitter, in the MLA panel “New Tools, Hard Times: Social Networking and the Economic Crisis” (check out the backchannel here). Apparently, I’m already too open by blogging as myself. The take-away from the rise in technology in higher education? Don’t be yourself. Sorry, Academia, I can’t, I won’t, do it.
Out in the bloggesphere (I have no idea how to spell this and spellcheck is wholly unhelpful), there was a minor scandal in regards to Patton Oswalt’s call for Geek Culture to die because it doesn’t really mean anything anymore. The responses came fast and furious, but what stuck out to me through it all was that I really am not a Geek.
I’ve always considered myself a Geek. I was good in school, not tremendously popular, loved Star Wars, Monty Python, science fiction, Star Trek: TNG, played in the school band, and was on the debate team. I had a wide-eyed naiveté and immaturity that was increasingly socially awkward the further along in high school I got (seriously, what 15-year-old goes and sees Aladdin eight times in the theater?). Thankfully, I had a wonderful group of friends with whom I could “geek out” with. We wrote our own Star Trek: TNG scripts (fan fic, as it would be called now), had Monty Python movie marathons (with no booze or drugs) on Saturday nights, and generally did geeky, good kid things while many of our peers were out drinking at whoever’s parents were out of town/didn’t care.
We weren’t the geekiest kids in high school. We didn’t play D&D, we weren’t a part of the stock market club, nor were we complete social outcasts (one of our core group went on to be senior class president). And while I was in the band, I wasn’t really a band geek, a la “This one time, at band camp…” I didn’t know how to speak Klingon, didn’t know what Middle Earth was (seriously), and was generally wary of those who, you know, seemed a little too invested in these things.
There was one area where I totally geeked out: swimming. My friends at school tolerated it, but I was obsessed with swimming. I never noticed my friends’ eyes glazing over while I talked about the sport. But I was even too much of a swimming geek for my teammates; my passion for the sport far outstripped my talent, and so I was that girl who killed herself swimming for no seemingly good reason. Because of my lack of talent, I was essentially bullied all through my tweens and early teens. I outlasted those naysayers, and once I was one of the team leaders, I tired to make sure that everyone felt welcome on the team; if you loved to swim, then you were embraced.
Hang in there. This gets back to teaching and higher ed.
So although I always considered myself a geek, I am quite happy to shed the title, if only because of the smug, self-satisfied, and, dare I say, elitist attitude of some of the responses to the essay calling for the death of geek culture. They, those who are outside, late to the party, wanna-be geeks, will never understand or could possibly ever call themselves real geeks. We, long-time, long-suffering, all-knowing geeks, will never bow to the mass media co-option of geek culture. And I agree that as long as there are weird (read: different), slightly obsessive, socially awkward teens, there will be geeks. To claim ownership, exclusivity, and superiority, however, is exactly the thing I hate about “geeks.”
And it is exactly that “geekiness” which can make academics insufferable and terrible teachers. Let’s face it, most professors are geeks in the sense that they are obsessed with their academic interest, which are typically highly specialized and often obscure. You’d have to be obsessed to get through a dissertation and then the demands of the tenure-track. This obsession can go one of two ways: the passion can infuse their teaching or the obsession can fuel a feeling of superiority caused by the idea that you are a persecuted geek whom no one could possibly understand or appreciate. But, let’s face it, the obsession also makes them excellent academics.
In part because of my own history of being bullied and not letting it destroy my passion, I am the type of teacher who wants to share their passion in the classroom. I geek out about teaching. I geek out about helping students become better writers. I geek out at the opportunity to teach students about literature. I geek out when I get to turn students on to “reading” again. And God forbid anyone ask me about my current research interest, Dany Laferrière.
But, it would seem, I am not a geek about it, which makes me a great teacher, but a poor academic.
My advanced-level writing students had one final assignment to do after their education reform blog posts; I asked them to design (or redesign) their own university-level course. The bulk of the assignment would be spent justifying their choices (How will it be taught? By whom? Where? How will students be evaluated? What assignments/work will students do? What are the learner outcomes?), but this assignment was an opportunity for the students to re-imagine the university course as they know it.
But, creating this class was still a challenge and an adventure for me. It was unlike any writing course I had taught before. I experiemented, and it seems to have paid off. Next semester, who knows what the course will look like? I’m learning as I go, and expanding what I am willing (and able) to do. I’m also hoping that my students will offer some ideas in their assignments.
Their ideas for courses sound great so far. One student thinks it would be a good idea to offer a cooking class for Freshmen. Another wants there to be a general education course in debating, to teach students how to argue and listen effectively and not just yell at each other. And yet another wants to bring students out into the field to do local sociological studies. I am eager to see how they imagine delivering the course; will it be the same-old lecture-essay-test format that so many of the class they have taken use, or will they try to move beyond that?
I told my students that I was going to miss them and this class when the semester ends next week. The course wouldn’t have been nearly as successful if they hadn’t been willing to come along with me for the ride. I had two sections, forty students, who have worked really hard and have been fantastically receptive to my crazy ideas. Part of my goal in this class was to show them what their education could be. I think that another small goal was to show myself, too.
My students have handed in “final” drafts of their blog posts. I put the final in quotation marks because the post isn’t final until it goes online. But even then, because the student can go in and modify it as much as they want (as can I, but I’m going to restrain myself, intruding only to fix broken links and other formatting issues), it is never really “final.” More about writing and publishing on the Internet that I need to get used to. Publishing anything online is permanent in that it is almost impossible to get rid of, but never concrete in that it can be edited, modified, and reshaped. So much to think about, teach, and learn.