Student Ethos and Email Etiquette

I’ve been silent this past week, in part because I got sick, fell behind, prepared the house for weekend guests, planned my soon-to-be four-year old’s birthday party, partly because while I had a whole list of planned posts, I couldn’t concentrate on writing them. No, I was distracted by trying to come up with a way to write the following posts without impacting my own ethos as a writer and a teacher in higher education.

I received a number of emails from my students all at the same time that really, really got under my skin. Now, I am (still) a regular visitor to College Misery, and I talk to my colleagues, so I know that my students are not an anomaly and professors all over the country are dealing with emails from students that are…frustrating in any number of ways. What really bothered me was that we have just spent an entire semester talking about ethos in writing – how a writer is perceived and how students want to be perceived as writers, students, professionals. We are even doing a blog assignment so they can really start to think about how they are seen by people other than their professor.
But nonetheless, I think it’s important that students realize how their emails impact their ethos with their professors. This, of course, should be expanded to face-to-face meetings and any assignment, written or otherwise, handed in to their professor. And I tell them this. I had hoped that the lessons about ethos, even though not explicitly taught, had been applied by my students to other facets of their communications with me. Namely, their emails. 
But I guess not. This troubles me not because their emails communicated to me that my class was indeed not a priority, but because they haven’t applied what they have learned beyond the classroom setting, beyond what they were “told.” And again, I can imagine an undergraduate reading this and complaining, I didn’t mean it that way. And I get that how a student understands the ethos they are (trying) to present versus what a professor may actually read and receive. 
For example (and this is an example based on an email I received this week), a student emails explaining that he has an opportunity to go hunting but it would mean that he would miss two [out of three] of the classes this week. Would it be ok, and he promises he’d make up any work that he missed, especially if I let him know now, before he leaves.
Now, some additional context. They have a paper due next week, and the classes missed are peer review/writing workshop classes. This student is pretty good; not the best but also not the worst. I can imagine the student thinking that they were doing the right thing by a) letting me know they intended to miss class, b) not lying about why they were missing class, and c) showing initiative by proactively asking for the work to be missed. 
For me, all I read is: your class, in fact, university, is not that important to me. And that may be true. But why, then, should I, someone with over 100 students all taking writing-intensive classes from me, make you a priority, or devote extra time to you? I also wonder about how serious a student he is when he claims he can keep up with the work while outdoors trying to shoot animals. 
Critical thinking. We, as professors, want our students to develop the skill. Employers want employees with that skill. But my students can’t think critically about their own communications with their professor, the person, for better or for worse, who holds their future (through their grades) in their hands. It’s frustrating. I don’t care that the student doesn’t care about my class. I care that they don’t see what that might be a problem. 
This email will become a unit on ethos, on digital communications, on email etiquette, and on why my students are even in college to begin with. I’m sure I’ve opened a can of worms by writing about it, but it’s been bothering me for a week, and I needed to get it off my chest. 
What do you think? Why do students have such difficulty recognizing how their communications with their professors impacts their ethos?

More Thoughts on the Standardization of Higher Education

My post on the standardization of higher education from earlier this week was a hit, so to speak, driving traffic and stimulating some interesting discussions on Twitter. I’ve decide to address some of these concerns and continue venting on what I think is going to be the undoing of higher education in this country.

I received two tweets (one from @qui_oui and another from @rwpickard) about how a certain degree of standardization is necessary for transfer and the like. Look, I’m all for standards. We should all have a clear idea of what a 100, 200, 300, or 400 level class should contain within a discipline (how much to read, write, and the level of ideas/concepts expressed). I also understand that in other disciplines, you need to know a certain set of skills or concepts before moving on to the next level; I completely understand that Cal I has to come before Cal II, and that there has to be some standards in order for a student to make progress in their education. But, these standards would seem to grow organically from disciplinary requirements. Sometimes they are imposed by professional organizations, but often in the name of safety; I’m glad that my nurse has a standard set of skills that are required of her before being accredited.

It’s when we get into the “softer” disciplines, like English, where I live, that things get dicey. I have written already about my experience teaching an upper-division Modern Literature course. I appreciated the fact that, within a set of clear guidelines (400-level class on English literature written during what is known as the Modernist period), I had the freedom to teach the texts that I wanted to using the approaches that I thought would work best. I was able to “create” arches, comparisons, contrasts, and evolutions with the works we studied. Modern literature is a huge field (much like any field in English) and each professor will teach the course differently, according to their biases and expertise, but also based on the make-up of the student body and institutional culture. What works in a Modern Literature course at Yale won’t necessarily work in a Modern Literature course at Regional State U. But we can safely assume that given the guidelines and descriptions, a student coming out of an upper-division Modern Literature course should be able to do a certain set of things, from identify the major authors and features of the movement, as well as write a lengthy, in-depth research essay on a work from that period. How we get there will vary wildly.

And it should. Some may point to my characterization of the class as a disaster as a reason why we need more, not less, standardization. The argument goes that I was not to be trusted with coming up with the class, and instead I should have been given the syllabus and reading list to teach in a prescribed way (hey, just give me the script while you’re at it). I say that my failure is an indication that the institution needs to invest in professors, not temp workers, to teach class. If the administration continues to undermine and devalue what goes on in the classroom, no amount of standardization and accountability measures are going to improve student learning. Saying that we should teach all students the same things in the same way, all in the name of accessibility, is not the answer.

Which brings me to the next point of contention. Faculty, then, should then take it upon themselves to develop the accountability measures. We do already; it’s called the syllabus and grading. Apparently, that’s not good enough anymore. But is that the faculty’s fault or the fault of an administration that continually undermines the classroom experience (and professor’s authority) in the classroom? I just came across this essay about how we, the faculty, are increasingly pressured to let learning slide in the name of “customer service”:

Faculty members were being asked to be responsible for students instead of creating a system within the classroom that makes the students responsible for themselves.

This is what I am talking about when I say that the administration often don’t support what professors and instructors are trying to do in the classroom, but then blame us when learning doesn’t happen. Students are seen as tuition machines, and we are told they are to be retained, at all costs. When a student isn’t happy, we hear about it and need to adapt to keep the customer satisfied.

I say, get our backs, get out of our way, and let’s see what happens.

Money is being invested everywhere on campus except in front of the classroom, illustrated by increasing class sizes, the increase in online education, and the over-use of adjunct faculty. Students get the message; the professors (and learning) are the least important component on campus.

And even when faculty are involved in developing the accountability measures, it is usually because they are being required to do so and have to follow narrow guidelines with the demand for very prescriptive (and arbitrary) outcomes, in order to feed the data machine. Yes, cosmetically, faculty came up with the measures, but our hands are tied, impacting the results. Rather than having measures and standards that are organic to a given discipline, we have data driven measures that give us stats, but little else.

Time and resources are also a factor. Often, it is an already over-worked tenure-track faculty member (or committee of tenure-track faculty members) who is tasked with coming up with the measures. Those measures are then imposed on even more precariously positioned instructors and adjuncts, who are already burdened with the demands of teaching intensive introductory courses to larger and larger numbers of students. But none of that comes into the minds of the administrators requiring the extra work from their instructional staff (tenure-track and contingent). There’s no course release, no reduction in class sizes, nothing. Something has to give, and it is either dropping other elements from the syllabus or devising the “easiest” measures to implement.

There’s a win-win situation for student learning outcomes.

The Standardization of Higher Education = #FAIL

I was at an institutionally-mandated get-together for those instructors who taught the various developmental classes (math, reading, writing) at our institution a few weeks ago. We were hearing about the educational technology the math department was using to get students up to college readiness when the instructor presenting told us a disturbing little anecdote about how she caught a cheater last semester. “It was just like Big Brother!” she exclaimed excitedly. Ugh.

Now, I’ve already voiced my thoughts about our over-reliance on ed tech as the savior of education, but this statement made me think about one of the unintended (or intended) consequences of the move to standardize higher education, heavily facilitated by educational technology: the constant monitoring of all activity of both instructor and student. If we can standardize and record every instance of learning in a student’s academic career, then we can certainly pinpoint where learning failed, exactly which teacher or advisor is responsible for derailing a student’s career.

The more we standardize, the more we continue to infantilize our students and undermine our faculty. We are basically telling students that they aren’t responsible enough to learn and professors can’t be trusted to teach. Think about that for a second. Students can’t learn, and we can’t teach, so you need to be constantly monitored to make sure that these things happen.

How does this move towards standardization and assessment actually help students? What happens when institutions and accrediting boards rigidly dictate when and where learning happens in higher education? When instead of facilitating “informal” moments of learning, the university is required/requiring rigid reporting/return on investment data on campus talks, meeting spaces, and optional (but really mandatory) activities? Or that students (and eventually instructors/professors) measure success exclusively through test scores?

How do we teach and learn through experience, experiment, trial and error, and failures when Big Brother is always watching us? Does $44 billion really buy the Federal government the right to dictate to us how and what we teach, or how and when students can learn? As I put in the comments of Mary Churchill’s post “Can We Afford to Play,”

As we discover with young kids, we can spend all the money we want, but at the end of the day, all they want to play with is the empty cardboard box. I think the same thing goes for higher education, especially on the side of the professors. If professors didn’t have to worry as much about constant accountability measures, measurable outcomes, and reporting, we might be more likely to relax along with the students. If more people in front of the classroom had job security and more time, they may be more invested in the students outside of the classroom. If it didn’t feel like Big Brother was constantly monitoring all of us, we might relax, let loose, and really, really, learn.

At a certain point, the institution needs to get out of the way and just let learning happen. I have been critical of the type of “leisure” that takes place on (or rather off) campus, but is this behavior a result of the high states, high pressure environment we’ve created on campus? Most faculty and students can’t wait to get off campus at the end of the day; why is that? Universities have invested billions in creating “spaces” for students, faculty, and sometimes even community. Some have been very successful, but I wonder how many of them developed organically, and how many of them were responses to accreditation board requirements (having gone through two at two different universities, this is an important component for any re-accreditation)?

We may end up passing whatever tests they put in front of us, delivering more mandated content in increasingly rigid ways, but at the end of the day, we have failed.

What Ed Tech Can’t Do

In Fahrenheit 451, one of the characters describes what school is like in the near future:

But I don’t think it’s social to get a bunch of people together and then not let them talk, do you? An hour of TV class, an hour of basketball or baseball or running, another hour of transcription or painting pictures, and more sports, but do you know, we never ask questions, or at least most don’t; they just run the answers at you, bing, bing, bing, and us sitting there for four more hours of film teacher. That’s not social to me at all. It’s a lot of funnels and a lot of water poured down the spout and out the bottom, and then telling us it’s wine when it’s not.

Now, read a Tweet from a teacher in LA:

f2f is going 2 end up being security aka paras 2 make sure kids dont get on facebook in jr college f2f will disappear.

If Sir Ken Robinson (and many others) are right that the way schools are set up now was to prepare workers for factories, what are we preparing our kids for now, increasingly relying on computers to teach them? How to follow orders from a machine?

This is, of course, a dystopic view of the future, fueled in part by the fact that I am currently teaching Fahrenheit 451. But, I can’t help but wonder, are we really helping our most vulnerable students when we increasingly rely on technology rather than more traditional face-to-face instruction. Where are the mentorships, the relationships, the systems of support, of learning how to “think with others“? Certainly, we need to prepare students for a world that is increasingly interconnected through technology, but when do we say, enough, and start valuing, really valuing, personal interactions, rather than seeing it as an unnecessary cost, a budget line that is easy to eliminate.

Apparently, technology and online education is the real disruptive influence in education, allowing us to offer degrees for less than $10k. Having written about this very issue for the University of Venus recently, I remain skeptical. In the comments, the author of the post on creating a degree that costs less than $10k addresses my concern about teachers needing to eat with a response of only wanting teachers who are truly passionate about teaching. Great. More about how teachers are supposed to sacrifice everything for the greater good of “education. ” I am all for a more entrepreneurial approach to education, but I think we are trying to think bigger, rather than the true disruption coming from going smaller. If anything, money is being spent in the wrong place, in infrastructure instead of people.

I’m starting to see the movement in education as analogous to industrial farming; we all embraced farming technologies because food got cheaper, safer, more plentiful, and easier to grow (ok, education hasn’t gotten any cheaper, but isn’t that the goal of increasingly using technology?). But we now see that it might be cheaper, but it isn’t any healthier (and in many cases less healthy), it is more devastating to the over-all environment, and only economically beneficial to a handful of massive multi-nationals. Is this really the kind of education we want to offer our children, particularly our poorest and most vulnerable? In poor neighborhoods, they’ll be fast food and private online edu.

The disruptive innovation in farming and food isn’t in technology; it’s in scaling down, finding balance, quality, and over-all sustainability. Organic farmers, growers, and animal ranchers, urban farmers, and others are changing the way we think about food. We might see disruption coming from similar sources in education. Take for example a movement in England where people have taken over abandoned buildings and turned them into schools; curious people, some smartphones, and voila, learning. No bells, no whistles, no nothing. That’s disruptive. Not providing standardized pre-packaged education online offered by underqualified individuals with little to no support. Government, school boards, and universities need to reinvest their money in the people who teach and create knowledge; the rest can clearly fall away and not impact education. In fact, it may facilitate it.

Next fall, I will be integrating a lot more technology in my classroom, in part because of forced standardization and accountability. But part of it is trying to make my class more effective. My job is to teach, but it is also to coach my students, particularly my developmental students. It’s to disrupt their worlds in order to encourage critical thinking or knowledge creation. A computer program might be able to award a student a “badge” (again, what is that preparing students for in their professional futures?), but  a computer program can’t look a student in the eyes and tell them that they can do it, they can write, that they truly did a good job, ask them the right questions to get the heart of whatever problem they’re having, care enough to keep asking, or even express sincere disappointment when they let you down.

There’s a reason why the children of professors overwhelmingly go to small liberal arts colleges. There’s a reason why rich and middle-class parents fight to send their kids to good schools with small class sizes and good teachers, and will continue to do so, no matter how expensive it becomes. Technology is a tool, not a replacement, nor a silver bullet, especially for our most vulnerable students.

Maybe none of this matters. Maybe we are training our most vulnerable students to listen to machines rather than people. Workers of the future.

Reasons Why I Blog: An Examination

It’s been a year since I’ve started blogging. It seems like as good a time as any to look back over the year and reflect on how blogging has changed me. 

Yes, you read that right, it has changed me. I am more engaged, more reflective, and, perhaps, more militant, in my own small way. I don’t just read about issues on higher education, I think about them in order to write about them here. When I teach (or, more accurately, after I teach), I am forced to reflect a little more carefully about what I am doing and why, because I need something to write about.

I am more connected to the larger community of academics. I write, people read, share, and respond. I know I have not only an audience, but a community of people who read and who I read. We have conversations, and maybe one day will meet face-to-face. Until then, I know more people than I ever did as a traditional academic.

And I know I am having an impact. I figured that between the four institutions I have taught at, I have reached approximately 1100 students (keep in mind, while I was doing my PhD, I only had one class; my other experiences were closer to full-time, but with writing intensive classes with lower caps). At least that many people have read my top post, How Higher Ed Makes Most Things Meaningless, especially considering that it was featured on both Inside Higher Education and Ed Leader News. Imagine my delight to find out that no less a figure than Henry Adams of The Academic Bait and Switch  fame on the Chronicle and that he linked to my post in the comments of another Chronicle piece (which I can’t find right now). More people than I have ever taught have read that one post. More people than who have seen me speak at a conference. More people than who have read any of my academic essays.

But it is all of the people I have met outside of academia, those who are passionate about topics, rejecting the status quo of education at all levels, caring deeply about meaningful change. For me, blogging has opened my eyes to the world outside of academia. Does that sound like a sheltered academic statement? Indeed, it is. There is a degree of willful ignorance that an academic needs to have in order to survive the demands of living the academic life in higher education. The best thing that has ever happened to me is that I was unemployed for a time; I was forced to see thing differently and to do things differently. I saw others letting go and being successful, and it has empowered me let go.

Blogging has also, admittedly, fueled the more negative aspects of my personality, manifesting itself specifically as an obsessions with my blog’s stats. Lurking deep beneath my desire to be an academic is a need for validation, and the stats are one way that I can feel that sense of validation now that I am off the tenure-track. I see sites that do better than I do; College Misery gets the same amount of traffic a week as I do a month, if I’m lucky. Then again, misery loves company, and I’m not sure what thoughtful writing on the current state of higher education as well as teaching attracts. Less hits, apparently. Which is also depressing.

Wait, I’m celebrating here. I’m not perfect, and I still have some things I need to work on.

I’d really like to thank a few people: Mary Churchill who has been so supportive and inspiring me with her great work at University of Venus and Old School/New School; @ToughLoveForX who I have no idea how I “met”, but I am amazed at how connected this retired printer is, especially in the world of education; @comPOSTIONblog for founding #FYCchat with me; Worst Prof Ever for just generally kicking ass and doing and saying all the things I’m still not quite ready to; and all of the people who have come here, read my posts, commented, followed me on Twitter, shared my writing, and encouraged me to keep writing.

My goal for the next year? Get big enough to attract trolls. 🙂 I’m only half-joking.

Wireless Weekend Reflections, Part III: Helping Students Find Something Meaningful to Say

One of my fellow writing instructors and bloggers, Laura at Red Lips and Academics, recently wrote about the challenges of teaching students in our culture of over-share. I’ve written previously about why I actually don’t mind assigning a narrative essay, even if it does reinforce some of their more narcissistic impulses. But the post, my own brush with wordlessness, and being in the middle of grading papers, made me think about what, exactly, our students are saying. 

The idea that I would be devastated if I were no longer able to talk/write/communicate is predicated on the fact that I believe that I have something meaningful to say. I blog here and elsewhere because I want to participate in the ongoing discussion regarding the future of higher education. I teach because I believe that I have knowledge that can and should be shared with students. People read, comment on, share, and compliment my posts, so I imagine that there are at least some people out there who agree with me. And my student evaluations are usually pretty strong, indicating that my students agree that I have something valuable to share with them.
But let’s look at what our students talk or write about: themselves, and usually not with very much depth or insight. Part of the narrative essay assignment is to get the students to reflect critically on a moment in their lives. A narrative essay has to have a point, and that point has to come from some self-reflection or self-awareness. When I talk about being a disruptive influence as a teacher, I want to push the “whole person” so to speak, to get them to think about what they say and why they are saying it.
But it has to go beyond just pushing the perception of themselves; they have to pop their heads up and take a look at the world around them. And not just look at it and react, but take the time to think and reflect. One of the things that has always startled me (although at this point, it shouldn’t anymore) is the superficiality of the “analysis” I read in their papers. One reason, I know, is that they don’t take the time to really think about what they are writing about; they simply grind it out and get it done. The revision process also seems to reinforce this superficiality; the ideas don’t get any deeper, even if the words and sentences used to communicate them are cosmetically more pleasing and grammatically correct.
This is where I come in as a teacher. I have a responsibility to assign them readings that challenge them, that make them uncomfortable, either because of the difficulty level or the ideas expressed (usually both). We can try to provoke them into thinking differently about their lives and what they consume (pop culture, etc), but unless we give them alternative models to try, then we are essentially dooming them to only ever being able to superficially engage with a subject. Critical thinking is meaningless unless we give students something meaningful to think about and some examples. 
I go back to my example of “ancient” texts about education. Point me to a place where students can read contemporary arguments about education that explain its value in something other than economic terms? If I limited my students to contemporary texts on education, they probably would not have been exposed to the idea of education as something other than a way to make money and grow the economy. And that we are even talking about education; if polled, my students would almost universally tell you that this was a subject they had no interest in learning about, yet are all readily (and ignorantly) participating in the system. 
I believe that students’ should have some say and control over what they want to learn. At the same time, though, they have to accept that learning moves beyond just simply remember facts and information. My job is to push their learning towards knowledge. This is not easy, but it is how we can help our students find something meaningful to say that isn’t just confessing something about themselves. 

Wireless Weekend Reflections, Part 2: Coming Into Language

Juxtaposed with my brief brush with wordlessness is my son’s language explosion. He has just turned two and the language center in his brain finally awoken. All he wants to do is point to things and have us name them for him, then show off all of the words he probably didn’t even know he had locked away in his noggin. His excitement is palpable; he always wants us to read to him so he can point out all of the pictures he recognizes. He’s starting to sing songs. 

The process hasn’t been without speed bumps. While his words are much clearer (and there are even sentences!), there are still lots of times where we don’t understand what he is trying to tell us, and he gets frustrated. A frustrated two-year-old who is also trying to assert his autonomy is a force of nature. A really loud force of nature who doesn’t like to hear the word “no.” But he doesn’t give up, for better or for worse.
I marvel at both my kids’ enthusiasm about learning. My daughter is desperate to learn how to write and practices without my prompting. She works and works and works at something until she gets it right. My son has started counting anything and everything while also trying to figure out the letters and numbers on license plates (so far, he really likes “B”). He watches and waits until he’s sure he can do something before really going for it (like talking). They both absolutely adore school and their friends. They want to learn about anything and everything and have a ton of fun doing it.
I dread the day when neither of them look forward to going to school and reading becomes a chore rather than a joy. I wonder when my kids will start looking as disinterested, unmotivated, and frustrated as the majority of the students who sit in front of me. I wonder how much of it is based on my students’ lowered expectations for their educations. Educations that once excited them and now almost repulses them. Educations that should have prepared them and left them enthusiastic for higher education instead of resentful. 
At what point will my kids go from learning to speak to having nothing particularly meaningful to say?

Wireless Weekend Reflections, Part 1: Losing My Words

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.

I was shaking and crying, full of panic and dread. My thoughts still seemed coherent, but the words couldn’t or wouldn’t come out of my mouth, at least not with a great deal of effort. Talking, you may imagine, has always been one of my strong suits. While others shuddered at the thought of doing presentation, speeches, or, say, an oral comprehensive exam, I run straight to them. A high school teacher once gave me a back-handed comment when I volunteered to read my writing, and she exasperatedly exclaimed, “Oh, you always make your writing sound better than it is.”  I teach, in part, because it involves public speaking, which I am very good at. What if I couldn’t talk anymore, at least not with ease?
I was losing my words. I couldn’t express myself. If I was having a stroke, what else would I lose? My other metal faculties? My memory? My intellect? After ten years, heck, thirty years of developing my brain and finally being able to really use it in a meaningful way, what would it mean to lose it? I recently wrote that ignorance is bliss, but, when faced with a very real possibility that I was about to once again have ignorance force upon me, I lost all bearing. This could not be happening.
(Looking back, I wasn’t worried in the least about either the loss of my physical faculties or losing the memory of my husband or kids. I was athletic in the water, but I have never been particularly adept on land, and while I have no doubt that any physical disability would be hard, it isn’t my most prized skill set with loads of money invested in it. My husband and kids, on the other hand, is much more troubling. Part of it, I think, has to do with the idea that “love” would transcend any sort of mental loss, which I know to be false. I’m still working through that question.) 
Who would I be if I was no longer a teacher, writer, educator, thinker? Would I lose my ability to speak, but still be able to read and write? Would I still be a quick study and enjoy pondering and asking questions, or would I stop being able to learn new things and form new ideas? What would be left of me? And a realization that I am not proud of ran through my mind: I could turn into my “worst” students. Or at least, the worst stereotype we have of our worst students. It was more than I could handle. When the doctor told me that my CAT scan was clean and that it was probably “just” a migraine, I wept with relief. 
I still have my words. But I am now at a loss as to what I am going to do with them. And I chose, in part, to be quiet for a few days. 

A Weekend, Unplugged

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. 

It started last Saturday when I stepped on a rusty nail in our backyard and ended up in the ER to get a tetanus shot. While the money would be reimbursed by my insurance company, a mix-up over my “official” name on the insurance made me pay my deductible out-of-pocket. Leaving me no money to attend this weekend’s THATCamp Southeast. I was fully intending to “attend” virtually, but when I landed in the ER again on Wednesday, this time with symptoms that could have meant I was having a stroke (it wasn’t; best guest is it was a migraine), I wasn’t sure I had the mental strength to attend virtually a conference I really had my heart set on attending. 
A few other events not related to my physical health forced me to think about what Faber, the old English professor in Fahrenheit 451, says to Montag about books: it’s about the time we take to think about what they have to tell us. I needed to take the time to unplug and think about what had happened to me over the past week, and even the past year. Without Twitter as an “easy” outlet for my venting and without the blog to allow me longer rants and rambling. Without the pages and pages and pages and pages of writing on education, higher education, and everything else to distract me with “meaningful” and “useful” reading. I love the people and blogs I follow, but this weekend, I needed to be with my own thoughts for a little while.
I’ll admit I didn’t unplug completely. An entirely different post is needed on the expectations placed on modern professors to be accessible at all times to their students’ via email or other electronic contact mechanism, but I had required that my students complete an online reading quiz over the weekend, and Blackboard is notoriously buggy (to put it nicely). And I didn’t want to return on Monday to piles and piles of email in my personal inbox. So I checked my email a few times a day. But I turned the wireless off my computer and ignored all of the vibrations on my phone. 
I also didn’t do any grading (even though I should have), nor did I do any reading for my class. I watched as little TV as possible. This weekend was all about my mental health. I went for a hike on Friday afternoon. I finally finished reading a novel I had been trying to get through (it was amazing). I wrote, long-hand, about ideas for a personal research and writing project. I baked. I played with my kids, a lot. I spent time actually talking with my husband (as opposed to right now where we are working next to each other). All of it was an attempt to try and figure out, what next? 
I still don’t have any answers. But it did feel good to take the time for myself. I’m hoping that I’ve gotten enough distance from the events of last week to begin to write about them. I can’t wait to read about everything that happened at THATCamp. I have briefly looked at my Google Reader and see a long (and interesting) reading list awaits me; Dr. Davis is blogging at a conference, which is always a treat! And, I think I might have finally found something interesting and not academic to research and write about. 
Absence makes the heart grow fonder (gag!), and I miss you all terribly. I hope you’ll come with me this week as I try to work through what going on. This time, back online.

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 (, 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.