My office in Paragraph City is in the Digital Immigrant wing of the Scriptorium Building. I was not born into a world muscled by the Internet. I came of age in a pre-Google (indeed, pre-Netscape) world. I was tenured before I had my first computer, a white little Apple that came with a handle and a 5 inch green screen CRT. I still have it; it still works.
I watched an aspect of the world change, like Iceland watching America colonized, revolutionized, industrialized, weaponized, supersized and about the time it became digitized, I left my little volcanic island and became a Digital Immigrant, and like real immigrants I don’t quite speak the language or think in the culture of those Digital Natives born into a Googlized world, but unlike real immigrants, I don’t think of us — Natives and Immigrants — as being that different. Yet others do.
A good faculty friend of mine, with her office in the same wing of the Scriptorium, wanted a way to publicize some great student writing she came across. We talked. We don’t have a place to do that. We ought to have one. You know the way these conversations go. So I suggested she start a blog and use it to post great student writing. Writing teachers could use them as examples and the great student could get mom to log on and say “that’s my Timmy!” My friend is a little less removed from the homeland than I am, though, and she paled.
“It’s not hard to do,” I said — those words that always have preceeded every disasterous crash with technology that I have ever squealed into, brake pedal flat to the floor, blue smoke sheeting off tires. Of course, they have always preceeded every pleasant tech event, too, but we forget that. So my friend went home and dreamed and wrote me this, which I quote with her permission.
“I am sitting in a classroom. The tables are dotted with what I know to be computers, but they look more like rounded toasters with television screens in vivid colors. The teacher is in front at the board. I have a question, “I’m finished with four of the citations,” I say, “but I can’t find the format for Listerine.” The teacher sighs.
“The student next to me (she is my age but her hair is not gray) explains that MLA is not the right format for any of the citations. She shows me her screen. The visual is a medieval scene of crowd chaos. On the top is a series of numbers and letters, much like an extended product identification. She explains that the 12 at the end means “medieval.” Then she tries to explain something about the 1 at the beginning. I feel panic rising and tears swelling.
“I know that I am unfamiliar with this code and with the hardware and that the entire class has been working with these things for years. I have asked the dumb question. My fellow student opens the spiral-bound manual. There is no index. She attempts to explain the code. I know I’ll have to withdraw from this class. I weep that I have been so far removed from the assumed world of my peers that I can no longer connect.”
The dream expresses so much – her connection & identification with the lost students she tries to tutor, the loss and loneliness that simply not understanding brings when understanding is what brings people into the same room, the bewilderment that something genuinely new brings, the disorientation that results when a knowledge structure we depend upon is kicked apart. But I simply want to mention the one little reminder it gave me.
This dream was triggered by a suggestion that my friend start a blog, an action that seems to me easy and quick. But new stuff carries anxiety on its back unless we can be casual and friendly with it, and for those of us to whom the stuff is no longer new, we wonder where the clumsy behavior comes from, and now I’m thinking more of the marginally literate student thumbing through an MLA handbook. For me, it’s the student’s sudden lack of concern I don’t understand, and the subsequent slipping away, but perhaps that’s a means of dousing the anxiety. Unfortunately, it’s also the way of failure. For the academic immigrant as for the digital immigrant, we must remember that between anxiety and failure are other more attractive options.