Invasion of the Information Snatchers: How the Internet Taps into Our Fear of Malleable Identity and Authority — and What We Can Do About It”

invasion of the body snatchers

As a child, I had a recurring bodysnatching nightmare. In the nightmare, I would be safely tucked into my bed, but I would then sense a glowing presence moving down the hallway that separated the front door to the house from my bedroom door. I would stay frozen under the sheets of my bed, pulling the blanket up slightly so that it covered my ears, but my gaze would remain on the hallway as the presence drew closer and closer. The presence would eventually approach the frame of my bedroom door and its full form would become clear: it was a humanoid creature, but with tentacles for legs and arms that were merely wisps of cloudy air. Its face had only eyes and a mouth but no noise. While its outline glowed, its body was the color of smoke and its presence just as seemingly ephemeral. While I pretended to be asleep, the presence entered my bedroom and eventually hovered over my body and, somehow, I knew that it deigned to inhabit my physical presence so that it could snatch a body and take on a solid physical presence of its own. Just as the presence was about to attempt invasion, I would wake up, startled. I would often double-check to make sure my bedroom door was actually closed (my real life self thought that if the door was shut, the nightmare presence couldn’t possibly make its way into my bedroom).

My particular body snatching nightmare eventually faded from my nightly rotation, but the deep, ingrained fear that my identity could somehow be taken away from me, that my body could somehow be filled with someone else’s thoughts or that my thoughts could somehow be put into a different body continued to disturb me. The notion of body snatching has long been a popular fear in the American imagination too. How many stories of embodied possession and zombie takeovers have we encountered in the Western world? (A lot, and many other people have theorized these stories better than I. See, Jesse Stommel on “The Dead Things We Already Are,” Joe Fassler on Zombies, and Sarah Juliet Lauro on More Zombies). 

The idea that anyone could willingly take over my body without permission was a fear, I see now, of losing agency and not having the ability to determine when I could use my own voice and how (this is not an uncommon fear or one unique to me). I realized when I was young that my voice was essentially all that I had; my body was certainly a vehicle for that voice, but it only mattered insofar as it was attached to the voice. Once that voice was gone, well, the body was merely a shell.

I’ve been thinking a lot about body snatchers as I’ve been thinking about the Internet and the crisis we’re facing at this moment in the early twenty-first century about credibility online and how people distinguish and understand information. I’m realizing that it’s a “body-snatchers” problem too. Online infrastructures take various forms and disguises, but without knowing who’s writing on the other end, anyone can take any amorphous form to represent any idea from any voice that they so choose. As a popular cartoon from The New Yorker concludes: “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”

"On the Internet, no one knows you're a dog.'

The joke of The New Yorker cartoon is predicated on “body-snatching” anxiety: that if any dog can write online as an authority, the fact that you are a dog doesn’t matter in building your potential online persona. That said, this “body-snatching” anxiety is nothing new; we can trace back the anxiety with “body-snatching” all the way to the disembodiment of spoken voice from physical body with the simple act of putting pen to paper. That is, the rise of print culture – and the subsequent technological revolution of mass printing and mass literacy  – made it very easy for someone’s words to become something far, far removed from their own bodies. “When you write a book, nobody knows you’re a dog.”

To overcome the anxiety that dogs could be writing printed books, we developed a really strong connection between printed literacy and the educational system. Basically, around the same moment that books, newspapers, and printed materials were distributed in the Western printing world, so too were children being sent to school, not as laborers but as learners. Mandatory public education became a hallmark of the Western world at roughly the same moment that print literacy as social practice became ubiquitous for anyone of any social class. Print literacy was made authoritative in the classroom: teachers passed down the proper books for their students to read so that students could learn (mostly) about how to become good Christians. While plenty of adults received their access to writing through newspapers and paperback novels, the authority for those sources proved exceedingly questionable. These sources were sinful, sensationalistic, and not vetted with the authority of God. In other words, when there wasn’t a body present to assure individuals that the source was trustworthy, we used another body transplant of authority, like a teacher or priest, to help us understand what was OK and what wasn’t.

The main difference between the era of mass print literacy and conceptions of authority then and the era of mass digital literacy and the conceptions of authority now are that we have started to lose trust in our authorities and are not sure who to turn to in order to reclaim that trust (David Roberts’ piece in Vox on America’s epistemological crisis is tied not only to the authorities behind news media, but authorities behind any research-based institution, in my opinion). News outlets and “mainstream media” sources are no longer authorities, are no longer trusted bodies that can communicate disembodied voices. Even schools and universities are no longer perceived as fully authoritative or expert spaces. So, what do we do? What happens when material and infrastructural frameworks slip away and we fear that all of the expert bodies have been snatched by inept ones?

In Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the body-snatching threat only stops when police authorities finally see the evidence of the seed pods that are invading human bodies. In zombie lore, the zomvie virus only gets destroyed when the zombie body is killed; the human body cannot be restored once the zombie virus has taken over. So, if we’re looking to fiction for our answer to this question, it seems like there’s only one option: annihilation.

When it comes to real world body-snatching, however, I don’t think annihilation of threatening information sources is necessarily the right answer, mostly because it’s impossible. If we are to maintain a free and open flow of information, we have to give everyone an opportunity to share and circulate ideas, even if those ideas are treacherous and tricky. So, one way we can annihilate anxieties over “body-snatching” is by disambiguating who or what is snatching our bodies from the start, making transparent the processes and practices that go into making information, whether that information comes from a book or from the Web. In other words, we need to distinguish between the appearances of alien seed pods and the appearances of – well – humans to regain trust in our bodies again. In non-metaphorical terms, we need to distinguish between trickster writers and trusted writers, and understand what these trusted writers do to find factual information and, well, why that matters.

There are a lot of resources to help readers understand what fact-driven, research-based writing is and how people do it, so I won’t rehash what others have described in better and clearer terms than me. Instead, here is my annotated list of resources I think are really useful about this topic in the hopes that you may explore them further and overcome your own fears of body-snatching and related anxieties:

So, why might it matter to see concerns with source credibility through the lens of body-snatching? Well, I think it helps us understand the extent to which fear and mistrust guide our decision-making. If we think that information is coming from people or sources we trust, we are more likely to follow them. When we discover that the sources we trust are not who we thought, we feel misguided, concerned, confused, and de-centered. It’s not that we can’t trust anyone, but if we are able to look for the signs that allow us to frame sources effectively, we can understand whether the bodies have been snatched already or not.

I still fear body-snatching insofar as now that I have a much more established voice in a larger online conversation, I know that my identity could be easily stolen or threatened. That said, I know that body-snatching is part of the risk of entering into public discourse without my body to advocate for me. It’s the risk we all take, all of us who dare to put ourselves online and out into the world. We have to trust that readers will come to understand who and what body snatchers do and how to distinguish the real voices from the fake ones. 

Today, I try to stay brave enough to keep my (metaphorical) bedroom door open and trust that I will wake up in time to blow the body-snatching smoke monster away. As an educator, I hope to give my students that same strength too, and the critical ability to understand when body-snatching is real – and when it is truly a figment of a nightmare.

My Hesitation to Talk about Research is Not About You.

Whenever I am asked, “So, what’s your research about anyway?” my stomach dips. My mind goes blank for a moment; what is my research about? Do I even know? Sometimes, I feel like the project I’m working on is so big that I don’t know where to begin and there’s a certain dread I experience in trying to capture this project in a few sentences. So, my answer typically meanders through some qualified, fuzzy statements, like “Well, you know, it’s like…”

Let me just assure you of this: my hesitation is not about you. It’s all about me.

After I passed my qualifying exams, I thought that I would finally feel comfortable with the big research question. After all, I managed to convince a committee of five professors of my competence; surely, I could convince others of the same. Yet months after my qualifying exam, I somehow feel more insecure than ever about explaining my research.

The reason for my insecurity is simple: the more I learn, the more I know that I don’t know very much at all. The more I start to probe my research questions, the more depth, complexity, and texture they seem to take on. I feel as though I’ve hatched open a large egg and have just discovered that the creature hatched is not just a lizard but a fire-breathing dragon. I’ve got to get myself one hell of a shield.

Feeling like an incompetent nincompoop is a classic learned person problem. It’s impossible not to feel like one when your days are filled with reading, writing, reflecting, and asking questions. In fact, at the beginning of every graduate seminar I took, the professor always asked the participants to introduce themselves and their major fields of interest, and every time, my peers and I would have to qualify our interests with statements like, “Well, I’m not really an expert or anything, but…” Arguably, all of us in that room were well on our way to being experts, yet none of us could own that title. It felt uncomfortable. It still feels uncomfortable.

The thing is, the only way I’ll be able to convince other people that I’m doing more than picking lint out of my navel these days is by giving the dreaded 2-minute version of my research. People like Nicholas Kristof have called for making academic research accessible to the public and I completely agree. I don’t struggle very much with colloquial language and making ideas accessible, but I find I struggle with condensing an argument and making it clear without either obfuscating the point or over-simplifying it. In other words, I don’t want to misrepresent an idea, but I also don’t want to bog down.

What’s the solution here? I’m not sure yet, but here’s my call to you if you’re reading this (and if you are, it probably means you know me in person because – let’s be real – this blog is mostly getting circulated through my Facebook friends): ask me about my research. Keep asking me. The more practice I get, the less uncomfortable I’ll feel, and hey, maybe the more coherent I’ll become too. I want to be able to share ideas and discuss them with you, whether you’re an academic or not. I might be afraid to do so and I might seem a little weird about it, but ultimately, I’ll be grateful. If I don’t seem grateful, just point me back to this blog post and allow me to eat my words. They’ll be delicious.

How to Be an Undergraduate Again

Our instructor faced the class, arms crossed over his chest, stern face piercing us all into extraordinary guilt. Most of us had bombed the latest French quiz – a pop quiz, mind you –  and he adopted that distinct teacherly Not Pleased tone.

“I’m going to talk in English,” he says slowly. “Because this is serious.”

We get a stern talking-to on how we must study, on how this is French 21, guys, not French 1 or 2 or 3. This should be review. We have to study, don’t we get it?

I know what he’s doing because I’ve done this move before with my own students. It’s the Bad Cop move, one I only employ after a particularly dour night of grading, where every single student response seems to be utterly off, and ugly feelings start to sink in: “These students are so lazy!” “They don’t care about writing at all!” “Haven’t they done the reading?” “Why did they submit this at 3:00 A.M.?”

I can see these same ugly feelings on his face; for him, it seems ludicrous that we wouldn’t get these concepts. I get it. Hence, the Bad Cop comes out.

Now that I’m taking on the role of an undergraduate in his class, I’m quickly realizing that Bad Cop never ever works; it just turns all of us students into puddles of shame. Another student I’ve befriended who – bless her -studies much harder than I do for this class, turns to me and whispers, “I’m so scared.” Me too, my dear friend, me too. I’m not scared about the quiz outcome though (frankly, another part of this trick is to pull out the Bad Cop on low-stakes assignments, like quizzes, so that the high stakes ones don’t result in similar failure). What I’m scared of is knowing I might fall into the temptation to do the same thing. And I don’t like that.

First, a little bit of context: I’m taking an undergraduate French class right now because I’m required to do so. All English department graduate students need to demonstrate “proficiency” in two different foreign languages. Don’t get me started on the journey that got me to my little desk in a little dark classroom with the grimiest of chalk boards and weathered carpeted floors in all of UC Davis. All that you need to know is that I’ve got to take this French class in order to take my qualifying exams and write that, like, dissertation or whatever.

So, here I am: the only graduate student among a group of undergraduates being taught by other graduate students. I’ll occasionally get some knowing nods from the graduate student instructors; we’ve got a kind of solidarity going on where they recognize that I recognize all of the “student engagement” moves they’re trying. Work in small groups! Think pair share! Yep, got it. I went to the TA Training Orientation too.

I realize I sound a little embittered, but all of these rehashed undergraduate experiences – the shame of the failed pop quiz, the lost dignity after performing an impromptu skit, the swelling of pride when the instructor tells you you’ve done something right – have given me some new perspective on my own teaching and have helped me to appreciate what my own students go through all the more.

Simply, I forgot how stressful it is to be a college student in a college class environment. I forgot how many little assignments that are to keep track of every day. As a graduate student, one has to be a time management expert, but an undergraduate education is its own kind of time management training grounds. So, there’s a lot more I can say about what I’ve learned about teaching again, but here’s how I’ve survived being an undergraduate. Again:

  • Do homework every day right after class. As soon as class is over, I go straight to work on the homework while the ideas are fresh. OK, so, maybe I check my e-mail first, but then it’s homework time. It’s condensed and I get it done to have the rest of my day free for other work.
  • Chat with my classmates about the assignments. So, at first, I wanted to adopt this stand-offish “I’m older than all of you an I know what I’m doing” persona, but as soon as I got my ego in check and realized that I need to actually practice the collaborative learning I preach, I realized my classmates were awesome resources. Not to mention that they’re all fresh off the heels of AP French, so they all know a whole lot more than I do.
  • Flashcards, flashcards, flashcards. Language classes require a lot of memorization, so I’ve been whipping through flashcards, cutting them into fours, and carrying them with me everywhere I go. When I have a minute, I flip through them, keeping the knowledge as fresh as I can. I don’t know how any undergraduate in a language course could survive without these.
  • Participate like no one’s business. Again, I wanted to be too cool for school for a while, especially since I was such an eager beaver in my actual undergraduate years. But then I realized that it’s not that much fun not to participate; I get way more out of my experience by speaking up, even though I say something wrong 90% of the time. Being wrong and failing is learning.

I’m still collecting tips on how to do this better, though somehow, I realize that by the time I’ve got all of this figured out, I’ll be on to the next quarter, on to the next project, learning instead how to be – well – a graduate student. That’s still one I don’t have a checklist for.

 

Software University?

When I take notes on books I’m reading, I’ve got comments and sub-comments.

The comments are of the most mundane variety: I flag down quotes, make note of important moments, and process through key concepts. The typical stuff.

The sub-comments, however, are where things get juicy. This is where I throw my font into italics and write whatever I want: curse words, exclamations, lines of punctuation (think: “!!!!!”), and emoticons abound. It’s my own inner commentary, the liberating part of note-taking. If you don’t have your own running commentary on your own book notes, it’s a practice I highly recommend taking up. Since authors don’t, you know, typically pop out of the ether and explain things to you, the most you can do is talk back.

In any case, my most recent read was James J. O’Donnell’s Avatars of the Wordwhich is a pretty slim volume on the history and evolution of writing technologies. O’Donnell is a classicist by training and, perhaps most famously, taught the “first MOOC” on Augustine.

His book is remarkable for me because it offers a strange balance of nostalgia for large libraries filled with dusty stacks and an impulse to adapt the “digital world” and deem those same dusty libraries “dead” and obsolete. Authors like O’Donnell – especially in the mid-90s moment of, “hey, look, computers are not all HAL!” – tend to express this ambivalence. The weirdest moment, however, is this one:

“The image I like is that of the university as a suite of software, a front end, or what you see onscreen and interact with, to the world as a whole, chosen for its power, speed, functionality, ease of use, even for its user-friendliness. The professor turns into a kind of software icon – click on the professor and let him take you to the world that he knows” (157). 
 

So, a professor becomes the Clippy of the university? Click on the professor and he’ll guide you through your learning experience? This kind of metaphor turns the professor into a sort of bizarre escort into the university world, a packaged “guide.” Now I recognize that part of O’Donnell’s vision is a kind of historical artifact; he was speaking from a moment when online, hybrid, and MOOCs were a complete unknown. Yet I find it fun to chew on the metaphor a decade later and consider: would it be useful for the university to create a more “user-friendly interface?” What happens when learning becomes something treated at “interface value,” a glossy entree to the “professor’s world?” What does “the professor’s world” even look like in this vision of “the university as a suite of software?”

One might argue there’s a certain neoliberal, TED talk vision in this kind of statement too, a desire to make the university more like a WYSWYIG where the purposes of courses are transparent; there’s no self-assembly required to make sense of the work you’re doing. But I wonder how much we owe this transparency to our students. How much do we need to teach at interface value and what do we lose when we don’t have them assemble the parts on their own?

What’s in a Name?

Every six months, I go through this cycle where I wonder if I’m a sham.

I’ve identified myself as a “writer” for most of my (young) adult life, but I frequently find myself in a self-loathing moment where I wonder, “If I don’t write, can I call myself a writer?”

That niggling assertion frequently gets countered with: “Well, that’s a silly question to ask. It’s not that you don’t write; it’s that you don’t write for YOU. You write comments on students’ papers, you write hundreds of e-mails, and hundreds more notes. You write text messages and you write to-do lists. You’re writing!”

This is the logic I take with my teaching, too. I try to empower students and help them to believe that they ARE writers even if they major in biology and chemistry and animal science. I suppose at the heart of it, I like to say that all of us can identify as writers as long as we make the commit to thinking about our writing and being mindful of what we write, how we write, where we write, and why we write.

A question I find myself drawn to in my studies is, “how do we gain the awareness of our writing practice necessary to understand both the affordances and constraints of that practice?” The question to naturally follow this might be, “Well, what does it matter? Why should we be aware of the affordances and constraints of writing practice?”

I’d say the answer is simple: to ensure that we’re smart producers of content. What I’m afraid of is the knowledge that so much of my current writing practice in the digital age occurs in a place where content is endless. I write in a (virtual) institution that swallows up knowledge as quickly as possible, just gobbles it up. So, how do I remain aware of this institution that shapes the way I write without becoming completely paralyzed by it? I don’t want to produce content that doesn’t DO or SAY anything, but I also don’t want to be voiceless.

So, how does one get past these competing desires to be identified and to have a voice, but also to be mindful of the fact that it is very difficult to assert one’s voice in a room of chatter? I don’t yet have the answer to this, but maybe the answer doesn’t matter. Perhaps it’s still about speaking just loudly enough to create a small tremor of sound in the ceaseless murmur.

Extra! Extra! On Rhetorical Newspaper Analyses

Have I mentioned here before that I work an additional job as a freelance (ghost) editor for a college and career counselor?

Well, I’m mentioning it now and for one reason in particular: the ubiquitous “newspaper rhetoric” assignment.

You know the one: choose three newspaper articles and analyze whether they “effectively” convey their purpose or not. (Something that follows these kinds of standards).

I’ve always had some trouble accepting this assignment and it primarily hinges upon the word, “effective.” Effective to whom? Effective for what? Effective to what ends? This seems to be a key piece missing in the explication of the assignment.

Anyway, as a freelance (ghost) editor, I basically revise whatever my boss sends me to revise. I’m completely invisible to the student; I make line edits in Microsoft Word, send those line edits and documents back to my boss, and he sends my line edits to the students. I don’t think the students know where these magical edits come from. I don’t think these students care.

All of that background aside, I’ve seen a surprising number of these newspaper rhetoric essays recently and, indeed, students seem to respond to them in roughly the same way, citing “objectivity” and “clarity” as signs of “effectiveness.”

Yet interestingly, they often choose newspaper articles that are neither “objective” nor particularly “clear.” Indeed, it seems that in every rhetoric assignment I’ve read thus far, students have been drawn to assessing articles composed as blogs rather than true-to-form “articles.”

My hunch is that students are not choosing blogs because they enjoy reading them; I imagine the student sits in front of the computer, opens the browser, goes to Google, types in the name of a current event, and voila! Blogs from major newspapers emerge as top hits. Students then go on to assume that these blogs serve the same function as “articles.” Boom, assignment completed.

To me, this is a fascinating phenomena for a few reasons:

1. Blogs are appearing as more frequent hits in search engines.

2. The tone of blogs are seemingly indistinct from those of news stories that high school students and college freshmen are familiar with.

3. On major newspaper websites, blog content seems privileged over regularly circulating news content.

Now, point1 gets us into a discussion of search engine optimization and other stuff I don’t really feel like thinking about. But points 2 and 3? Now those, to me, are worth discussing.

I don’t find it particularly troublesome that blogs themselves are privileged as news content. Indeed, we could get abstract here and assert, “What is objectivity, anyway?”

What troubles me is – well – students’ seeming lack of awareness over the ability to distinguish between these two genres. I could be assuming too much about these students; perhaps they DO recognize the blog is a blog (and not an article), but do not have the motivation to keep digging through the Internet to find an article and figure a blog will fulfill the assignment. Either way, apathy is at play. Isn’t that a touch distressing?

I think the solution to this problem comes with greater critical awareness of what it means to use a search engine, of what it means to find different kinds of articles and, perhaps most importantly, what it means to search carefully and discriminatingly.

Perhaps the most important question I have is: where should this kind of work be done? To me, if instructors are giving out these kinds of assignments, it should probably be done in the writing classroom. But, of course, how do high school teachers, for example, balance these kinds of concerns with those of curricular standards? I imagine that these kinds of rhetoric assignments are part of a common curriculum; how do teachers adapt? How do administrators adapt to make sure students are developing healthy browsing habits?

Collaboration in Action!

I did a pretty good job of wallowing in misery in that last post, didn’t I?

Let’s just say that developing functional literacy ain’t easy. Shall I even mention the fact that I’m incredibly behind on my coding?

No! Because I have something rather positive to write about today!

Mary, Aaron, and I are working on a small article together about our experiences developing online writing modules for the UC (through a larger project called the Online Instructional Pilot Program. I’m sure “the public” will learn about this more as the program is piloted in Fall 2012). In a nutshell, OIPP is a UC-wide initiative to create online courses. Our role within this initiative is to author/design online writing modules to be used for an online writing course. What this course will look, we’re not entirely sure, and indeed, there’s much resistance for the modules to even BE a unified course. But I digress.

The article we’re working on is exciting because it explores some of the challenges we’ve run into as course writers and designers, relays some of the questions we’ve had developing these modules, and provides some critical and pedagogical connections for scholars to consider in future online course development. All very neat stuff!

Perhaps what’s most exciting, though, has been the process of working with Aaron and Mary. Initially, we all free-wrote, drafting our initial thoughts about the project individually. We plopped these free-writes into Google Docs and then, over the weekend, we all logged on to Skype together and collectively edited the Google Doc.

Now, I had shared documents in Google Docs before, but primarily for things like camping item check-lists. This was the first time I had composed anything serious in Google Docs and – lo and behold – how useful is this tool?

I suppose this should be a no-brainer; after all, I’ve been taking a class all quarter advocating for collaborative learning via new media. However, being able to speak with Aaron and Mary and watch each other’s curses course through our words in real time was a remarkable exercise. We went from three free-writing documents, each with very different and individual voices, to a robust article introduction, unified and coherent.

Granted, the essay is not done yet. We still have a bit to add in and edit.

However, this was really the first time I had engaged in collaborative writing on this scale and, if nothing else, these few short meetings we’ve had have really convinced me of how something substantial can really be composed in a group. Sure, it’s likely less “efficient” to write in a group than it is to write individually (and, indeed, in our information age, “efficiency” seems to be valued above all). However, I know that the product we’ve created is far more sophisticated and nuanced than I would have likely conceptualized alone. It certainly helps that Aaron and Mary have had greater experience writing pedagogy-focused articles; it is when writing these kinds of articles that I realize, as an English student, I will likely have to acquire skills for article writing in both the humanities and social sciences to bridge the gaps of the different academic communities.

But this exercise was not about my experience; it was about working with two determined and intelligent people and “practicing what we preach” by using the technologies to mediate our discussion and, in fact, enhance what we may have done in person on separate pads of paper.

Functions and Conjunctions

I have a confession to make: computers scare me.

Admittedly, this is not ideal. I’m working towards graduate work in digital literacy/media studies. Yet if something goes wrong, I’m the first to call tech support, panicked. What am I thinking? And yes, I ask myself this all the time.

I’m likely ripe for a psychological diagnosis, but I think this anxiety is precisely what drives me to pursue this study: I know all too well that, as Bradley Dilger and Jeff Rice write in the intro toFrom A to <A>: Keywords of Markup, “the literate mind has extended to the markup mind” (xiv). Plus, as the discourse of computing and computer control becomes an increasingly big part of working culture (and popular culture), I recognize that (as Stuart Selber writes in Multiliteracies for a Digital Age) “one must effectively appropriate the language of a community in order to have a voice within it” (45).

So, yeah, this stuff is important. But that recognition doesn’t stop me from feeling utterly terrified.

Allow me to clarify: the kinds of things I can do on computers don’t scare me. Software is my friend. I love using my Word Processor. I love that I can make calculations easily with Excel (this will come in handy with tax season upon us!). Heck, I love using the Internet and I love the kind of cultural resources the Internet has wrought.

The point is, it’s the inner machinations of the computer that scare me. If there’s a window that pops up that’s anything out of the ordinary, I feel panicked. If something is frozen on my screen, I frantically hit CTRL ALT DEL in the hopes that if I just shut a troublesome program down, the problem will figure itself out. Is my computer running really slowly? Well, shoot, I’ll just shut it down, restart it, and let my heart beat as loud as a tom-tom until the windows welcome sound greets me again. Ah, it’s working! It’s working! Life is beautiful! I’ll never hurt you again, my dearest Shibi!

Anyway, what this all boils down to (I think) is my fear of losing control. This perhaps scares many of us (especially those of us in graduate school; our work is very much contingent on finding answers and organizing those answers). Yet when it comes to the computer, I fear this loss of control even more because I know how central this computer (this machine) is to so much of my life. Scary but true.

Mitigating the kinds of fear I have is exactly the reason that writers like Selber, Dilger, and Rice advocate for the development of functional literacy in the classroom. In short, my understanding of functional literacy (given the discussions we’ve had in our readings and in class) is the development of technical computing skills (and applying those skills in appropriate and confident ways). After all, developing functional literacy is empowering! Knowing how to do something is a powerful tool to – well – actually doing stuff and being a part of a larger community of other “do-ers.”

But the range of developing functionally literate skills seems expansive to me. Selber suggests that functionally literate students merely need to be aware of “those online activities considered to be customary in English courses at the post-secondary level,” (44) whereas Dilger and Rice suggest that “In the age of new media, there is no way to avoid markup. Markup is text. Markup is communication. Markup is writing” (xi).

So, the range here is: functional literacy could mean using a word processor (yay!) to learning how to use HTML markup (yay, but scary!).

To me, that range is ENORMOUS. I consider myself a fairly adept user of certain kinds of software and programs, but I’m forcing myself to learn coding and markup and, boy, it’s hard. I can’t imagine having to learn this kind of stuff in an English class. Granted, I’m a few weeks behind on my Code Year lesson (when you have fifty-five undergraduate papers in front of you to grade, a lecture to prepare, and class presentation questions to write, you know where your priorities go), but still. I think if I was told I had to edit a web text for a writing class, I would feel enormously alienated from the processes of writing I grew up with. Though I may be a “digital native,” there are some terrains that to me are still like the wild, wild west.

In any case, I’ve probably gone on too long, but I suppose my question with the development of functional literacy is this: how much will future students need to know? To what extent do computers need to be quasi-programmers to be able to be a part of “the conversation?”

So What?

Around essay-grading time, there’s a beast that rears its ugly head. This beast goes by the terrifying name of: “So what?”

The “so what?” beast is a simple creature, certainly not a many-headed hydra or a serpentine monster. Yet the beast is a bully: it’s going to do all it can to make sure you notice it. Perhaps the “so what?” beast most closely resembles a sphinx: there’s no passing “go” until you’ve solved the “so what?” riddle.

To understand the “so what?” beast is akin to solving one of those “Magic Eye” puzzles. Cross your eyes in just the right way, and you can finally see the “image.” Once you see it, you can’t UN-SEE it either.

Yet as I’m tearing up students’ essays on O Pioneers!, lamenting over the same, woeful arguments about the connection between Alexandra Bergson and the land (“Why is that connection important? Whyyyyy?”), I find that I’m struggling with the very same issue in my own proposal for my final project in UWP 270 (the class for which I’m writing many of these very blog entries):

SO WHAT?

I got jazzed about an idea earlier this morning.

My thinking began with considering the very broad notion of “self-representation” in online writing. For my undergraduate thesis, I wrote about contemporary travel narratives and, since then, I’ve been interested in reading popular narrative nonfiction writing (I happen to love books that play around with conceptions of “truth;” how do we KNOW that what’s written is “true” even if the jacket cover tells us it’s true?). Therefore, exploring how nonfiction narratives are created online seemed like a rather natural fit, right?

Of course, this topic is quite broad. If I had been writing this paper a few years ago, this may have been easier: I could have focused my efforts on online diary writing (via Xanga, LiveJournal, DeadJournal). Yet with the ubiquity of social media, the rise in blogging platforms (like this very WordPress blog!), and the acceptance of the blog as a kind of professionalizing medium (I mean, everyone wants their blog to become the next Julie and Julia franchise!), no longer are “blogs” necessarily devoted to mellifluous narrative wanderings. Au contraire, they vary from middle school Justin Bieber fandom sites to middle-aged moms baking tips blogs to simple a stream of amusing image sharing.

Naturally, I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed. Do I choose one community of the “blogosphere?” If so, which community do I choose and how do I explore “narrative” within that community?

Note that the additional challenge here is conceptualizing a project that is not based on a TEXT per se, but rather a body of texts or a cultural phenomenon. With my background in English I’m much more comfortable with and attuned to critical writing that pays attention to small, textual detail and that is based in theoretical understanding. I have to actually think about this wacky thing called “pedagogical connection!”

So, I just started looking at friends’ blogs, reading their posts, trying to note trends (any trends!) in self-representation. I didn’t find much. I think my own anxieties emerged as I scrolled to the bottom of each of their pages and tried to see whether they designed their own pages or whether they used a template.

Much to my surprise, I discovered that most of my friends don’t seem to tinker with code very much. Heck, look at me: I’m using a template on this blog, too.

To me, that begged the question: are we at all afraid of our template reliance? Is there any anxiety in “blogosphere” about “handing over” the appearance of their page to the whims of another designer? This is a source of some anxiety for me (though, as a non-visual thinker, it’s yet another overwhelming task for me to consider design, even though I know it’s important).

Anxious to discuss this idea, I e-mailed my professor and then I called my Dad.

… That’s when the big, looming “So what” monster emerged from the dust bunnies. My Dad asked one simple question:

“Who cares?”

Why SHOULD most bloggers care about controlling the appearance of their blog to the extent that a tecchie or a graphic designer would? If the content that they write is “safe” and the template they use is attractive enough, why do they need to have complete control? After all, we hire car mechanics to fix our cars, plumbers to fix our plumbing, why shouldn’t we use templates to fix our design?

I heard the death rattle of a failed idea.

My father noted the defeat in my voice and apologetically asked if he had deflated my enthusiasm.

Well, yeah. But that has to happen in the research and writing process. In fact, if that doesn’t happen along the way, then you’re probably not thinking hard enough.

So, here I am at ground zero. I’ve been alternating between theoretical cyberculture texts, pedagogical composition and computing articles, and – well – blogging platforms, grasping at straws for ideas.

And throughout this whole process, the “so what” beast snarls.

Something curious to me is the juxtaposition between theoretical anxieties and pragmatic anxieties about writing in online spaces. I read the gloomiest article in The Cybercultures Reader  by Arthur and Marilouise Kroker, lamenting the “dystopic” universe that will emerge from a cyber era where reality is lost to the controls of the “machine.”

Yet no real computer user worries about these kinds of concerns. Do we really even think about the fact that we’re typing our information into a program that goes out to a network that we ultimately have no control over? I mean, do these issues of control REALLY concern the average user if we’ve not  had to fear loss of control?

What do we make of these juxtapositions? How might future digital literacy instructors address the divides between theoretical and pragmatic concerns in cyberspace?

I have plenty of questions, but I’m feeling a little dizzy and cross-eyed. I just need to focus my eyes in precisely that right way to see that three-dimensional image emerge from kaleidoscopic chaos.

Offline File Sharing?

This is more of an artistic statement than anything else, but I love the idea of transplating USB ports into places “offline.’ The vision behind this project – dubbed Dead Drops – is perhaps a touch anarchistic. After all, it seems as though the prime motivation to share files in an “offline” setting is to make the sharing of pirated videos and music “safer.”

With that said, it amazes me that the artists (is that what we should call them?) behind this project seem to take for granted the way in which they see their digital lives as inextricably connected to their non-digital lives. Why shouldn’t we cement USB ports into walls? After all, if we’re carrying our laptops everywhere we go, what’s so strange about finding files in a wall, just as you might find a note left in the cracked cement of a bathroom stall?