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):
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:
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.