Being Among Strangers

In the city, we are among strangers all the time. Not only are we among them, our bodies are colliding. We touch them on the subway, our thighs smashed together on plastic seats, our strap-hanging hands searching for purchase accidentally grab a stranger’s, our shoulders bracing against other shoulders, chests, rib cages, armpits. On the street we bump into each other with barely a notice. Sometimes our collisions cause packages to fall out of arms or elicit a grunt, but rarely do we bother to stop; a hurried “sorry” seems enough. In a crowded bar or coffee shop, we jockey for a seat, a place to claim for laptop, book, or writing pad. We might politely ask the person who has taken an extra seat to store winter garments, “excuse me, do you need this?” pointing at the stool heaped with clothing and feel a hint of smug happiness in their shame for having dared to take two places. Being among all these strangers gives us an opportunity to learn about interaction, behavior, habit, and quirk. It forces us to think about our own bodies in space. As we observe what irritates us as it comes from all these other bodies, we wonder, “Do I have an annoying laugh? Am I that loud? Do I also list to the right when walking down the street?” If we are paying attention, being among strangers offers us the luxury of feeling every inch of ourselves and knowing that our bodies affect all the other bodies around us. Being among strangers gives us the chance to develop patience and care for others. It can be meditative.

It is this potential for meditation that I find most interesting. It is in the “being” that we locate the present moment, the moment in which we must exist in order to let ourselves be free and light. Lately, I have used the many moments of contact with strangers to be a moment of meditation. If someone bumps into me a bit too roughly, I try only to think about the feeling of the contact on my body, rather than let my mind feel irritation or even rage. It is not easy. Not all moments of contact with strangers lead to bliss (most don’t), but they all lead to awareness of how I am in the world, and, for me, that is the most important lesson.

Next week, my class will begin working on a paper about injustices observed in every day contexts. It is easy to look at others and judge their behavior as unjust. However, I believe emphasizing to my students that they also must consider how they are in the world, how their bodies move through this massive city’s tight corridors, and how they must share these spaces with others will draw out more introspective writing about what’s fair and what is not.


Becoming a Digital Citizen from Hyperlinks to Audience Recognition to Fact Checking

After a handful of glitches and access issues, the students in my composition courses are all finally participating on our course blog. First, I had them do a practice post in which they responded to one of the readings for the week by choosing one quote they believed to be the heart of the essay and analyzing it. While this sort of writing isn’t the most thrilling to read, it’s crucial for students in the early stages of critical analysis to practice. So, I knew I would have 32 posts of similar length and with similar claims. However, having them do this kind of post first, taught me two valuable lessons that will affect how I approach everything from now on.

1) They don’t read each others’ writing.
2) They think there is one “right” answer.

Many of the students chose the same essay, and most of these analyzed the same passage from that essay. This indicates that they weren’t looking at what their classmates had said in the posts that appeared before theirs or that they figured that what she or he said before had to be the thing the teacher was looking for. One of the reasons I decided to move off of Blackboard for discussions was to provide a more attractive and user friendly interface that I hoped would encourage more browsing and skimming through content. Now that I can tell that either they aren’t reading each others’ work or they are hesitant to offer a unique perspective, I’m asking them to go back and comment on at least 3 posts from the current batch.

The current batch’s prompt asked them to write a review of Tom Hooper’s 2010 film The King’s Speech in which they engaged with an online film review from any source. In addition to using another reviewer as a reference, they had to hyperlink to that piece in a way that made sense to the flow of their analysis. While I would imagine many people know how to insert a hyperlink into text, I am learning that not even the smallest aspects of digital literacy should be assumed as known. My first year composition students were born on or about 1995 (my junior year of High School!), and even though they have grown up with screens in front of their eyes, being a strong digital citizen requires learning all the little building blocks…like how to hyperlink. 

While some instructors would have set restrictions on such an assignment, like asking students to find a “reputable source,” I gave them freedom to choose any review as long as it could be hyperlinked. One of the strongest benefits I believe came out of such freedom was that their writing engages directly with the reviewer and his or her work; thus, my students are becoming aware of audience by the knowledge that this other person could very well read their work and respond to it. Removing the notion that they’re writing for their teacher creates a key difference in the outcomes and allows for them to begin to develop the voice that goes with their online presence. Secondly, they were responsible for evaluating the validity of their source acknowledging that within their own writing without my imposition. By assessing internet material in this way, they are learning that one needs to be conscientiously fact-checking as one reads all the time. For example, one student cited a review that confused Nick Nolte for Geoffrey Rush (shocking!), which brought to our attention that we shouldn’t take the digital word for truth.

With all this in mind, I am participating in our course’s online community too. While it is, of course, important that I remain in front of them in the physical classroom as an authority figure, I believe it’s valuable to contribute to the conversations they’re having online…something that was just too wonky in Blackboard. So, off I go to comment on more reviews!

Adventures in DH: Course Blogs

There are two words you can say to me that will elicit emotional extremes ranging from excitement to panic to downright petrification. They are: Digital Humanities. Now, as a PhD candidate in literature, I hear these two words tossed over the cubicle walls in my department all day long. My Twitter feed smacks me in the face with DH every time I happen to take a glance. My roommate even says these words to me just to see which response they’ll elicit so she can gauge my mood. Part of this emotional extremism comes from the fact that I didn’t know I was supposed to know anything about DH this time last year. It was only when a colleague of mine asked how I was going to field the dreaded DH question during job interviews that I started to see what Cathy N. Davidson calls “the gorilla on the basketball court.” (For more on that gorilla, see Davidson’s Now You See It [Penguin 2011]) The point is, I’m learning really fast that digital pedagogies are not so scary; really, they are varied and exciting, and even a non-tech person like me can offer a digitally rich composition or literature course. 

Spring semester has just begun, and I have launched my first course blog. I’ll be posting tidbits about what works and what doesn’t in hopes of having a record of my process and as a way to open up a conversation with those of you who want to get digital in your classrooms and research or who are seasoned and have advice to share. 

Not a single one of my 32 composition students this semester has ever blogged, posted on someone else’s blog, or even commented on a newspaper/magazine article online. This surprises me beyond belief. But, now I know that what I am about to do will teach them how to be strong digital humanists in this growing community. Once they (and I) feel stable, we’ll go public, so stay tuned!