Friend-like Entities

It’s no secret that I’m a fully-fledged, all dues paid up, member of the “uses social networking” club. Good heavens, after all, I have a paid account on LiveJournal, I’m a “pro” on Flickr, I’m on Facebook, Twitter, and more recently on Pinterest. I have a Tumblr account I never use; I’m on Google+: you name it; I’ve tried it. But my use of these services varies, and has shifted over time, and the relationships I’ve developed over the years have shifted as well. The other week, when my dog Robinson died, I had 44 comments on my Facebook post about it, 15 on LiveJournal, and more than 250 people at least viewed my WordPress post, although only 4 or 5 left comments. Three people even responded directly to Twitter, even though Twitter is considerably more ephemeral than any of the others. All the comments meant a great deal, and since then, as I have before, I’ve been thinking about the nature of all these online connections.

Susan Orlean, whom I follow on Twitter, once used the term “friend-like entities” to describe her Twitter followers, or the people she interacts with online. To her, I guess I am one of those: I follow her on Twitter, and, via her Twitter links, I read her blog for the New Yorker; I’ve responded to one or two of her posts, but she does not follow me, nor, I imagine, would she care greatly if I were to stop following her. Indeed, I’d be greatly surprised if she knows I exist. I follow several famous authors online if they post things that interest me, but although I suppose I was chuffed when Neil Gaiman “friended” me on GoodReads (oh yes, I’m on that, too), I do not consider him a “friend” any more than I imagine he does any of his thousands (millions?) of followers. Many people, especially real or would-be celebrities, use social networks more as a kind of publicity than as a form of friendship; their posts are mostly outward facing only. Although they have hundreds, even thousands, of followers, they themselves read and respond to only a small number. And it’s those reciprocal relationships that really count, that can be considered more than “friend-like entities.”

I started blogging seven or eight years ago, because I planned to make some of my students do it and thought I should do it too. My first blog was on LiveJournal, and, because I had no clue about “friending” people or attracting attention in any way, absolutely no one read the first several months worth of posts; I might as well have been writing in a private journal. And then someone who was a colleague in the English department at the time, more web-savvy than I, to whom I had mentioned my blog, friended me. And I went and looked at his “friends” and “friended” a couple of them, and then I started searching under my own interests and discovered more people, and then people started finding me through the friend network and things grew from there. Only that first colleague was someone I knew in real life, although later another colleague and now great friend hooked up with me, and a couple of students found me.

Over about the same period of time, I developed a network of contacts of Flickr, in much the same way. Someone made me a contact, greatly to my surprise, and I started following people whose work I liked, and people started following me, and so on. Flickr is a much bigger and mostly considerably less personal network than LiveJournal, although I now have several people that I would consider “real” friends through being contacts there.

The people on LiveJournal are mostly in the nature of what might, in times past, have been “pen friends,” though I could never keep up with letter-writing as I do blogging. The core group tends to be people with whom I have a number of interests in common and who now know quite a bit about me and my life. My writing on LiveJournal is personal, often locked or “friends only”; I don’t really feel comfortable having colleagues or students read my LJ posts without my permission. I have met several of my LJ friends in real life, and almost without exception have bonded instantly with them – after all, we already know eachother well through our writing. There are some people who follow me on LJ that I would not be interested in meeting, but I have no problem with them reading my personal writing perhaps for that very reason: that I am very unlikely to run across them in person. It’s strange that I feel less comfortable with people I know in real life as acquaintances reading my very personal posts than I do having complete strangers read them.

Facebook is another world altogether, in many ways less personal, though I have the widest range of relationships there. Facebook has become a kind of “one stop” network. Among my Facebook friends are some relatives, a few of my closest real-life friends, a lot of LJ friends, including all but one of those I’ve met in real life, quite a few Flickr friends, none of whom I’ve met in real life, several old school friends whom I haven’t seen in years, quite a few ex-students (but no current ones), and a wide range of colleagues from work, including my boss.

So what does all this add up to? Something, I would argue. These are more than just “friend-like entities.” Flickr and LiveJournal gave me a way to connect with the outside world in the tough years when I was caregiving my mother and hardly left home except to go to work. My friends on LiveJournal helped keep me sane then, and helped me through the lonely grieving process after my mum died. Now, even though I have a much richer and more fulfilling “real” life, those LiveJournal and Flickr contacts remain and continue to sustain me. I may have never met Emily or Julie or Francesca or Sherwood or Jeremy or Leslie or Criz or Terry, but I’d like to. It pleases me greatly that ex-students on Facebook pop up to tell me that they think about me when they read something or announce proudly that they’ve published an article. I enjoy sharing teaching ideas and jokes with my colleagues. It meant something to me that forty-four people sent me virtual hugs and sympathy on Facebook when my dog died. It means something to know that someone might notice if I didn’t post for a while, or that someone stops in my office to check that I’m ok because I posted that I was blue one evening. They may be in a virtual space, but these are human connections.

Profound Gifts

It takes a lot of courage to love an animal. How many human relationships do we enter into in the full knowledge that we will lose them in ten, twelve, fifteen, maybe twenty years (if we’re very lucky)? Yet when we bring pets into our lives, loss is part of the contract.

One of my specialties as an academic is Romanticism, and one of the things that I appreciate in Romantic poetry is the idea of Romantic irony: that sense that everything is fleeting, that we stand up in the world and love something beautiful in the full knowledge that beauty and our own lives are impermanent. That knowledge invokes a bitter-sweet melancholy that “dwells in beauty / Beauty that must die.” When I teach Romantic irony, I use the analogy of pet ownership. Don’t we, in some ways, love our dogs and our cats more because we know we can’t keep them forever?

I saw my dog, Robinson, for the first time when he was seven days old and I could hold him in the palm of my hand. He was two months shy of his 15th birthday yesterday when he died with his head on my lap while I stroked his ears and told him he was the best dog in the world. The last few months of his life were tinged with a bitter-sweetness. He was faltering and frail. When I took him for his short walks, even his shadow seemed fragile under the street lights. When people asked me how he was doing, I said “hanging in there.” He was eating well, all his bowel and bladder functions were normal, he seemed to enjoy his little walks, though getting up from the floor was increasingly difficult and he was increasingly blind and almost deaf. The deafness was in some ways a blessing – last year was the first Halloween that he didn’t get sick from fear of the noise.

Then, Friday afternoon, he tripped on something on the boulevard and fell over. He lay on his side and really didn’t seem to want to get up again. When we got home he went to his bed and curled up tightly, back arched and nose tucked in, as if to say “leave me alone; I don’t want to get up again.” He woke me in the night, wanting to pee, and as I watched him slip and stumble on the deck in the wan moonlight, I realized that this was enough. I was not going to wait until he stopped eating or lost control of his bladder. I was going to set him free.

Robinson was the fifth animal I have taken to be euthanized. Every time, it has been a profound and beautiful experience, though painfully sad. Every one has been a little different. Robinson gave two great, deep, sighs and flopped over, so relaxed that I realized he must have been suffering more than I guessed.

And today, I am grieving, grieving as one does for someone or something that one has loved deeply and with a full heart. And grief is cold, and grief is bitter, and grief is an aching emptiness that goes from the top of my head to the soles of my feet. But grief is also the tribute that I pay to Robinson, that I give him to show that his life mattered, that his loss leaves a void in my life that will never be filled again. Grief is the repayment that I give to the universe for the beauty of Robinson’s life, the joy he gave me, the pleasure I took in our walks, in watching him play, in his companionship. I cried yesterday until my head ached and my eyes swelled almost shut. I am crying now.

But my grief now will not stop me from entering into another short-term contract of life with another animal. I already know that I will want another dog. Probably another beardie, like Robinson, and his uncle Cholmondeley, who died around this time of year four years ago and for whom I can still cry sometimes. I have lived with a dog or dogs all my life and cannot imagine life without them. I have two cats, whom I also love, but a relationship with a cat is not quite the same as one with a dog. I understand those people who have lost an animal and say they can never go through that pain again. I understand, but I am not one of them. Loving an animal takes a lot of courage, but it is a profound gift that I want to reach out for and take with both hands and a full heart.

backlit dogs

“Likes” is so Inadequate

Facebook is so strange.

I’m on it because, well, basically I’ve tried everything, and FB does seem to be quite a nice way of keeping up to date with “RL” friends and relatives, or to see another side of some acquaintances from other social networks like Flickr or LJ.

But it is very strange.

For example, I’m always rather disconcerted when someone “likes” it when someone else posts about something bad. You know: I post that one of my dogs died, and so-and-so “likes this.” I mean, I know they don’t like it, they are not pleased about my misfortune; what they really mean is “expressing sympathy” or “I feel for you.” So why can’t we have a range of responses? A drop-down menu with other possibilities like “empathizes” or “sympathizes” or “is sorry” or “is angry”? There isn’t even a “dislike” button, for heaven’s sake.

And don’t get me started on Farmville…

Thoughts on the Shadow Scholar

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently published this article, written under a pseudonym, by someone who makes a (rather good) living writing papers for students who cheat.

He accuses us (we teachers) of being ignorant of how much of this goes on. In fact, I was perfectly well aware that such services exist; you only have to Google any vaguely academic topic and after Wikipedia usually a high percentage of the top ten entries are links directly to a term-paper factory.

What is more disturbing is the somewhat accusatory tone:

I live well on the desperation, misery, and incompetence that your educational system has created.

This is like the criminal blaming the system, and, as in many criminal cases, there is probably some truth to it. We create pressures and perhaps do not adequately provide means for students to meet and handle those pressures.

I liked the example he gave of the “rich kids,” who are learning to do what they will spend their lives doing: pay someone else to provide a service for them.

This comment is perhaps a greater cause for concern:

Last summer The New York Times reported that 61 percent of undergraduates have admitted to some form of cheating on assignments and exams. Yet there is little discussion about custom papers and how they differ from more-detectable forms of plagiarism, or about why students cheat in the first place.

Custom papers do not make it impossible to detect cheating: of course we know that the student who can barely string two words together in an email did not write that smooth, coherent, intelligently argued paper. But how to prove it? Sometimes, if confronted, a student will break down and admit it. But often they do not. What are we to do?

Students hate in-class work, but often that is the only way to control whether or not the work is original.

I believe that we need to change our assignments, and to change the way we measure student success, but it feels like an endless problem. And cheating is not limited to colleges and universities: look at the Olympic athletes, already in the top of their field, already performing at a higher level than most mere mortals, who feel that they “have” to take performance-enhancing drugs in order to “compete.”

Indeed, I believe it is “competition,” and perhaps, at risk of sounding like a rampaging socialist, our market-driven society, that is pushing people to cheat. Colleges and universities are only the places that institutionalize the system. If the academic institutions were once again the places where people came to explore ideas, to learn, to express creativity, instead of credential factories, perhaps there would be fewer students willing to get those credentials by any means necessary.

The Invisible Curriculum

The other night, one of my students told me that I had made the most incredible comment on his essay, the best comment he’d ever had from a prof. No, I hadn’t told him that his essay was the best I’d ever read or that his use of the semi-colon was sophisticated. I had simply remarked that I used to drink at the same shabby-genteel, ever-so-slightly seedy bar that he mentioned in his essay.

Sometimes things like that just make us real to our students, and it’s connections like that that I think James M. Lang is talking about in his very interesting piece The Invisible Curriculum. He writes about the importance of personal contact, of the way we can stop in the middle of a lecture or a lesson and interject some comment about life and teach something personal.

I love little personal moments with my students; they are one of the things that make teaching such a wonderful profession. On the other hand, I am quite shy and sometimes find it difficult to initiate conversations or to reach students who are themselves a bit reserved. I’ve occasionally been told by students in evaluations that I play favourites, and this troubles me, because I don’t, but I can understand how sometimes staying aloof from one student but laughing and joking with another could be easily misinterpreted. Perhaps this is a lesson in the “invisible curriculum” for me: that I have to work hard to make sure all my students are included. It’s not enough to admit to the whole class that I’m a hopeless Buffy fan, I need to try to reach each individual on some personal level, too.

Butterflies and Glee

No, not that Glee; the emotional one. I love this time of year, and, for me, as I’m sure it is for many or most in my profession, this is the true “New Year.” January? Who needs it – it’s the dead of winter. No, the new year begins in September, with the energy of new courses, new students, new opportunities. A clean slate.
I love the enthusiasm of new students. Nervousness, but a resolution to study hard, to keep up with the readings, to stretch their minds and imaginations.
I love my own enthusiasm. Rested after the summer, fired with new ideas, maybe new courses (and for me, this year, there is a brand new course), meeting new colleagues.
How long can I make this energy last? I hope I can keep on top of the dreaded marking load, keep the momentum going. I know that when I sustain my own energy and focus, those are the terms that are the most memorable, the ones that I’ll look back on and smile. And every new September there’s that chance to make this term memorable.
Oh, and the butterflies? Is there any teacher alive who doesn’t suffer just a bit of stage-fright at this time of year, too?

My Heavenly Library

Today, in one of those “questions” memes on my Other Blog, I asked a friend to tell me what would be in a library in heaven, where any book you could imagine exists, even ones never written. She wants all the poetry Keats would have written if he’d lived to be eighty-five (me too!), and the books her cats would write about living with her (I love that idea).

I’d like the real sequels to The Lord of the Rings, not all the stuff Christopher Tolkien cobbled together to make money out of.

I’d like more novels by Virginia Woolf, the diaries of Sylvia Plath that Ted Hughes burned, the plays of Shakespeare’s sister.

I’d like a sequel to Fire & Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, and to have books by authors who have Gone Off not Gone Off (if you know what I mean).

Oh, and I’d also have Seasons 2 – 12 of Firefly, Season 8 – ? of Buffy and at least Season 6 of Angel.

Sunday Rant – A Plea for the New Media

Are there any Math teachers out there who still refuse to use a calculator? Who still use a slide-rule and memorize times-tables?

To me, that’s the same as the way many of my colleagues, not just in my department, but everywhere, seem to be in a state of denial about the importance of new developments in web technology to what and how we teach.

I admit that I was an early adopter; I jumped all over the web when it was all server-based and clunky and before YouTube and Twitter and Facebook and Wikipedia. And I can understand that anyone whose first contact with all this was back then when it was server-based and clunky might have been put off wanting to try it again. But still.

One of the most valuable benefits of all the new Web 2.0 social software sites has been the ability to develop world-wide networks sharing information, pedagogies, material. Well, at least, for some. In vain, I’ve been searching for my “PLN” – my personal learning network. Oh, there are academics and professionals out there. Historians appear to be all over the web – medievalists for gosh sakes! Librarians are all over it. K-12 people are all over it. Writers – mostly working writers rather than writing teachers – are all over it. ESL teachers are all over it. So my Twitter feed is full of historians, librarians, K-12 and ESL teachers, and some writers and ed-tech people (though many of them tend to focus rather too much on the technology and not on the content). But where are the college or university level writing teachers? The literature profs?

A large part of it, I think, is workload. Many of us are just so busy that the thought of learning something quite new is daunting.

But – pssst – guys! This stuff is EASY. If you can use Microsoft Word, which you all can, you can do this.

But another large part of it, I think, and here I may be in danger of stepping on some people’s toes, so forgive me in advance, is … elitism. Snobbery.

There’s this perception that it’s all brainless and shallow and produced by and for the unwashed “masses” and is therefore beneath the notice of those of us who read the Globe and Mail (paper edition) and read only Booker prize nominated novels. It’s all about dumbing down and reduction and therefore should be resisted with all our intellectual strength. Oh, yeah, our kids are all on Facebook and into that Twitter thing and writing fanfiction, but there’s no need for us to dirty our hands with it…

But you know what? There’s some brilliant stuff out there! Denying that it’s there is like refusing to watch any television because much of it is stupid. Don’t dismiss as silly the “Twitterization” of literature – think about its potential for our teaching! The new media is not about the death of literacy and critical thinking, it’s about the growth of universal literacy. It’s about the ability to collaborate and share and create and publish at a rate unimaginable even ten years ago. It’s about recognizing that the ways we read and write and publish are changing and are going to change even more – and it’s going to happen probably within our professional lifetimes. We are going to have to rethink our ideas about copyright and – yes – plagiarism and originality. Students are going to need the critical skills to help them wade through the information overload, to help them sort out good from bad. And, just as the birth of the calculator meant that students no longer had to waste their time doing the “grunt” work of mathematics, so, potentially, does the new media technology mean that students can concentrate on higher thinking skills: synthesis, critical analysis.

But only if we teach them how. And we need to know the tools ourselves before we can teach our students.

ETA: look what appeared in my Twitter feed, quite by chance, just after I posted this:

Weekend? What weekend?

Another thing I dislike* about my wonderful, chosen, profession as a college teacher is the fact that I can rarely enjoy a day off during term time. There is always homework: marking, prep, reading. Or thinking about homework. Even when I make time to do something else, the work that needs to be done is percolating in the back of my brain, nudging me, making me feel guilty about walking the dogs or taking photographs or working in the garden.

When I was in grad school the second time around, while continuing to work at least half time, I worked out a system whereby I did as much school work as I could, morning, afternoon and evening for six days a week but always reserved Sundays for myself. That worked well, but I don’t seem to have the energy these days for evenings, so the work time bleeds into the day that should be “off.”

Oh well, in another ten years or so I can retire… and probably then, I’ll complain about not having enough to do 🙂

*Sorry for the moans today and yesterday, but I’m feeling a bit tired and under the weather…


I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the heart’s affections and the truth of the imagination (John Keats)

My creative writing students are a passionate bunch, and many of them are activists and advocates of causes. Last night, I asked them to think about things they are _not_ certain of, because they seem so confident in their beliefs, and I like to get them to mix things up a bit.

That, of course, made me wonder about what I AM certain of…

I am certain of warmth, and light, and laughter
I am certain of bread, and wine, and clear water
I am certain of friendship
I am certain of the love of my animals, of the new growth of plants in springtime, of the heat of the sun.
I am certain of poetry, of beauty, of the possibility of joy
I am certain of cruelty, of injustice, of humanity’s potential for brutality,
But I am also certain of redemption, of hope,

of love.