Sunday, May 20, 2007

The Place Where We Dwell

For the last few days, I’ve been attending the 2007 Computers and Writing conference, held this year at Wayne State University in Detroit. The theme was “virtual urbanism,” a phrase taken from a Geoffrey Sirc article in Computers and Composition in 2001. For a panel called The Place Where We Dwell, I presented the following:

Virtual urbanism? Let’s bust down that wall.

No, not Geoffrey Sirc’s walls. His “actual humans” are already doing that through a “virtual urbanism” different from the one I’m imagining. No. For I am talking about the wall between the “urban” and the “virtual” that exists in a completely different place.

Last night, after returning to the dorm, filled with the enthusiasm of Richard Doyle’s talk “The Wiki Is the Message,” I browsed a bit in the book that inspired this morning’s panel, my colleagues’ Juanita But and Mark Noonan’s anthology The Place Where We Dwell: Reading and Writing About New York City. I landed almost immediately on the poet we in Brooklyn insist is our own—though he would have insisted he belongs to everyone—Walt Whitman. As I do, I skimmed the poem, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” that had attracted me—I know it well—and then looked next door, at the poem on the previous page. It was another Whitman, but one that we in Brooklyn see as something of a betrayal, for it is called “Mannahatta.” Its first lines struck me as perfect for this talk:

I was asking for something specific and perfect for my city.
Whereupon lo! upsprang the aboriginal name.

Now I see what there is in a name, a word, liquid, sane, unruly, musical, self-sufficient.

Now that’s what we’re all about, isn’t it, when we teach composition? Getting our students “to see what there is in a name, a word”?

Thing is, we often try to do this by emasculating the word, taking away from it all that is “liquid, sane, unruly, musical, self-sufficient,” creating a virtual world where every word stays put on command (its liquidity frozen), obeys all our commands (surely a sign of insanity—only in imagination is the world so obedient), marches only to our martial beat (‘thump, thump, thump… viva l’emperor’), and has become dependent upon us.

Sometimes, when I look out from the window of a classroom, from our artificial, virtual world, I think of e.e. cummings and his “there’s a hell of a good universe next door; let’s go” and realize that such a universe is only a few feet away.

Which brings me back to Whitman.

And to links.

I adore links.

When I first started using the Web for research, I was scared to death that the serendipity I had depended on for so long in library stacks—like Doyle, who harped on this in his talk, I have long cherished the connectivity of everything, and I spend way too much time ferreting it out. Until the blogs and personal Web pages, indeed, I felt I was working in blinders, for the searches were so narrow (perforce) and the links so pedestrian, so expected. Now, however, personality has added that wonderful element of surprise.

Anyhow, I said I was getting back to Whitman, not following my own random links, here. So let me do that.

Before I unaccountably spiraled out of its orbit, I was a moon of the planet Literature, circling around, trying to pull random comets and asteroids—also known as ‘students’—into that orbit. As I wanted them to see that this planet I circled was real and not simply the artificial, virtual world of my words, I would turn to Whitman’s words, letting him build the vision for me:

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

Now, I’ve done this myself: I wandered away from academia in 1988—until I did, to my surprise, find I’d accidentally stumbled back inside, something more than thirteen years later—the barrier I had seen or imagined or invented (or had stolen from Whitman)—magically having disappeared.

Town and gown: it’s a myth we need to work to break down, for it does none of his any good. All it does is help keep up the image of the university virtual and not real.

But that’s not the only mythological barrier real enough to need tearing down.

In the May, 2007 Harper’s is an article by Gideon Lewis-Kraus entitled “A World in Three Aisles: Browsing the Post-Digital Library” on a couple of rogue librarians, Rick Prelinger and Megan Shaw Prelinger. They believe that “the conflict between a so-called digital culture and a so-called print culture is fake; they think we should stop celebrating or lamenting the discontinuous story of how the circuits will displace the shelves, and start telling a continuous story about how the two might fit together” (47).

“A continuous story about how the two might fit together.” And not just that pair—almost any two. Doyle challenges his students to show there is no fit between two random links they have chosen. They can’t.

Why, then, do we continue to work through divides, even accepting one by the very fact of our classrooms that are divorced from the life of our cities and towns? Why do we merely look out upon them, stare, and then put our misconceptions into words that we then call “scholarship”? Why don’t we get out there and grapple?

We are in danger of creating a new window, a new barrier between us and our subject matter. Assuming we are in the real world—hah!—we peek into the virtual world, wondering about all that sound and fury and deciding (not you and me, of course—those others) that it all signifies nothing.

Aren’t bloggers, for example and after all, little but pajama’d isolates?

The river of the world runs through the actual, by the academy, and even into the virtual. All are on the same bank. They are, in this sense, all one and the same.

We need to treat them this way, not isolating them either through interest or disdain. Our cities, our towns, our farms, and our forests are part and parcel of our Web pages—or the other way around. They are distinct, but not divided.

Only when we keep this in mind, only when we remember that “the place where we dwell” has many actual, many virtual aspects—and that none precludes the other but augments the other—do we really begin to provide the education we can.

Only when we realize that the walls we see are walls put up out of our own fears will we really start to educate ourselves, let alone our students.

So let’s tear ‘em down!

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