Walden in Real Life

Picture this: You’re a college student going into your second semester of sophomore year. You’ve registered for a few different 300-level English classes, all fulfilling different requirements. You’re excited to take an English class where you don’t read all eighteenth-century literature, because how many of those texts can you actually read before it gets a little old? You look at the required materials for your Digital Humanities class and one of the books is titled “Walden.” You have no idea what this means… is it a person? place? idea? You soon find out that it is the name of a pond surrounding the home of where the author of the book lives in semi-isolation.

Going into ENGL 340 where much of the course’s focus is on Walden, I thought it was quite unrealistic to live in the woods in a small cabin, being almost completely self-sufficient. Picturing myself in this situation, I’m sure I would be able to manage growing and preparing food to keep me alive, and finding some activities to keep me entertained. However, knowing myself and I rely on socializing to keep me busy, I could only do this for so long before I would become bored and get in my own head from feeling overwhelmingly alone with my thoughts. Thankfully, this was something that someone else did and not me. To each their own, right?

The last day of class before Spring Break, I was feeling extremely unmotivated and was considering not going to class, but I chose to go anyway. Little did I know, that would be the last day of ENGL 340 I would go to, but not because of my own choices. I think a lot of my other peers in the class were feeling the same lack of motivation that I was, seeing how there were few students in attendance. Towards the end of class, I got Twitter notification on my phone with a headline somewhere along the lines of “Governor Cuomo says that all SUNY schools will learn remotely for the rest of the school year.” I kept this to myself as I was still in shock that this could actually be real. About a minute later, one of my classmates, Leila, announced to the class the same thing that I had just seen.

Everyone in the class started asking questions out loud like “Is this actually real?” or “I live in Long Island, how am I just supposed to pack up and leave?” At the time, we didn’t actually know if the school would send us all home. I had some hope that we might be able to stay in the dorms and do our work there and just not go to class. The entire rest of the day was chaotic. Staff members didn’t know what was going on and there were so many rumors going on, I didn’t know what to believe. As an RA myself, I had concerned residents asking me what was actually going on and what they were supposed to do. I had to tell them that I didn’t know myself and that we would have to wait to receive word from the school about the next steps.

Eventually, it seemed like the school had reached a settled plan that students could go home for Spring Break and return if they notified their Area or Residence Director that they planned on coming back. There were also the options to stay at school during the break and for the rest of the semester or to go home completely. I planned on either staying for break with my friends who lived far away and didn’t want to travel back and forth, or to go home and return to school after break. Either way, I was just relieved at the time that I wouldn’t have to live at home and I could come back to school and still spend time with my friends, even if we couldn’t attend classes or have a normal rest of the semester.

To my surprise, when I was home at the beginning of break, I received an email saying I had to return to school, gather my belongings, and move out of my dorm room completely. I immediately texted my friends wondering if they saw it, too. A few days later, I drove back to Geneseo, moved out of my room, and said goodbye to my few friends and fellow staff members in my building. I had no idea that my life for the next few months would turn into a living example of what I had read about in Walden.

I guess what I can say I learned from all this is to “never say never,” because truly anything can happen. Also, I think it’s an important lesson to not believe everything you hear, because the news makes mistakes, too and rumors can spread quickly, especially in a time like this. I never thought that such a unique situation as Thoreau’s would ever become a reality I would live myself, but now I can appreciate Walden in my own new way. In the end, being quarantined wasn’t the worst thing that’s ever happened to me, but it has had a significant impact on the way I view life and even the ‘humanities’ as we have talked about the various meanings of this concept in class. At then end of the day, I guess it’s pretty cool that I got to live out my own 2-month-long episode (and counting) of one of my favorite shows: The Twilight Zone !

Changing Perspectives on English

Over the duration of this Digital Humanities course so far, the way I view English as a language and subject, literature, and reading have all changed in different ways when I compare my new perspective to past experiences I have had with these concepts. I used to only see English for reading and writing it. However, the inclusion of Humanities in this English course taught me that there is much more to English than just reading poetry or prose and writing essays based on analysis. Although there are educational benefits to these types of English classes, it is more relatable to apply the concepts of the Humanities in a digital form as this relates more to the world we live in currently.

I have learned that annotating is a significant part of reading and writing. It helps to keep track of your thoughts, ideas, questions, and connections to the text. Something that Digital Humanities has contributed to the way I go about doing this is by using an online journal to organize the things I have learned throughout the course and ideas I have about what I am reading in the various texts. It has been helpful to learn how to use VS Code and go about keeping all of my journals in a folder that I could later submit and share with others on GitHub, which is another platform I learned how to use and push files to. This very blog post is a new experience for me as I have never used this type of platform to organize my thoughts surrounding these new considerations of the Humanities and share them with my peers.

In terms of literature, I only wrote essays and research papers on what I read in my previous English classes. After taking ENGL 340, I know there is a greater variety of ways to analyze what I read including journals, timelines, and examining the reoccurrence of words in a text in order to decide which words are significant and which are stop words. It was also different to look at various versions of books like we did with Walden. A lot of times, we don’t consider anything other than the book we are reading, but there is so much more to the process of writing than the published book in our hands. There is a long process of adding new ideas and narrowing down or taking things out that may not belong or may not pertain the the interests of readers. It was a change to consider just how different one version of a book can be from another and to think about the reasons each change might be. I learned that literature can incorporate Humanities and the ways our lives have changed over time based on technology, communication, what we prioritize, etc.

This class opened my eyes to more genres of literature outside of what I typically read. My other English classes involve reading 18th-century English literature and African novels, folklore, and even art as this is also a form of literature. The readings for this class have very different content than books like “The Information” and “Walden” do as there is less emphasis on the plot and literary elements, with more of a focus on the concepts, history, and the way the ideas about technology and the humanities make you think about your own life and experiences. The books read in ENGL 340 gave me a new perspective on what literature can ‘be’ as what “qualifies” can often be misread of undermined. Although not all parts of the course were based on reading and writing, we still used concepts of studying English and using resources like our own technology (computers) to share our ideas and consider our individual thoughts about humanity, technology, and how this has developed over the course of history.

As the entire world is in a unique situation with the threat of COVID-19, this course has had even more of an impact on my view of the world around me, especially being a college student learning remotely. It has caused me to reflect on the impact of technology on my life and how different things are when it comes to staying connected when you are being asked to stay away from them to prevent the spread of the virus. The way news and information has been shared regarding the coronavirus has also changed the way I see technology and the concepts involved with the Humanities. I will never be able to view life the same as I did before living through this pandemic, but this doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. Instead, I can remember this time of struggle as a learning experience to influence how I continue to live my life and interact with those around me, as well as how I consider what I have to appreciate about what resources I have to get me through such a difficult and trying time.

Electricity and Ethnicity in The Information

In James Gleick’s, “The Information,” various aspects of technology are discussed in relation to the humanities as this has changed from the past into what can be observed in modern day. Chapter 5 of the book depicts the Earth having a nervous system as is indicated by the chapter’s title, “A Nervous System for the Earth.” One focus of this chapter is the concept of electricity and how each new technological discovery develops: “The analogy linked one perplexing phenomenon with another. Electricity was an enigma wrapped in mystery verging on magic, and no one understood nerves, either. Nerves were at least known to conduct a form of electricity and thus, perhaps, to serve as conduits for the brain’s control of the body” (Gleick 126). Gleick’s comparison of one of the most important function of the body to the capabilities of electricity is a concept to consider as both relate to the daily lives of humans everywhere. Our bodies have such advanced ways of carrying out their many functions, just as technology contributes to the ways humanity interacts and changes over time.

Although the concept of humanities can relate to a broad range of different ideas, there are some that directly relate to computation and the increase in development of humanistic principles and morals. One question that may arise in the process of reading a book like “The Information” is whether or not the tools we create as developing humans change who we are. It is potential that new discoveries and developments have altered the values and morals that humans have collectively. Each culture that humans belong to has different aspects, but most of the world has quickly adapted to new technologies as they have come into play. New technologies also have the potential to dictate the interests held by different generations and groups of people. For example, in today’s world humans are consumed by cell phones and social media platforms. Though this greatly enhances the way humans communicate, it simultaneously takes away from face-to-face interaction and how genuine a conversation has the potential to be.

The effects of electricity and communication being related are also portrayed through the sense of nature: “But lightning did not say anythingーit dazzled, crackled, and burned, but to convey a message would require some ingenuity. In human hands, electricity could hardly accomplish anything, at first. It could not make a light brighter than a spark. It was silent. But it could be sent along wires to great distancesーthis was discovered earlyーand it seemed to turn wires into faint magnets. Those wires could be long: no one had found any limit to the range of electric current. It took no time at all to see what this meant for the ancient dream of long-distance communication” (128). Gleick makes the point that a natural phenomena such as lightning could not make a significant technological impact on its own, but through the involvement and work of humans, electricity would eventually lead to the creation of an essential advancement for the ability of mankind to grow. People are able to share their thoughts and ideas as far as they could possibly travel.

An important and undermined idea to consider when it comes to the effects of technology and its contribution to communication is how this can change the way literature from different cultures is preserved and continues to be shared. African scholar Isidore Okpewho advocates for this idea in his writing of “African Oral Literature: Backgrounds, Character, and Continuity.” In this book he discusses the importance of dismantling preconceived notions about the intelligence of “primitive” cultures in terms of oral storytelling. He expresses how oral literature provides a new perspective of the culture to individuals who are not aware through an engaging manner as opposed to other works of literature. Okpewho portrays how improper methods of collecting pieces of African oral literature has caused stylist merits to be lost. Overall, he encourages readers to keep an open mind when it comes to oral literature and the importance of being okay with things that are uncomfortable and new, outside of what we are used to reading. That is the only way to truly understand and appreciate the complex nature of African oral storytelling. If done correctly, it has the ability to add a voice to characters that standard Eurocentric literature cannot successfully portray. As a result, the history of past cultures can be preserved and shared with current and future generations as there are many important values to be considered that are still relevant to our world today. Humankind can improve their overall functioning and quality of life through the many benefits that are associated between technology and communication as this helps us communicate both old and new ideas among various ethnicities, continuously growing within our diverse societies.