Teaching the Homeless to Code

A friend recently shared this video with me and I couldn’t help but think of our class “tool time.”

This 23-year-old programmer is teaching a homeless man to code, a skill the man can hopefully utilize to get a job and improve his situation. One quote from the video that stuck with me was “If Patrick was teaching Leo English few would care, but coding is the language of a new American dream.” Wow. Talk about a loaded sentence! It sums up the idea that traditional writing and communication ability is no longer adequate for success. Instead, we must learn to communicate and utilize the machines and tools that are abundant in our lives. For me, the video also emphasized the importance of the tools all around us. We tend to think of them as functioning to make tasks easier, but in this case they can literally be the difference between sleeping on a park bench and having a place to call home.

The world is your oyster (and also your audience)

The sticky note upon which this post was built throughout the semester
The sticky note upon which this post was built over the course of this semester

Throughout the semester, many of us have remarked on the connections we seem to find between the courses we’re taking. Sometimes it seems like all the professors have a top secret meeting at the beginning of the semester where they compare class lists and decide on a common thread to subtly (or not so subtly!) work in so we cannot escape it. This semester it was blogging and other forms of online writing. I spent 10 weeks as a public relations and marketing intern for the Alzheimer’s Association, Rochester & Finger Lakes Chapter, which involved a lot of social media writing and learning about blogs. Naturally, I knew I’d wind up writing a blog post about it for this class. So here I am, finally trying to put all the thoughts I scribbled down on a Post-it note throughout the semester into one cohesive blog post that isn’t so long that you all go back to watching cat videos on YouTube halfway through.

Shameless promotion of the Alzheimer's Association. They do great work!
Shameless promotion of the Alzheimer’s Association. They do great work!

There are dozens of connections I could talk about in great detail, but the one aspect of online writing that had the most profound impact on me personally was the idea of writing for different audiences. It hits hardest when you realize that your “audience” happens to be a super vague concept, since anyone who is literate and can open an internet browser could read all of this. You can’t picture them because you don’t know just who they are. Starting my internship at the end of January, I had thought a lot about who I’d be writing for. I figured that this would include people with early-stage dementia, their caregivers, friends, family, and maybe a few other folks from the Rochester area who just happen to be interested in Alzheimer’s education programs and events. For this class blog, I generally go in with the mindset that I’m writing for Professor Schacht, my ENGL 340 peers, maybe some other SUNY Geneseo English students who are avoiding blog assignments for their own courses, and a few other stragglers who happen upon this page.

Who else now wishes they'd asked for a golden eagle for their 13th birthday?
Who else now wishes they’d asked for a golden eagle for their 13th birthday?

We all tailor our voice based on the digital environment in which we’re writing. My voice on here sounds much different from the one I used while writing press releases or tweets for my internship, and different still from my personal Facebook posts, such as a recent article I shared about a 13-year old eagle huntress in Mongolia, which I described as “basically the most bad ass thing you can do as a 13 year old.” Obviously that’s not something I’d put in a tweet for the Alzheimer’s Association. I would bet that most of us don’t even think about changing our voice from platform to platform; we just do it naturally.

When I did start consciously analyzing my writing with my audience in mind, it was a little overwhelming. I discovered that the Alzheimer’s Association has followers from all over the country, and all of them have varying degrees of knowledge about Alzheimer’s. They all need something different. How could I possibly write for all of these people? What is an overwhelming amount of information for one is far too little for another. As we all know, the beauty of the digital age is our interconnectedness, but that also means it’s impossible to please everyone. I thought this tied in quite nicely with the discussions we have in the margins of The Readers’ Thoreau. We interact with our classmates, students from the University of Maine, scholars, and Thoreau fans from all over. Chances are you’re bound to say something that someone else doesn’t understand. How do we even begin to broaden our writing to meet the needs of our potential readers?

An 8th grade teacher in Connecticut had his students blog for more than two months, and then gave them a survey asking how writing for a worldwide audience changed the way they write. You can read their unedited responses here. Some of my favorites include:

  • “I write what people want to hear.”
  • “I wanted to leave a good impression to the higher authorities reading my blog, therefore I wrote with enthusiasm and intelligence, and I wrote of very interesting topics that grasp the readers’ attentions.”
  • “It has changed the way I write by just being aware of what people want to see and how well done things have to be. Basically it has made me a cautious writer.”
  • “I no longer write pretentiously or just to Amerincans.”
  • “It change a major role because i am so use to writing to a teacher and having it grade it and only her and me see it, but now its a bunch o people looking at it. so it became pretty scary and at the same time fun.”
  • “It makes me think that I can acomplish great things.”
You're basically writing for the entire population of the world. No pressure!
You’re basically writing for the entire internet population of the world. No pressure!

It’s certainly some valid insight from these 8th graders. I think that bloggers of all ages have experienced a number of these hesitations, thoughts, and realizations. We can’t always write what people want to hear, but we can’t go out trolling just to rock the boat either. We want a balance and to be taken seriously. It makes us cautious and, in my experience, much more thoughtful with our writing. If people don’t understand what we’re talking about, they can look up more or go on living in blissful ignorance; it depends on how invested they are, and there’s definitely something to be said for the ability of a reader to choose. It seems to me that there’s an unspoken agreement between reader and poster. As a reader, you go in with a unique perspective. You either read deeply and thoughtfully, skim halfheartedly, or fall somewhere in between. You may never mention the thing you’re reading to anybody ever again. You might read every word or glaze over the first paragraph and leave. Our time is precious and there’s a plethora of information to be had. Why waste time on something that doesn’t interest you or that you’ll forget the next day? As writers though, I think we get it. Not everything we write is everyone’s cup of tea, and we try our best to accept that. When you have a worldwide audience there’s no way to hold everybody’s attention, so in my opinion, you might as well be true to yourself and write for the ones you will strike a chord with.

Are online skimming habits making us worse serious readers?

keep-calm-and-embrace-technology-2 (2)It seems appropriate, given the previous post about the ways in which technology helps or hinders our communication, to discuss how these new tools have also impacted the way we interpret the information we’re given. It’s nice to think that we as English majors can transition seamlessly between old and new media outlets, appreciating the feeling (and let’s not forget the smell!) of an actual tangible book while still keeping up to date with the new helpful technologies available to us. But the truth is that getting used to reading in the newer and more common formats, such as on a computer screen or smartphone, really can — and does — influence how we read “real books.”

In an article from Sunday’s Washington Post, Michael S. Rosenwald points out that our reading behavior with more serious texts has come to mimic our online, internet-surfing reading habits. One neuroscientist described this reading as “superficial” and said she worries that it is affecting us when we have to read with more in-depth processing. I’ve certainly noticed this in my own reading habits, and find it endlessly frustrating.

weapons-of-mass-distractionOn the internet, we skim. We look for important words that are of interest to us and if we can’t find them, we click on to the next page. I know I’m not alone in this. In our class discussion today someone from the group working on the Walter Harding website talked about including things like a letter from Albert Einstein to give the audience a reason to be interested and stay focused, since the eye is so easily diverted on the internet. It’s true! If we don’t immediately find something that piques our interest, we move on.

When I have important readings for class that are online, I have to close all other tabs and even use the Readability add-on that Dr. Schacht showed us earlier in the semester just to keep myself from getting distracted. It’s like my brain automatically assumes that if I’m reading on a computer monitor it must not be important, so my eyes start looking for “clickables.” To quote from Rosenwald’s article, “The brain is the innocent bystander in this new world. It just reflects how we live.” Clearly our leisurely habits are sneaking into our serious work as well.

ac4bb8a5ec3201c597967935c7ccfa94-617x411I encourage you to think about how you’ve experienced this just over the course of your time reading this blog post. You probably looked at the pictures, clicked the links to other websites (and maybe even other links on those sites), went to another tab to answer a Facebook message, and countless other things. I did all of that while writing the post too! Most of us are guilty of this habit, and that’s just what it is: a habit. We’re like little squirrels running around on the internet. Our focus is on one page until something more interesting (and not even necessarily better) comes along, at which point we leave our first focus entirely, sometimes struggling to remember how we got there in the first place. On one hand, it’s great that we have so much information readily available to us, and my guess is that there has to be a study out there somewhere regarding benefits of technology on our multitasking abilities! But when we’re so used to being bombarded with all of this, taking the time to slow down and isolate ourselves for a task without so many distractions can be a challenge.

Cold, Unsympathetic Technology

If you’re anything like me, since the moment you got word of the missing Malaysian airplane, you’ve been checking for updates every spare second you get. There were times when watching the news felt more like viewing an early episode of Lost; jets that big don’t just disappear. At least part of the mystery came to an end today when the Malaysian Prime Minister announced that authorities are “assuming beyond a reasonable doubt” that the plane went down somewhere in the Southern Indian Ocean. Upon reading this I wondered about the families of those who were on the plane, much like I have since first learning of the incident. Are they relieved to have this answer, even if it wasn’t the one they’d hoped for? In this case, is bad news really better than no news?

As I browsed articles for information, this one in particular, it didn’t take long before I read something with immediate shock value. It’s right there in the first sentence: “The families of passengers aboard the missing Malaysia Airlines jet have been sent text messages telling them that the plane has been ‘lost.'”

Text message sent to the families of those on Malasia Airlines flight 370
Text message sent to the families of those on Malaysia Airlines flight 370

Text messages?! Seriously?! These people have been in agony for weeks wondering about the fate of their loved ones, and Malaysia Airlines decides to confirm their worst fears via text message? What kind of callous person could have possibly decided that this was a good idea? Yes, informing the families of 239 passengers is a daunting task, but when it’s a disaster of this magnitude, you’d think they would take the time to do it tactfully. According to one article, most of the family members were still located in Kuala Lumpur waiting for information, and yet they received this text message only minutes before the rest of the world got the news. I couldn’t help but think of some of our discussions in class about how technology has the potential to dehumanize us.

When a loved one dies, the news is typically delivered by word of mouth, whether from a doctor, medical professional, or a closer family member. The person delivering the news is able to offer their sympathy and support and can tailor it to the person they’re telling to make it appropriate and easier if possible. Grief is one of the most basic human emotions and we rt_malaysia_family_kb_140324_16x9_608rely on sympathetic, responsive human contact to get us through. Witnesses said they heard screaming and and crying coming from rooms where the families were gathered. At least one person is reported to have fainted upon hearing the news. Communicating information through SMS message, while convenient, is not appropriate for a sensitive situation like this. I understand that the business of Malaysia Airlines is transportation, not grief counseling, and that they are likely much more concerned with bigger media matters, but as human beings they should’ve known better. It is clear from these families’ shock that they still held hope that the passengers would be found alive. Delivering what is possibly the worst news of a person’s life via text message goes against the rules of social courtesy and in my opinion shows a real lack of consideration for others’ feelings. In times like this people need to be united by the all too common experience of losing a loved one. A mass text message is a cold replacement for the warm, sympathetic hug each family member would ideally receive.

“Today, life has become long distance and automated, and it’s not going to work.”

As a bit of an afterthought, while I was still mulling over what I wanted to write, I came across this post on the “Portraits of Boston” Facebook page (for those who don’t know, it’s a photo blog much like Humans of New York). Hearing (or reading, rather) what this man had to say about how disconnected we are as humans solidified for me the problem with the text that was sent to the families of the Malaysia Airlines victims. It furthers our culture of disconnection from one another. We hear about how much technology has brought us together, but the connections it fosters are usually fairly shallow. As the man in the picture said, “people are yearning for deep human connection. When we have it, we identify with the person or people. We better connect to each other or we will become more and more dehumanized.”

Seizing the White Perimeter

In the chapter “Reading,” Thoreau writes, “…we must laboriously seek the meaning of each word and line, conjecturing a larger sense than common use permits out of what wisdom and valor and generosity we have.” Obviously the Digital Thoreau project is accomplishing this by having readers think more deeply about the meaning of Walden and start a conversation about it, and that’s a great tool. It seems particularly appropriate for a text like Walden, which we think of as more “scholarly” than something along the lines of, say, The Twilight Saga. It seeks to call you to some kind of action, rather than simply existing for its entertainment value. It’s meant to be read, meditated on, and thoroughly processed. All of this made me wonder, however, if someone could read our digital version of Walden simply to experience it without any outside influences.

Annotations are distracting and a lot of times I hate them. There, I said it. Before you skip the rest of this and tear me apart in the comments, let me just say that another part of me thinks that annotations are great tools for understanding a text. I really appreciate them the second time through when I’m ready for that information. I’ll get to that later on.

The first time I read a book, I tend to go about it in a somewhat childlike way. I’m curious, but I just want to get to the meat of the story and don’t want anybody stopping to explain what certain things mean; I can usually get past that and look them up later. Annotations disrupt my feeling that reading a book is an intimate experience between the author and myself. It’s also sometimes challenging to figure out my own opinion with everything else in the way.

The first digital book I read was The Great Gatsby on my iPad. It wasn’t a horrible experience, but I can say that the one thing I hated was seeing “3,487 people have highlighted this” next to certain sentences. This is embarrassing to admit, but I found it downright upsetting at times. Why did all those people highlight that? What’s so important there? Am I supposed to find something deeper in that sentence? ‘Cause I’m not finding anything, and I’m supposedly an English major, so obviously there’s something wrong with me. I just wanted to spend some quality time with F. Scott Fitzgerald, but 3,487 people had to come in and ruin it with their highlighting by making me doubt my own reading abilities. How could I possibly engage with the text myself when all those other readers were butting their noses in and interrupting every few pages?

Even though I didn’t always find myself moved by the things other people highlighted, I had highlighting and comments of my own stuck in there too. Andrew D. Scrimgeour writes that “The jottings we make in the books we own may well be among the highest tributes we pay to authors. They are signs of respect, signs of engagement.” It wasn’t that I wasn’t engaging with the text, I just wasn’t quite ready to engage with others yet. Scrimgeour also suggests that our marginalia reveal a lot about how we personally are engaging with texts. What better way to develop our own thoughts regarding a text? I think that sometimes we have to figure it out for ourselves first, uninhibited by others.

I haven’t had a chance to look at all the Walden annotations, but I’d guess that most of us are approaching it from an analytical perspective rather than a “Wow, I just really like this sentence that Thoreau wrote so I’m gonna mark it” angle, and for the purposes of this class, that’s good. It’s easy as English majors to forget to read for enjoyment, though. We can’t forget to entertain our less academic-sounding thoughts, such as thinking Emily Dickinson is a ninny, along with more serious reflection. The background behind how an author like Thoreau wrote (as seen in the Fluid Text edition) is obviously very important, but since it’s a text with which we’re meant to engage as readers and scholars, I’m of the opinion that our personal reactions are just as valid.

All in all, while it may be intimidating to put our thoughts out there on the digital text because we worry that what we think is wrong, if the text prompts us to think something, we’re probably not alone. The text is supposed to make us think, and those organic responses are sometimes the most interesting, in my opinion. As for getting distracted by other people’s annotations, well, there’s always an unmarked print copy available somewhere if we need it. When we’re ready to engage with others, though, a network like Digital Thoreau can’t be ignored.