26 January 2017

Teaching After Trump: What Is A Book?

When I teach courses on medieval literature and the environment, I know that there are issues that are going to intersect with contemporary politics that I have to navigate with caution. But yesterday, when it dawned on me in the middle of a class meeting that "What Is A Book?" is political, I was pretty well blind-sided.

The course looks at the transitions from manuscript to print and from print to digital, and tries to throw codicology, history of the book, and digital humanities in the air together to see what kinds of configurations stuff drops into. I've taught the course only once before, four years ago, so I'm still in a very fluid period of making stuff up as I go along.

Yesterday we were looking at the Appendix to Cathy Davidson's Now You See It: How Technology and Brain Science Will Transform Schools and Business for the 21st Century. My students all know that technology is terrible because it makes us distracted, but Davidson engages with the prophets of doom and makes a good case that there are also things to value, and rather than rejecting it, we should engage with technology and figure out what it can do.

The Appendix turns out to be a good introduction to the book, and the course, because it lists "Twenty-First Century Literacies" like attention, collaboration, global consciousness, and ethics. It raises good topics for discussion and gets the students and me pretty quickly beyond the problems of how social media and mobile devices are distracting us into other issues involving the ethics and affordances of technology.

The night before class, I'd spent half an hour or so on Twitter following the new president's gag order on US scientific agencies and national parks, the scrubbing of anything that could be interpreted as related to climate science from government websites, the silencing of agencies like the USDA and the CDC. (Salmonella, anyone? Zika?)

Davidson lists sustainability and preservation near the end of the appendix. She uses "sustainability" to refer to environmental issues like the amounts of electricity needed to power computers and servers, but digital humanists use the same word to refer to the creation of digital texts and databases in forms that will outlast current hardware and software configurations and still be readable, decades or hopefully even centuries into the future.

The related issue of "preservation" has to do with keeping copies of things -- archiving materials created digitally, as well as figuring out how to keep copies of things that began their life as material objects. If something originally in book form is preserved in pdf, is that the same as the original? What if there are different copies owned by two different people who made notes in the margins? How important are those notes?

Cotton Vitellius A. xv. is the manuscript that contains the unique copy of Beowulf. It was put together, probably in the seventeenth century, out of two different collections written several hundred years before, but a couple hundred years apart from each other. It contains the Nowell Codex, a late tenth- or early eleventh-century copy manuscript of two poems, including Beowulf, and three prose texts. Is that a book? Or is a medieval collection of materials different than what we think of today as "a book"? Are photographs of the Beowulf manuscript the same as the actual manuscript? What if we could print a 3-dimensional copy, retaining the texture of every page?

People who deal with other media ask related questions. Is a CD version of a song the same as its 45 rpm vinyl original? Is a DVD copy of "Singin' in the Rain" the same as a print of the film on several reels of 35mm film?

Preservation also deals with avoiding loss of data, which was a big problem in the early days of computing but is less acute now, when storage is cheap and it's easy to store redundantly. The issue of data that lasts forever, like social media posts that haunt people hunting for a job, looms larger.

So there I was in class, talking about the relatively long life of manuscripts in comparison to things like punch cards and 5 1/4 inch floppy disks and suddenly I apprehended the enormity of the new administration's deliberate suppression and even destruction of information.

I don't know if this material is being mirrored or archived in some other country that's now freeer than the United States or if, horrifyingly, decades of data that the new regime considers to be "alternative facts" or even "a hoax" will simply be destroyed. I don't know what the consequences might be of stopping research in the sciences and humanities dead, and how quickly it might recover if (when?) we get ourselves back on a course of sanity, four years or more from now.

But there I was talking about issues that, six months ago, seemed to have nothing to do with politics in the United States. Yet even though they have nothing to do with hot-button issues like climate science or women's health care, issues of data preservation and sustainability are completely politicized.

It caught me completely by surprise. I hadn't prepared to teach a class that was politically charged, and I found myself floundering. I said that whatever anyone's politics, our classroom had to remain a space for civil discourse. I said that I grade on how persuasively students organize and present their research, not on what their opinions are, and I hoped that students would feel free to disagree, even with me.

I need to do better, though. I need to make it clear that scrubbing websites is comparable to burning books and neither has a place in democracy.

I'm thankful for tenure. I'm thankful that I teach in a university, and a state, that isn't moving to silence its faculty. And I'm deeply sobered and dismayed by the implications. Teaching with integrity used to mean not smoking or sleeping with the students. It's become far more difficult to navigate the environment of alternative realities, suppression of scientific fact, and abrogation of human rights.

I now feel a grave responsibility to step up and state clearly that these things are not right. But I have to do so in a way that maintains respect for students with different views and allows for an open classroom atmosphere, that keeps the classroom a place of inquiry and the development of critical thinking, not a lecture on the ills of the people currently in power.

Teaching just got a whole lot harder.