Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Blocks

When I was very young, my mom used to let us sit on the edge of the kitchen and arrange blocks on the tile. Our wooden blocks had a curve to them and they weren't easy to balance on the carpet. We could use the tile in those in between times, when she was cooking or washing dishes and we'd be visible and sort of out of the way. Sometimes, Mom would sit down and play with us--she'd arrange her blocks into the outlines of rooms and houses and talk about the way she'd design a house. My imitation houses were simple and sloppy and often fell victim to angry weather when a wall refused to remain upright.

I found those fallen rooms returning to my imagination when Pandora decided to go on a 90's music kick and it occured to me that I could have been listening to those songs in their first radio run while I was at UH. Study music pouncing out of my iPad and ambushing my afternoon. Must be this sunny afternoon. There were plenty of those in the dorms and our desks were just below the one window. But it wasn't the sun or the basic dorm design that brought back the blocks. Instead, it was the memory of the library.

The UH library had a crimson entryway lit by smoked glass: it was the entrance to a low-ceilinged netherworld of computers and books in which I only felt comfortable when I started climbing the narrow stairwells (with plain glass windows) and entered the upper floors with plain white walls, linoleum floors, and copy machines. Here was were I would chip paragraphs out of books to add to my own essays, producing drafts not unlike the collapsing rooms of those early house outlines. It didn't occur to me then to consider the writers, to think about them pushing themselves to finish drafts, caring so much about the life around them that they wanted to set it down so that we could know it when we encountered it years later.

Themes seemed to come from the syllabus, not a soul.

And I was an English major. Not a good one, not one with any clue as to why I was there other than to tick off the box: Get a Degree.

I remember the sweet wooden smell of the blocks, the way you had to be gentle with them to get them to balance. I remember Mom dreaming about the shape and form of rooms. And I remember pages of photocopied books, notebooks full of identifying information about the books from which the pages were copied. What I don't remember, with a few exceptions, are the classes. I sometimes wonder why no one ever grabbed my shoulders and shook me awake.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Class

I'm in the middle of a class, a free, online class my mom suggested we take together because it might be fun. As it happened, there was a slight miscommunication about what the class was and it turned out to be more project than class and tied to a subject about which I have doubts: future tech and storytelling. The class is spread across internet platforms and physical locations, with my participation constrained to online. It has a SciFi/mystery bent and is extremely collaborative with a soup├žon of monitoring your teammates. At times, it seems designed to raise awareness of the instructors' ultimate project rather than an exploration of how storytelling may change when we are a more completely wired society.

This morning, however, as I was standing in the arboretum by the yew hedge, breathing deeply and staring into the morning blue sky, I realized that this class shouldn't do anything for me. By my very own doubts about crowd sourcing and free culture, a class for which I paid nothing should provide me with nothing. This is different from the belief that we pay for whatever we learn (in a variety of ways), but strikes at the dark heart of my ongoing frustration.

Why should I expect anything from a free course? In the terms set out by our instructors, this is not a class, per se; instead it's a collaboration. So they donate their time under the auspices of their universities and institutions and we participate, lending out creativity and social media presence to the development of a project that will be staged at various film festivals, etc.

We aren't together to explore a concept except in the sense that it is available for us to play with.

In other words, it's not them, it's me. I brought old expectations to a new activity. The clash of those expectations has been a series of contentious phone calls between myself and my mom and grousing from other family members as we fight through these assignments and negotiate levels of mutual participation. And this insight wasn't wholly the product of an unexpected fall morning in mid-September (this is Texas, after all. Still late summer). It was in part prompted by comments from our team members who mentioned that they felt more instruction would help with concepts and activities that had become confusing and frustrating, building on incomplete assignments that were never designated as such (because all 'feedback' must fall with a whisper for group cohesion and limits should be ignored).

They were right, of course. A "class" intent on imparting concepts should have active instructors interacting with assignments...but we should probably pay for that, right? Pay for our instructors' time and attention, read entire books rather than watch 15 minute TED talks, and receive background on concepts rather than being told that this is being 'invented' right before our eyes. Maybe there should be a nod to the idea that a massively wired world might not be a paradise in all aspects. That stories exist both to structure our mental space and to allow others to adjust that structure. What will happen when the crowd begins to tell its story?

Even being a temporary part of the crowd doesn't provide answers. Except that I should watch out for the structures that trip me up: the concepts that are linked to old experiences that are already being rewritten.