Friday, June 21, 2013

How My Life Has Drastically Changed with a Cat

Before Cat (BC)
  • Grade a paragraph, check Facebook
  • Write a paragraph, check Facebook
  • Eat lunch, check Facebook

After Cat (AC)
  • Grade a paragraph, pet cat, post cute picture of cat on Facebook
  • Write a paragraph, note all the extraneous characters cat created when walking across keyboard, pet cat, post a screenshot of said extraneous characters on Facebook to tell the world that cat is a budding writer
  • Eat lunch, shield sandwich from cat, shield water from cat, get up to get a napkin and carry lunch to kitchen with me, pet cat, post "How My Life Has Drastically Changed with a Cat" on blog and share on Facebook

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Unplugged: 24 Hours of (Almost) Low-Tech Bliss

The Assignment

For 24 hours, you must completely unplug from technology: no cell phones, no internet, no computer use of any kind, no TV, no iPads, no iPods, and no radios. You may use electricity for other things and you may drive, though I’d rather you not listen to music in the car. (Spending a little time with your own brain will not kill you, I promise.) Record the date when, and location where, you unplugged.
  • What was challenging about being unplugged?
  • What did you like about it?
  • What did you notice about yourself or your surroundings that you didn’t notice before?
  • Would you ever impose an unplugged-time for yourself again?
  • Overall, what did you learn about this time?

My 24 Hours

I began my unplugged assignment at noon on Saturday, May 6. I chose this time because I had several social things planned, and I thought I would make the best of connecting with people face-to-face instead of having the urge to check my phone at every lull in the conversation. I went into the project feeling pretty confident - I'd unplugged before, especially when traveling, because when out of the country it's too expensive to use the data or texting on my phone. And I actually enjoyed not having the option to retreat into electronics, because I feel like I am more aware, more social, and more introspective. So I thought, no big deal. I'll show this Unplugged assignment who's boss.

The first part of my day was relaxing and enjoyable. Several people came over and we had a casual life drawing lesson, as taught by a friend who teaches elementary art classes. I left my phone and laptop in my office, and didn't feel the need to go for it once. There was a moment I had to shy away from a friend trying to show me an article on her phone, but I otherwise barely noticed that I wasn't using electronics.

On our drive to my boyfriend's college friends' house an hour away, I apologized to him and the other friend we drove down that we couldn't listen to the radio. At first my boyfriend and I were silly and sang some a capella jams, but then quickly fell into a conversation with our friend, so I barely noticed the lack of radio. My boyfriend did ask me to navigate with GPS as we got closer to our destination, but as I didn't want him to wreck the car I decided that was an acceptable "cheat." No big deal, I thought, that will be the only time I'll "cheat" the rest of the night.

We arrived at the birthday party, which had a nostalgic slumber party theme, and I realized this was going to be a tad harder than I originally thought. Part of the night was spent coloring, painting nails, having shoot-outs with Nerf guns. It was when we started to play vintage Nintendo games that I decided I needed to think about what this unplugged assignment was supposed to do.

What I wanted, but what wasn't on the topic paper for my students, was for us to reconnect with people, notice the world around us, and participate in life without being lost in our own cyber worlds. As others at the party migrated to the room with the Nintendo, I thought about how I was participating in life, and realized that if I sequestered myself in the coloring room by myself all night, I was just as bad as if I was with everyone else but distracted by my phone.

I celebrated this decision with several games of Super Mario 3. Then we played a drinking game to the movie Willow. It was an interactive community experience, and I felt not even a little guilt at using electronics (and beer) to achieve that fun.

The next morning everyone was a little groggy from spending the night in sleeping bags and on air mattresses (when we throw a slumber party we're not joking around), so we munched Dunkin' Donuts and watched Aziz Ansari standup. Again, I felt a little bad that I was watching TV when I was "supposed" to be unplugged, but again it was what I had to do in order to be experiencing life with the people around me.


When noon came around and I got home, I knew I would be forced to plug-in in order to grade papers and lesson plan. I knew I would be lured into Facebook, email, and IM in the process. Going back to these things didn't excite me. I knew that being unplugged from them would be easy, but I didn't expect being so reluctant to plug back in. I finally realized why when I thought more about what unplugged really means to me.

Unplugging means a true vacation. Very little of my work these days is done off the computer. I lesson plan electronically. I keep track of grades in Excel and read articles on the web. I make comments to papers using Word's review features. When I unplug, I not only connect more to my world because I can't mindlessly scroll Facebook, I also don't feel compelled to reply to students' emails or grade a quick paper. I literally cannot work, which is the only time I feel free from it.


I think that when we do the majority of our work or school on the internet, we're so susceptible to taking quick breaks to surf Facebook or check email that those things become tied up in the pressure of obligation. We're afraid we're going to miss something social almost on the same level that we're afraid we're going to miss doing an assignment or submitting a report. Surfing the internet, being on email, and chatting with friends heightens our need for immediacy and, I think in a lot of ways, our stress. 

It's kind of like our excitement about getting candy as kids: the less we were allowed to have it on a regular basis, the more a treat it was when we finally got it. But as an adult I can get candy whenever I want, and it no longer represents the treat it used to. 

I believe that it's only when we can unplug altogether that we can truly relax. From the many student responses I've read, it seems like a lot of them agree, though the majority of them say they are unwilling to participate again. I want to feel bad for them, but at the same time realize that they grew up in a different time. I'm just glad they gave it a shot.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Unplugged Assignment

Sometime during the next few weeks, my First Year Writing students will have to complete what might be the most difficult (and maybe even unpleasant) assignment of the year: a 24-hour unplug and response paper about it. From the assignment guidelines:
For 24 hours, you must completely unplug from technology: no cell phones, no internet, no computer use of any kind, no TV, no iPads, no iPods, and no radios. You may use electricity for other things and you may drive, though I’d rather you not listen to music in the car. (Spending a little time with your own brain will not kill you, I promise.)  For safety’s sake, please be smart about this – keep your cell on you in case of an emergency (but turn it off). Tell your family/friends you’re unplugging. Re-discover the world. Take a walk. Read a (paper) book. Talk to people without distraction.
When I announce this assignment on the first day of class, some students react, but most see that the response paper isn't due for a few months and forget about it.

When I remind them two weeks out that their unplugged paper is due, they panic. "What if I have homework?" They ask, frantic eyes pleading. "What if I have a project or a paper to do? I need the computer!"

Just as many teachers and professors have done before me, I remind them that they'd had the guidelines and due date since day one. They should have planned. Just as many students before them, they complain and groan. I ignore it.

This semester, facing a particularly un-motivated bunch of mostly art students, I promised I'd do it too, sometime in the next two weeks. I don't particularly feel like wasting class time presenting my own response paper, so I'll post it here instead. My projected "unplugged" day will be next Saturday, April 6, from midnight to midnight. During this time, I have a drawing event and a birthday party to attend, both which should be excellent opportunities to ignore my electronics and socialize.

I encourage my students to embrace the radio static enjoy it, and some do. Some continue to complain on the page. I hope all of them learn something. I'll (anonymously) share any particularly interesting responses here as well.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Extremely Unscientific Data on Creation vs. Revision Stress in Intro to Creative Writing Students

I'll admit it - sometimes, I ask my students specific questions to discuss for my own edification. An example just recently was this discussion question in my online intro to creative writing class:
Which is more stressful - creation (the blank page) or revision? And if you don't revise, or don't spend a lot of effort on revision, why not?
Obviously, I wanted the students to think about their own strengths and weaknesses when it comes to the writing process, but I think also in there, somewhere, I wanted a chance to answer the question myself: I am scared of creation. 

Creation is scary. Creation is why I don't post online for months, or sometimes years. Creation is why I've been working on the same novel for three years and always put it off in favor of grading and critiquing other peoples' creation. Creatiphobia, I could call it, is holding me back as a professional writer, and I wanted to see if my students - most of them in their late teens and early twenties but some adult students with more life experience than me - were creatiphobes too.

From an extremely unscientific data set (i.e. me reading all the responses and deciding their categories), my results were that out of 16 responses, 8 students thought revision was more stressful, some even going so far as to say they hated it. 3 students agreed with me, saying that the blank page was more stressful/revision was easier or more fun for them. 5 students, surprisingly, either answered "It depends" or "Both are difficult." In the interest of looking super-awesome, I made a pie chart:
If I actually was a scientist, I would have surveyed more than 16 students and would also get more information to think about, like, their age, number of school years or semesters completed, perhaps socioeconomic status just for funsies. But I am not a scientist.

The most interesting response was this student, who is an art major and said it has to do with medium:
[Anxiety of a blank page] only gets worse if it's nice paper, or a pretty book, or a fancy medium/tool--it creates this sense of having to have all your marks and ideas perfect immediately or your ruined the page and the entire book. Your tools have to create a sense of comfort so you're okay with making mistakes, because those mistakes sometimes aren't so bad or mistakes at all...but you won't know that or even reach that when you're afraid of making a mark. Writing or sketching on medium-low grade sketchbooks and journals feel safe, because they don't feel sacred or special. The same with the computer. Things feel less consequential so you can just jump in.  
-Ashley Almeida-Souza (*
Conclusion? I don't know if I have one, at least not the one I wanted. I found it interesting that most early writers are more excited to create, and I think I remember that: before I learned too much, before crippling doubt set in, I filled yellow legal pads in the back of my parents' minivan on our long summer vacation drives. But of course I didn't tell them this. I didn't tell them that for me, the more I learned the less I wanted to create. I didn't want to scare them off. So I replied, here and there, that I agreed with the ones I agreed with, that revision was fun, and I admired the ones who liked creativity, and I nodded wisely at the ones who said "It depends." And I especially resonated with Ash's response, which is why the Moleskin I got for my birthday is still empty, and why this blog is full of half-written posts of less consequence.

Sometimes it's just nice to be reminded that we are not alone in this.

*used with permission