On Romance and Foundational Stories

If you haven’t read it already, run (don’t walk) to read Gardner‘s latest article in Educause Review, My Computer Romance.

I just re-read it again (I had the privilege of reading it in draft form this summer), and was, once again, moved by it.

One of my first reactions to this article was the power it held as a “foundational story” of Gardner’s own involvement with computers and technology. In a very Udell-esque fashion, it exposes a piece of Gardner’s mind and heart with regards to the work he does this space. One thing that strikes me as I read it is how infrequently we expose ourselves, our hearts and our minds, in this way.

Within the circles we work in, we each have, I’m sure, our own powerful stories of how we came to be in this place. Hidden in those stories are not just insights into why we do this work and how it matters, but also the small sparks that have lit fires in all of us. Those sparks aren’t about merely the “how” and the “why” — they are about the passion for, the calling to, and, as Gardner says the romance of the work we do. Talking about the work in those terms, in foundational, transformational stories, may help us to transcend the daily grind of the how and the why and allow us to focus on the patterns of passion that we all share.

Meanwhile, over the last few weeks, over at umwblogs.org, I’ve watched literally hundreds of blogs emerge from the ether of UMW’s teaching and learning network. The exposure that is occurring in that space is also electrifying. A common theme seems to be the first course blog post in which students are asked to answer the question, “Why did you take this course?” These posts, themselves, may be the beginnings of foundational stories, as well. Many of the responses are from first-year students, answering the question of why they took a particular freshman seminar this fall. I wonder if in those answers they are crafting the first paragraph of a new story of their own, and I’m struck by what it means that they have now publicly answered and shared that response. What will it feel like for the senior history major to come back in four years and read her first post about why she took Jeff’s freshman seminar on the experience of American veterans returning home.

I’m fascinated both by the effect that the sharing of these stories can have on us, individually, as well as how in the communal sharing we can expose tacit patterns, commonalities and differences that would otherwise go unnoticed and unexposed.

To that end, I’d like to share a piece of my own story, here. It’s by no means as clear, coherent, or well-crafted as Gardner’s, but in the telling, I think I’ll be share a piece of my own pattern that, perhaps, others will recognize.

For me, not surprisingly, part of my own foundational story is wrapped up in Mary Washington, and my own life here as an undergraduate. I left this institution just as the internet was taking hold on campus. My senior year, when I finally got my act together and joined the debate team, I had my first exposure to the internet as tool for research. I spent hours upon hours holed up in a windowless office in Chandler, searching for information about an obscure non-governmental agency in the middle east called EcoPeace. I remember feeling like I was plumbing the depths of a brain. The internet felt small and parochial enough at that time that you actually could feel sometimes like you might reach the end.

The plumbing was incredibly satisfying. But what fascinated me more, what I really wanted to learn to do, was create these pages on the Web. In retrospect, I can see how that desire was continuing a lifelong pattern in my own life — a deep-seated need to craft and create what I can only term as “experiences.” This need is what prompted me to get on stage as a child and teenager; it’s also why by first grade I was writing my first “novel” (long since abandoned, thank god); it’s why planning my wedding was so wholly satisfying. In each scenario, I recognized my ability to create something — a space, a place, a text, a performance — that had the power to affect others, to connect others to someone or something else.

But, just as these opportunities arose, I graduated and, perhaps ironically, took my first job at the Folger Shakespeare Library, an institution steeped in traditions of print and book culture. Yet, at the Folger (a truly amazing place to work), I found my way back to these technologies, quickly focusing on how it might be possible to use them to re-present and re-contextualize the rich scholarly materials that were being generated out of the Library’s workshops, conferences, and seminars.

From there, I went to graduate school and found my way back (twice!) to Mary Washington. Each step along the way, I thought I understood what I was trying to accomplish, and, yet, all along the way, the path kept opening wider and wider, exposing to me a larger landscape than I imagined. It’s humbling to realize how much I did not know along the way, and it is a reminder of how much I’m quite sure that I still don’t fully understand.

There is one other anecdote that predates my experience as a debater at MWC. The summer before my senior year, I took a seminar on medieval literature with Terry Kennedy. For one session of that seminar, a visitor from the eText center at UVA (whose name I have embarrassingly forgotten) visited with us to show off some of the digital texts that were coming out of that project — including the ability to do some pretty amazing textual analysis once the texts themselves had been inputed into this new kind of structured language, although I had no idea what that meant at the time. (Interestingly Gardner had actually helped to arrange this visit, although I didn’t know it — or him — at the time.)

I remember sitting in the computer science lab in the basement of Trinkle that day in July waiting for images of illuminated manuscripts to appear on the screens. At one point, I turned around and realized that one of my classmates had “surfed” away from the “page” we were looking at and had found a “web site” with the lyrics of Grateful Dead songs. I remember thinking, “Well, now that’s just WRONG!”

Ah. . .how far I’ve come!