Thursday, August 26, 2010

Looking Good on [Digital] Paper: a.k.a. Blowing Smoke Up the Wazoo

"Have you ever met someone who looks so good on paper but when you meet them they just don't live up to your expectations?" Dr. Derryberry, my debate coach, asked me this question during my freshman year of college. I recall the circumstances precisely; we were standing in the field house outside his office and looking at a bulletin board. I swallowed hard. "Are you talking about me?" I had reason to suspect Dr. D. was less than impressed with me as a policy debater because I was the only female on the squad and all the senior males taunted me with chants of "Dr. D. doesn't like girl debaters." Fortunately, Dr. D. assured me that I was not the subject of his inquiry, a notion he reinforced by increasing my scholarship for the spring semester.

I've pondered my chat with Dr. D. over the years as I've strove to live up to the image I project on paper, that is, on my résumé or CV, and I think about what impression I'll make when I'm selected for a prestigious NEH institute and when I was asked to participate on a panel for the Folger Shakespeare Library at the NCTE convention in Orlando. After all, when applying for jobs, grants, etc. we try to put our best foot forward.

My husband describes people who lack the credentials to support the image they attempt to project as "blowing smoke up the wazoo." Only he uses a different word than wazoo! "Boy she really knows how to blow smoke..." he'll chime when we discuss certain events.

These days I'm occupied by my digital image as well, the one I project on screen when posting and chatting online. Recently, Google CEO Eric Schmidt suggested that young folks whose screen images may be a bit tainted from prior posts change their names. That's right. With the click of a mouse, we can all reboot our image and erase our digitally tainted pasts. An article in The Wall Street Journal describes Schmidt's position: "every young person one day will be entitled automatically to change his or her name on reaching adulthood in order to disown youthful hijinks stored on their friends' social media sites." 

I can't help but wonder what John Proctor, who refused to nail his confession of witchcraft to the church door, would think. I can hear him now: "Because it is my name." The mantra may soon be chanted by those choosing a name change in our postmodern world where even one's name and identity quickly erode into nothingness.

Is changing one's image by changing one's name the same as rewriting one's character? Literally, attempting to obliterate one's past with a name change changes nothing. The image in the mirror remains the same; the past life stays etched in one's memory. A person with no discernible past life leaves an impression on the one asking, "Have you ever met someone who looks like nothing on paper?"

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Friends, Good Friends, and Such Good Friends: What Does It Mean to "Friend" Someone In an On-Line Community?

     "Good friends. Kind sirs." My college debate coach, Dr. Bob Derryberry, greeted his progeny with these words at the beginning of class and casual encounters. When I learned of Dr. D's death earlier this summer, I reminisced about his many colloquial expressions, especially the idea of being good and kind and a friend.

     On the English Companion Ning, I've been helping review member applications and posting welcoming comments to new members' walls. Today I received a "friend request" from a new ECN member, along with the comment, "I'm not really sure what it means to friend someone here." Hum, I thought, "What does it mean to be an on-line friend, especially to those with whom I've never had a face-to-face conversation?"
      In the Nicomachean Ethics, Book 9, Aristotle's treatise on friendship, the philosopher tells us friendship "is desirable in all circumstances" (pt. 11). Our on-line friendships, if with virtuous men and women, will make us better teachers, in the case of EC friends. For through our EC friendships and activities our goal is  "improving each other; for from each other [friends] take the mould of the characteristics they approve," says Aristotle (pt. 9). This is true on-line, too. For example anger seeps through posts, spawning angry comments; conversely, kindness has the same impact.  As my children were growing up, I often implored them to choose friends who bring out the best in them. They didn't always do this, unfortunately. I think about this standard in terms of on-line friendships as well.

     Aristotle also describes the pleasure we experience when we see our friends. Indeed, sometimes I choose to enter a conversation--whether on EC, twitter, or Facebook-- based on the other participants while avoiding some conversations for the same reason. Good friends, says Aristotle, feel pain when their friends experience pain and experience joy as a byproduct of their friends' joy. I know this reality on-line, too. Earlier this summer I received several encouraging emails and friend requests from kindly virtual colleagues who sensed I needed "a friend." Since that time, I've enjoyed a growing collegiality with several folks. Really, is a virtual friend any different than an old-fashioned pen pal?

     Choosing whom to friend on-line, I think, requires the same care as choosing our face-to-face friends. Among the over 20,000 EC Ningers, all are my colleagues, some are and will become my friends, others my good friends, and a select few such good friends that the cyber walls fall away as our friendships evolve. Good friends. Kind Sirs, I look forward to seeing you on the Ning, and may we all heed Dr. Derryberry's admonition to "act seemingly."