Blog Post

Born Free: Reclaiming the Physical, Part I

About five years ago, I began the project of painting my house (a split-level) green, a shade of dark green to be exact, which I named Lisa Green after myself since, in theory, the shade hadn't existed before I mixed it together from discarded paint picked up for very little money at Habitat for Humanity.  Needless to say, in the process of attempting to paint a 2,000 plus square foot house I ran out of the initial gallon of paint. Lisa Green was born when I went to the paint store to have the nice people there match my paint stick. As I painted that year, many passersby including my mailman asked the name of the color, and I laughed as I told them.

So, yes, I started painting my house five years ago with actually little intention of finishing the job that year. I in fact only painted one tenth of one wall under an awning. Then, having decided that I liked the color, the next summer I painted the garage door.

In the meantime, I gave into an impulse related to housepainting, a yearning to see the wood that I knew was beneath the aluminum facade that covered at least the top portion of my split level. When I got an opportunity to work uninterrupted--I believe it was the Fourth of July and I skipped a picnic--I began to tear at the metal with my bare hands before finally going to the garage for a crowbar. A few years later, I can still hear the sound of the steel bar hitting the soffit above my front door, cold metal in the midst of my warm fingers that grasped it, and the scream of the aluminum as I dislodged it from its place, where it had been secured for probably thirty years by one inch staples.

Over the course of the next two summers, I got all of the aluminum off of the house after enlisting the help of my son and his friend. I paid the two of them $7.00 an hour a piece and let them keep the money from the recycled aluminum. They seemed satisfied with that. I had hoped they would enjoy the work of deconstruction more than the monetary reward that came from it, but perhaps such appreciation will come later.

As for finishing the painting job, it is yet undone. The soffits all around the house and the gutters have but one coat of paint. In fact, it is primer. Three sides of the house are now otherwise complete, but at the back of the house there is a chimney yet to be painted and windows. It may be that painting the house has been my therapy, a cure for what ails me, and what would that be?

In Cathy Davidson's blog post Why Higher Ed Fails at Job Preparation...she writes that American education is still modeled after the needs of industrial economy. The focus is on standardization, grasping objective information. I would add to that: joining systems, accepting hierarchies, and placing one's life activities in agreement with the various machinations of society.  If this has been so and continues, then what have been the experiences of creative children and creative adults under this model? How have they survived the industrial mindset, which does not, as Davidson's blog makes clear, limit itself to education of the formative years?

I am one of those creative survivors, and I am convinced that my painting project is partly oppositional, partly therapeutic, and partly rhetorical. I know that I have upset my neighbors' expectations. I live in a pretty uptight mixed middle-class midwestern neighborhood, where ninety percent of the homes are either white or brown, a growing number "vinylized." (Mine used to be a faded metallic white.) Ironically, when America was in its deepest throes of recession (are we done yet?) my neighbors were remodeling. With two kids soon to enter college, I could not afford, as they could, to add on a new room or to have my kitchen remodeled. Yet, my neighbors could because they have been conservative all along with their spending. While the world was living in a real estate bubble, they seemingly were socking away money for a rainy day. These are Americans who rely on their homes for wealth, who still consider it their greatest investment. Needless to say then, they don't need or want me and Lisa Green jeopardizing their homes' values.

But I wonder if any of my neighbors suspected that I might be on to something with my own remodel, not only the possibility that wood recovery or architectural recovery might in fact create a new economy but that it might create a new educational model as well. I have often wondered if what ails many of our students isn't the disembodiment of learning, the abstract character of what has for so long gone as knowledge, the low level of a learners' participation in the creation of such knowledge. After years of suffering under such a model, one is left wanting to scratch out something literally, scrape away, tear at, deconstruct not for the purpose of destruction but interpretation, experience, discovery, and reconstruction.

Last week, I attended a workshop led by new media expert and rhetorician David Blakesley (author of Writing, a Manual for the Digital Age). The message of the day was that today's students have so many media and so many applications at their disposal that it makes little sense to continue teaching as if these new tools don't exist. Blakesley also introduced me to the phrase--"born digital." After hearing the concept, I tuned everything else out and began meditating on the implications of being born connected to the world through the ability to employ technologies to create knowledge and share information with a global audience. How might such opportunity and acceptance of it be experienced by users? Consistent with my usual concerns, I also wondered how users might manipulate various new media to construct their own sense(s) of time and space.

For instance, in my own Web activity, historical documents are central to my projects. I am interested in knowing how, for example, the "occupation" listed on my second great grandfather's Civil War service record relates to me. I want to know, that is, if or how labor classifications during the nineteenth century might relate to labor classifications today. This is of course just one question among many others I might ask. The important point is that I am "studying" or engaging on my website this and other historical documents, and, in so doing, this relic becomes part of all that informs my sense of time. To the extent that I (and I hope also my visitors) experience such documents also as physical items, my sense of space too is influenced by the continued existence of physical referents. Even in a digital world, it is important to recognize the materiality of the things we digitize and to experience them as such.

I think that for some people at least an impulse to paint, to deconstruct, to touch even as we write, or even as we convert materialities into digital code is what is most normal. On the other hand, migrating to spaces that disembody and dematerialize has always felt abnormal and, well, frustrating. I hope then that "born digital" does not mean born free floating. I hope freedom in the twenty-first century is not a matter of being disconnected and/or disoriented from the physical and the sensual but rather, because of digitization, only more dynamically engaged with history, with documents and other artifacts, and with people. Providing learning opportunites that encourage students to use new media to compose to a world audience their engagements is as beautiful as and also as economically viable as uncovering wood. And, as for finishing the paint job, well, perhaps the drive to complete--to create a marketable, sellable, product--also belongs to industrial economy.


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