Techno to Tactile
In my hometown, a university town, there were kiosks on the main street that sported notices of upcoming events. These kiosks were always somewhat messy, but they were a visual reminder of the intellectual and creative environment continually burgeoning in a small university village. I say "village" because it was truly a village. The shops in town were owned by local families, everyone knew each other, and a policeman was just as likely to take time off from his beat to help a bunch of kids search for night crawlers in their front lawn as he was to give a parking ticket. Summer nights were spent riding bikes across undeveloped lots, down alleyways, and across the university grounds, stopping to catch fireflies or to eat at the Dairy Queen.
Recently, I heard first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton talk about the necessity of a village in raising a child. Her metaphor can cross many venues, whether it be the nuclear family, a true village, or an educational community. Though I was raised in a true village, I also think of the stories my father often told of being educated in a one-room schoolhouse; how this created an intellectual village that eventually prompted him to pursue his dream of becoming a professor and a minister, roles that allowed him to create other "villages" within which he was able to touch the lives of others.
One day several years ago, I read about a movement to remove the kiosks in my childhood village because they were eyesores in a town becoming less and less a village. The small, family-owned shops were disappearing, replaced by conglomerates intent on making everyone look alike. The personality, warmth, and connectedness of a once-village community was slowly diminishing in a world being increasingly driven by money.
Independent boarding schools have always focused on the student, the individual. Small classes, enthusiastic and committed faculty members who wear many hats, a desire to maintain a strong sense of community, or a distinct village, have always led to nurturing, guiding, and challenging each student. Many of these students maintain a strong loyalty and identity through their connection to this educational village, proudly talking about their school community for years afterward as active alumni. As an educational option, independent boarding schools have been successful in creating a village. This may be partially what drives the charter school movement and the quest for school vouchers: this need to find a sense of community in an increasingly village-less society.
As a skeptic in a world of technology disciples, I have often wondered if the computer age has created another schism within our wavering sense of "village." Many will say that e-mail and chatrooms are connecting people every day who would not talk otherwise. Though I initially felt that was partly true, I also began to sense the loss of the emotion found in the human voice that so clearly communicates, makes tactile, the words we emit. Think of all the different ways the phrase "I hear you" can be interpreted according to voice tone. How do I deal with people who only communicate by e-mail because they are more comfortable hiding behind a closed door, safe from any tactile imagery? How can I truly know how to read and understand, possibly interpret what the flat, lettered page really means? Is it too easy to escape to our little cubicles to become faceless word processors?
As a dedicated boarding school teacher, dorm parent, and administrator, I have a clear sense of the power of a village. Our village has recently entered the computer age with voracity and velocity. I watch students gripped by the screen of information, wedded to their laptops, often three or four in a room. Are they facing each other? Are they interacting with each other, or is this simply a cold parallelism created by the blue glowing screens that are reminiscent of Kerouac's On the Road? Have we unintentionally created a virus that will break down the cells that have so completely formed our village?
A year ago, I would have answered that question with a resounding yes. But in the past few months, something has metamorphosed to draw me to the conclusion that this technology can create a community within our village that will only serve to strengthen the whole. While huddled in my darkened study in front of that blue screen, searching, late at night, for information on the Web, I was suddenly drawn out of my techno-stupor by two bright red letters, IM, flashing insistently in the corner of the screen. I responded, only to find that I had been sent an instant message by one of our particularly quiet seniors who always worked hard at hiding her brilliance behind a hang-dog exterior. We engaged in a conversation that moved from philosophical thought, to silly laughter, to intellectual curiosity. As we conversed and drew closer to each other through this techno-world, I realized that this relationship might then carry over into the tactile world. And right I was. I have since spent many a late evening in this student's room, just shooting the breeze about life and other amazing events.
In my daily workspace, I often go through an entire day with little contact with colleagues. I am my own department and deal with student needs throughout the day. There are times when I talk with parents over the phone more than I do the person across the hall. This isolation has had its good points; when office turmoil arises, I am out of the fray, and when gossip feeds, I am out of the loop--two safe and lovely roles to play. The drawback is that I sometimes miss the intellectual stimulation that comes from talking with a colleague about an educational issue, a book we've read, or just something as simple as the crowded builder's market growing in our tiny rural area.
Two weeks ago, a colleague with whom I have had sporadic conversations over the years sent me an e-mail message asking my view on something educational. I went home that evening and thought hard about why she would have chosen me as a sounding board. After all, we had not connected much over the years. But I responded, and with a heartfelt, thoughtful response. What has emerged is a new relationship that appears to be growing in both a techno and tactile language. It is fulfilling, challenging, and has intensified my involvement in my village. Thus, I become the convert who clearly sees the possibilities of cells within a village connecting in both those techno and tactile ways.
In the end, I have come to the conclusion that change is good as long as the long-standing, working values remain. Our villages can grow in different ways as long as what truly makes the village a village is constant. We need to maintain the kiosks and family-owned businesses while also welcoming the technology that allows us to connect in new and different ways that are also valuable ways. We need to feed each cell so that it thrives and grows. But in its growth, we also want it to swell to the point that it touches others, whether physically or technologically, creating that whole we can continue to call a village.
Anne Macleod Weeks is the director of college guidance at the Oldfields School in Glencoe, Md., and has been a member of Learning With Laptops, a Toshiba-Microsoft pilot program, for two years.
Vol. 18, Issue 11, Page 38