Les Roberts – Freetown, Sierra Leone – October 11th, 2014
Day 7: Brutal Triage
The prediction landscape is looking bad. The official numbers reported are laboratory confirmed cases. Typically, we think people need 7-10ish days to become symptomatic. Typically people have symptoms for 7 days before they get into a health facility. A month ago, it was one day, now it typically takes 4 days from when a patient is sampled to when the patient is told the result of their test (and lots get lost and mislabeled….). Thus, the numbers that you hear about new cases today reflect the transmission dynamics from over 2 weeks ago…..and we thought the doubling time of the outbreak was 30 days, it seems to be less than that here. We knew the ~350 confirmed cases last week were an undercount….we now think there are 7-900 in reality. The need for hospital beds is climbing more than the ability to get them up and running. There might be 200ish ebola treatment beds now countrywide. There are perhaps 600 more in “holding areas.” We have schemes to get 500 or 600 ebola treatment beds up and running over the next 8 weeks. As Foreign Medical Team Coordinator, helping to get these beds up and supported is one of my primary tasks. If there are really 3000 cases this month, and 6000 next month…with all going perfectly on the treatment bed establishment side, we will have 30% of the beds we need next month, slightly worse than the situation now.
The Ministry of Health and WHO are trying to fill the void with Ebola Community Care Units (ECU’s). Tents with eight beds….maybe two tents, a wet tent (vomit and diarrhea) and a dry tent and a big buffer zone around with a couple latrines and a burning pit and a water supply. They will be staffed by low level health workers or community volunteers, ideally survivors of ebola who will have immunity. The idea is that at the first sign of symptoms, the family brings the feverish loved one in. Everyone will be treated with an antimalarial and an antibiotic. If they can be tested for ebola, they will be. If not, they get monitored and if they develop 3 of the key symptoms they get referred to a proper hospital bed….which will be in short supply….or otherwise they move to the wet tent. They will be given ORS….maybe food….maybe they die, maybe they do not. This is very close to no treatment. But the goal is to get them out of their houses to where they will be less likely to infect others. The supervision will be scant. The work for those in the ECU’s will be very risky. Even MSF has had several staff infected now and they are hyper-vigilant and resource rich. But the logic is, for every health worker infected or ECU malaria patient who becomes infected with ebola while waiting in such a unit, 2 or three infections that would have happened if the person died at home will not occur.
We aspire that we will have ~150 of these going in 60 days….which involves a million dollars per unit, major logistic planning and supply chains, site preparation by the community, and well drilling…..this will be a massive effort. But 2000 beds in ECU’s, 700 treatment beds…might be half of what we need by December. Thus, barring a dynamic change in the outbreak growth, in November, in December, most cases will likely die at home.
Thus, the CDC has been pushing kits and training messages to promote “safe home care.” The kits would have ORS (a lot…like 20 sachets) and gloves and masks and chlorine and an ORS mixing bottle. The kits’ design is yet to be finalized by the MOH and the international community. The main part of the kit will be messages to the family. Keep the person in a room alone, and no one shares their bathroom. Only have one person deal with them…don’t touch them…wear gloves…wash with chlorine as you exit their room. Again, like the ECU’s this is not about treating the ill as much as it is about minimizing infections. The logic flows like this:
If you think about it a few steps removed from West Africa, this is freakin’ wild. We are primarily trying to facilitate people to die without infecting others. Very little of this logic beyond the ORS is about treatment. The last year PEPFAR was in full bloom, with all the administrative layers and consultants, it spent ,000 per patient to have Africans on anti-retrovirals. The rights-based advocates were screaming about how it was only fair that Africans get what Westerners got. In July there was an Onion headline “Experts: Ebola Vaccine At Least 50 White People Away.” http://www.theonion.com/articles/experts-ebola-vaccine-at-least-50-white-people-awa,36580/ It seemed kind of funny then…now that we are being so brutal in our public health triage it is much much less funny….maybe prophetic. We are about to assist thousands and thousands of people to die an excruciating death at home without even the most mild of pain relief. We are going to set up treatment facilities in hundreds of villages for one of the most deadly of diseases to be largely run by volunteers who will be lucky to get 3 days of training. Dozens, perhaps hundreds of them will die. And the most surreal aspect of this triage for me is that I completely think that this is the right thing to do given where we are and the limited ability to respond. As I think about you students reading this I struggle with the degree to which my endorsement of this multipronged approach is pragmatism or wisdom or loss of idealism.
This month, writing took a backseat to volunteering. Family time took a backseat to exhaustion. Workouts took a backseat to elder care. Introspection took a backseat to distractions and that overused misnomer, multitasking. Depression rolled in, a predictable fog of lethargy and glass half-empty thinking.
We shrug our shoulders with banal bon mots like “Life happens” and “It is what it is” in order to acknowledge that we are giving up control, prostrate in front of the bulldozer of modern living. The minute we complain, someone snipes “first world problems” or “check your privilege”, which is sometimes just a pseudo-intellectual way of telling someone to shut up.
Resistance seems futile. You say “yes” more often than you should. You conform in a million soul-crushing ways. You follow the rules, try to be polite, try to do the right thing. I am a creative person. But after a lifetime of trying to do the right thing and following the rules, I little resemble the person that I’d imagined I’d be – socially unconventional, wildly, artistically prolific.
Choices seem obscured by responsibilities, real or imagined. Arrogance about how one is needed and what one’s value is in the eyes of others, is conflated with a sense of worthiness.
The midlife clock started ticking a couple of years ago. An acute awareness of time, the luck of making it this far, has become excruciating to avoid. I don’t want to be busy – at least not with the sort of shit that eats up our lives. I want to, to quote my favorite movie line, “Get busy living or get busy dying.”
My life is not a particularly hard one by anyone’s measure. What is hardest is that I am living in rote mode – this busy, inane rushing about and trying to do a little bit of everything. It dulls the senses, discounts my good fortune and leaves me listless. This is life in suburbia – a life I appreciate intellectually, but creatively, it’s scrabbling at my throat.
I’ve started paying attention to the many, many “rules” I follow throughout the day – all the things that I try to do right. It’s mind-boggling. Bills mailed on time, flag up on the mailbox. Drive all the way up the orange cones before the kid gets out of the car at school. Put away the cart. Sign and date here and here and here. Say thank you and please. Please hold, don’t call before 10am, don’t mow after 9pm and smile, smile, smile.
This is not even touching on the legal rules, like not using one’s car as a battering ram when the person ahead doesn’t use their turn signal (my vehicular fantasy). It’s all necessary, these enforced courtesy and safety rules. It keeps us from clubbing each other (for the most part).
Then there’s the Michelle rules: see the big picture, avoid people when I’m pissy, spend time outside, don’t let things pile up, communicate to the point, don’t waste time, stay active and lastly, always lastly, be creative. How much energy does one need to be creative? Apparently more than I have at the end of a day.
I’ve been trying to give myself a psychological makeover over the last few years, within the parameters of the life I have. It has worked on some levels, but when it comes to writing, I’ve been a dung beetle. Pushing the same old shit around without feeling much progress. When asked about my writing, I rattle off the same answer: working on edits on my novel, blah, blah, blahgging.
It’s just pushing dung. If I applied even half the discipline I use in other areas of my life, I imagine that I’d have a new answer.
I laugh when I think about the stereotype of middle-aged women’s fantasies. Mine are more like 50 Shades of Misanthropy. I would like to be alone writing for days on end or finally give in to violent impulses, like ramming texting drivers with my car or delivering roundhouse kicks to people who are rude to cashiers.
I’m waging a mental battle to make room for a creative life. To always have that hunger, that niggling doubt, that sense that wherever I’m at, it’s not where I supposed to be, well, that’s been my life. I’d be the worst Buddhist ever.
The myth that good artists must suffer or live off the grid or be plagued with personal demons and volatile relationships continues to thrive. I’m an ordinary person living, like most people, an ordinary life. Finding that spark, hearing that beckoning amidst grocery lists, soccer games and laundry loads seems daunting. But it’s there, calling out in those quiet moments between errands and getting louder by the moment.
Some guides for making room for a creative writing life:
One Year to a Writing Life: Twelve Lessons to Deepen Every Writer’s Art and Craft by Susan M. Tiberghien
The Resaissance Soul: How to Make Your Passions Your Life, A Creative and Practical Guide by Margaret Lobenstine
The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear by Ralph Keyes
Because the islands that compose it are spread widely apart, the South Pacific nation of Kiribati is the only country on Earth that resides in all four hemispheres simultaneously.
While at face-value this may seem like trivia, something to say at a party to sound worldly, the uniquely expansive geography of Kiribati has actually played an important role in the country’s history, as well as instigated one of the most interesting geographic events of the last fifty years. An event that not only changed Kiribati forever, but the entire geography of the South Pacific, and even our understanding of what it means to map our planet.
However, without context, that statement seems a little ambitious, so let’s start with a little history.
Like many South Pacific island nations, Kiribati was once a European colony. Bereft of any significant amount of natural resources or agriculture (less than 3% of the country’s land is arable), Kiribati mainly served as an expanded sphere of influence for the British, who claimed the island chain as an English protectorate in 1892. A relatively calm 19th century led into a violent and macabre 20th century for Kiribati, starting with the Japanese occupation of much of the nation’s territory during WWII. The ravages of war, coupled with the testing of US and British hydrogen bombs on some of Kiribati’s outlying islands during the 1950s, decimated much of Kiribati’s already meager natural resources, and caused some residents to immigrate to surrounding countries under the banner of environmental refugees.
Kiribati quietly gained its independence in the latter half of the 20th century, just as the British Empire was in the process of global decolonization. However, post-sovereignty, Kiribati was still facing major problems. Despite its sweeping area, Kiribati has very little landmass, and only two-thirds of the islands that make up the country are habitable. This caused massive overcrowding in the 1970s and 80s following a rapid rise in population, forcing as many at 4,700 people to have to forcibly relocate to some of Kiribati’s neighboring countries, such as Fiji, and even as far as Australia. Combine this with the fact that Kiribati is foreseen to be the first country to lose all of its landmass to climate change-induced sea-level rise, and the story of a struggling nation comes into bleak focus.
All of that isn’t to say that Kiribati isn’t a vacationer’s paradise; it very much is. Awash with sunshine, coral-stained white-sand beaches, and strewn about with dense palm forests, Kiribati appears to many as the picturesque vision of a tropical island fantasy. This is a good thing, because a large amount of Kiribati’s GDP comes from vacation-based tourism, which helps to prop up the economy of what is seen by many relief organizations as one of the least-developed and poorest countries in the world.
Looking broadly at the social, political, and economic problems that plague Kiribati, it becomes easy to overlook one of the practical problems that comes from being a country spread out over such a wide area. Kiribati’s boundaries are so vast that for a long time it straddled the International Date Line, meaning that the capital city of Tarawa, which lies in the western part of Kiribati, was constantly 22 hours ahead of the eastern half of the country, while only being around 1,600 km (1000 mi) apart. It’s more apt now to say that Kiribati used to straddle the International Date Line, because in 1995, in a move rarely-seen in the age of modern mapping, then-president Teburoro Tito petitioned to have the International Date Line changed so that the entire country would reside in the same day.
In order to appropriately comprehend the gravity attached to one country moving something as fundamental to the whole planet as the International Date Line, it’s important to first understand what exactly the Date Line is.
The International Date Line was established in 1884, when a group of astronomers and other geodetic representatives met in Washington DC to convene the International Meridian Conference (note: there has not been a similar conference since). The conference’s main goal was to recommend an international prime meridian that could be used as reference in all future nautical and geographical charts. When the meridian passing through the Royal Observatory at Greenwich (located in SE London) was by nearly-unanimous endorsement adopted as the marker for 0º longitude, it was remarked how convenient the placement was as it ensured that the opposite meridian, where the Date Line would be located, would pass over no major landmasses. Because of this, no attempts were made at the time to establish a course of action if the line were to some day pass over an inhabited area.
This fact that there was no contingency plan has left the placement of the Date Line up to the interpretation of individual nations. Since the exact course of the line was never defined by any kind of international law or treaty, the Date Line remains mainly theoretical. American surveyor George Davidson even went so far as to say that, “There is no International Date Line,” and that the line was just an, “agreement among the…principal maritime countries,” at the time that presided near it.
This ambiguity has historically allowed countries to manipulate the route of the Date Line to better suit their needs, whether those needs be for easier communication, to better manage annexed territory, or to keep countries on the same calendar day, as was the case for Kiribati. Over the Date Line’s 130-year history, it has gone from a fairly straight line, to having jogs and kinks that made it look more like an irregular heartbeat on an EKG machine. Much of the changes to the Date Line in the 20th century have been the result of Alaska and Hawaii becoming US States, and the practical problems of having territory so far away from the overseeing nation.
With the precedent set before them, there was no reason to believe that Kiribati couldn’t move the line to better suit the practical needs of their expansive country. There was, however, an ulterior motive for Kiribati to petition for the movement of the International Date Line.
There is a romantic idea held by those who live just west of the Date Line, that those people are the first on the planet to see a sunrise at the beginning of every new day. Normally, this is just a notion used to give the areas near the Date Line a sense of uniqueness, something special that sets them apart. However, in 1995, Kiribati’s government thought that they would capitalize on this fact, but on a much grander scale. Kiribati wanted to be the first country to see a sunrise of the year 2000, to be the doorkeepers to a whole new millennium. Kiribati wanted the Line Islands (their easternmost territory) to start the year 2000 before anyone else.
This caused quite a stir in the South Pacific region, and a sort of “race to the year 2000” began. Countries started to jockey for their own right to experience the new millennium first. It’s not hard to see why a country would fight for this honor. Seeing the sunrise on January 1st, 2000, before any other nation, becomes a thing of pride, which many of the recently independent countries were seeking. Many nations also thought that having something like that on their “national resume” may also bring in more tourism dollars, with the thought that people would come to the island so that they too could make the claim that they had experienced a day before anyone else.
In the end though, it was Kiribati that won the right to change the Date Line. This both fixed the practical issue of the time gap they experienced everyday, and had the added bonus of making Kiribati the first country in the new millennium. Kiribati even boasts about the feat on the country’s website, saying that Kiribati was, “the first nation to see the new millennium, the 1st of January 2000.” One of Kiribati’s easternmost islands was even renamed Millennium Island to celebrate the occasion.
The aftermath of this is obvious. Any map of the Pacific Ocean now comes with a jagged scar running askew to the 180th latitude, an aftermath of the race to get to the year 2000. Not everyone recognizes the Kiribati-version of the International Date Line, since the line itself is essentially only a theory, and because of this, any country near the Date Line can claim it was the first to witness the sunrise on the dawn of the new millennium.
So was all the work Kiribati did worth it? Well, the economy is really no better. Kiribati’s economy now greatly benefits not from tourist dollars, but rather from relief assistance, as well as international development programs geared towards under-developed nations. If the government in 1995 had focused its efforts more on the well-being of its state rather than potential tourist dollars, would Kiribati be better off today?
Kiribati changed the global landscape, and essentially manipulated when a day starts for a great many people. They showed the power we have over our own geography, and how elastic the grid we set on our planet really is, be that for better or for worse.
- Ben Kessler
Self-portraits of medieval book artisans are as exciting as they are rare. In the age before the modern camera there were limited means to show others what you looked like. In the very late medieval period, when the Renaissance spirit was already felt in the air, some painters made self-portraits or included themselves in paintings commissioned by […]
Freshly Pressed: Editors’ Picks
by Shane L. Larson
One of the great things about being a scientist is I’m exposed to amazing and awesome things. Every. Single. Day. Sometimes I am astonished by Nature itself, and other days I am amazed by our ingenuity and abilities as we come of age in the Cosmos. Today was one of those days.
This story has its origins long ago. On 5 September 1977 we hucked a 722 kg spacecraft into the sky, named Voyager 1. That was the last time any of us ever saw Voyager 1 with our own eyes. But Voyager has been on a 37-year journey to act as our eyes in the Solar System. On 18 September 1977, barely 13 days after launch, when it was 7.25 million miles from Earth, Voyager sent home the first picture ever of the Earth and Moon together in space. It went on to Jupiter, where it took pictures of clouds and storms that look for all the world like the finest paintings on Earth, and discovered the first active volcanoes beyond the Earth on the enigmatic moon Io. At Saturn, it returned the first high-resolution images of an exquisite ring system, and showed us a shattered Death Star like Moon known as Mimas, dominated by an enormous crater named Herschel. But for all the wondrous pictures, we never saw Voyager. Like your Mom taking pictures of your childhood, we have never once seen the photographer chronicling our growth.
But today, I saw something that made me smile. Since it began its long outbound journey, we’ve been talking with Voyager 1 on a radio. In all, it only transmits about 20 watts of power, something typical of a larger compact-fluorescent-lightbulb. The total power received on Earth from Voyager is about a ten-billionth of a millionth of a watt. In one second, we receive less than a trillionth the energy a single snowflake delivers to your shoulder as you’re walking to work.
But take a look at the picture above, released by NASA last fall. See that pale blue dot right there? That is Voyager 1, seen through the eyes of the Very Long Baseline Interferometer, an array of linked radio telescopes that stretches from one side of the Earth to the other. It sees the sky in radio light. Normally it looks at quasars and distant nebulae, but this image is of Voyager 1, shining its radio back at Earth. This is the first radio signal of human origin ever to be received from outside the solar system. It is also the first picture of Voyager 1 taken since its launch. It’s a bit like seeing your friend in the dark, waving their cellphone at you from a distant mountaintop. But it’s there, and we can see it — the pale radio beacon of Voyager 1, drifting alone in the immense dark between the stars.
What will happen to Voyager 1? It will continue to talk to us for a little while longer. It is powered by a small nuclear power plant, gleaning energy from the decay of plutonium. But that energy supply is dwindling, and sometime around the mid 2020’s, just more than a decade from now, Voyager 1 will fall silent. The pale blue glow will disappear forever; there will be no more pictures of our loyal emissary. Voyager 1 will continue onward however, bound for the depths of the galaxy, a dead hulk built by a race of curious lifeforms that call themselves “humans.”
But now this has me thinking. All of our knowledge of the outer solar system has been gleaned with telescopes, and with robotic emissaries. None of the sights you have seen in pictures has ever been witnessed directly by human eyes. Not the dual-tone colors of Saturn’s enigmatic moon Iapetus; not the spider-web of canyons in Mercury’s Caloris Basin; not the misty depths of the Valles Marineris on Mars. Instead, Casinni has been twirling through the Saturn system for almost a decade, and has returned the highest resolution images of Iapetus we’ve ever seen. Mercury MESSENGER, only the second spacecraft ever to visit Mercury, finally arrived in 2011 and sent high resolution images of the Spider Crater back to Earth. And Mars? Well, Mars has its own fleet of orbiting satellites and ranging rovers to investigate its mysteries.
What happens to all our tiny robots, sent out into the Cosmos all on their own? We’ve been tossing them into space almost non-stop since the start of the Space Age — what happens to all of them?
Only 5 will ever travel beyond the solar system. Pioneers 10 and 11 are both bound for interstellar space, now quiet and dead after their power supplies failed in 2003 and 1995. Voyager 1 and 2, having completed their Grand Tour of the outer solar system, are also outbound; we expect to lose contact with them within the next 10 to 20 years. And lastly, there is New Horizons, bound for Pluto and the Kuiper Belt beyond. It is by far the youngest of this august group of explorers. It was designed to have power for 20-25 years, but it has already spent the last eight-and-a-half years just getting to Pluto — it should last another 15 years or so.
Many of our robots, like the Voyagers and Pioneers, will just die. This famously happened to the Spirit rover on Mars. It trundled around the Martian surface for 2269 days (perhaps, some say, trying to earn a trip back home) before we lost contact with it. Spirit had become stuck in a Martian sand dune and was unable to free itself. Stuck on flat ground, unable to tilt itself toward the Sun to keep warm in the cold Martian winter, we last spoke with Spirit on 22 March 2010.
The Galileo mission, which spent more than seven-and-a-half years exploring the Jovian system, was crashed into Jupiter, to prevent it from tumbling out of control when its power failed, possibly contaminating a moon like Europa, where we can imagine extraterrestrial life may exist. On 21 September 2003, it was plowed into Jupiter. We couldn’t see it take the final plunge, but we listened to it faithfully radioing us everything it could for the last few hours before its end.
Sometimes, we crash our spacecraft on purpose, for science! One of the most spectacular examples of the was LCROSS, the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite. This goal of this mission was to look for water ice in the perpetually shadowed craters on the surface of the Moon; water on the Moon would have important implications for the sustainability of lunar colonies. LCROSS had two pieces — it’s Centaur rocket stage, and the Shepherding Spacecraft that carried the science instruments. On 9 Oct 2009, the Centaur rocket impacted the Moon at a speed of about 9000 kilometers per hour; the Shepherding Spacecraft flew through the cloud of debris and radioed the composition back to Earth. This exquisitely timed dance was a planned suicidal flight for the Shepherding Spacecraft; its unavoidable fate was to impact on the Moon about 6 minutes after the Centaur stage. The result? There is water, frozen in the lunar soil.
But the saddest fate to me, is that of Mercury MESSENGER. MESSENGER was the first spacecraft to visit Mercury since Mariner 10 flew by three times in 1974. Despite three passes, Mariner 10 only mapped out about 45% of the surface; until MESSENGER’s arrival in 2011, we had no idea what more than half of Mercury looked like. It took MESSENGER 7 years to get to Mercury. It has been there for about three-and-a-half years at this point, and we are looking ahead to the end. Over time, the closest point of MESSENGER’s orbit has been getting lower and lower, affording us the opportunity to understand Mercury’s gravitational field and to map and probe the surface of Mercury with exquisite resolution. But lowering the orbit, to get a closer view of the planet, is a one way ticket, eventually leading to MESSENGER’s impact on the surface of Mercury.
The end will come sometime in March of 2015, on the far side of Mercury from our view. MESSENGER will die alone, cut-off from us by distance and astronomical happenstance. In the words of MESSENGER PI, Sean Solomon, “This will happen in darkness, out of view of the Earth. A lonely spacecraft will meet its fate.”
This emotional attachment and personification of machines seems disingenuine to some people; spacecraft aren’t people, they are collections of wires and circuits and nuts and bolts — they don’t have souls to become attached to. I dunno. I think they do have souls. They are the embodiment of every one who ever imagined them, worked on them, or stared at the data and pictures they returned. These little robots, in a way, are us. They are our dreams. Dreams of adventure, of knowledge, of a better tomorrow, of understanding who and what we are in a Cosmos that is vast and daunting.
And so today I smiled at the pale blue picture of our long departed friend, Voyager 1. And on the day it falls silent, I’ll shed a tear and drink a drink to its remarkable voyage, a voyage it made for you and me.
Three years ago, Sarah Menkedick launched Vela Magazine in response to the byline gender gap in the publishing industry, and to create a space that highlights excellent nonfiction written by women. Last week, Menkedick and her team of editors launched a Kickstarter campaign to grow Vela as a sustainable publication for high-quality, long-form nonfiction, to pay their contributors a competitive rate, and to continue to ensure that women writers are as recognized and read as their male counterparts. Menkedick chatted with Longreads about her own path as a writer, the writer’s decision to work for free, building a sustainable online publication, and the importance of featuring diverse voices in women’s nonfiction.
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Like so many women writers, I was discouraged by the original VIDA count in 2011. I was also a bit disenchanted with a certain narrowness of voice and focus in mainstream magazine publishing, which tended to be very male, because men tend to dominate mainstream magazine publishing. Talking about the alternative to that gets really dicey, because it’s icky to talk about a “womanly” or “female” voice. I wanted to say: nonfiction and literary journalism written by women doesn’t have to sound like this sort of swaggering male writing, or like the loveable snarky-but-sweet meta writing of John Jeremiah Sullivan or David Foster Wallace. It can be like . . . and there we run short on models, because there aren’t very many women being widely published whose work falls into that middle zone between “creative nonfiction” — which tends to be more academic, more experimental, more the types of essays appearing in literary magazines — and traditional journalism.
Leslie Jamison has emerged as a really great model, and I’m so excited to see her work take off. There’s also Jeanne Marie Laskas, whose voice is so distinct and funny and humble and insightful, and Rebecca Solnit. Eula Biss’s recent work straddles this line between essay and journalism in super-interesting ways.
There are so many — Annie Dillard is my all-time favorite writer, and I love her unabashed intensity and her language. I admire Isak Dinesen and also Beryl Markham, a lesser-known writer who knew Dinesen in Africa, and whose book West With The Night is phenomenal but rarely mentioned nowadays. In terms of literary journalists, Jeanne Marie Laskas, of course, and Ariel Levy, Alma Guillermoprieto, Janet Malcolm (embarrassed to admit I just read Iphigenia in Forest Hills and it rocked my world), Sarah Stillman, and Katherine Boo. I love literary journalism by writers who don’t typically write journalism, like Karen Russell (one of my favorite fiction writers) and Vanessa Veselka. I also just discovered the Irish writer Anne Enright and I adore her. In terms of essayists: Jo Ann Beard, Natalia Ginzburg . . . there are too many to name. You can find more on Vela’s Unlisted List of women writers.
I wanted Vela to be a space for this kind of work, for voice-driven nonfiction that could be intellectually and creatively free-ranging, without being defined either by the (predominately male) standards of mainstream publishing or by the moniker of “women’s,” and therefore lesser and limited in subject.
I was also frustrated with the fact that men’s magazines like GQ and Esquire were publishing this top-notch nonfiction that was getting anthologized and winning awards and generally being celebrated as exceptional writing with no talk of gender, whereas women’s magazines were almost entirely sidelined as — forgive me the academic-speak — “other.” I think this is partially the problem of women’s magazines’ marketing, advertising, and branding, and partially the way in which writing by women tends to be defined and cast off as personal in the way writing by men (of an equally “personal” nature, equally reliant on the first person) does not, something I’ve written about in the past.
I’m still obsessed with that terrain between the personal, the reported, and the essayistic/analytical. If anything, that’s a theme I’d like to see addressed on Vela: the way in which the memoir craze has, perhaps, made people hyper-sensitive about personal writing, and there seems to be this backlash against the “I.” Leslie Jamison has written some wonderful essays about that, and I think it’s territory that’s really ripe for exploration.
Ultimately, I wanted to create a publication that would be written by women because I wanted to say hey, women can do this kind of voice-driven innovative nonfiction, too, and you should be hiring and publishing them and reading their work, and also because I wanted to read more of this kind of work and find more women writers working between limited categories. I wanted a space that would not be marketed to women as dealing with “women’s” subjects, since I think part of the reason the byline gap exists is because certain subjects are considered “women’s” and marginalized, whereas men can write about anything without the subject being considered “male.” Also, while women are ushered toward these more “female” arenas, men are given meatier reporting assignments, and more dangerous and competitive assignments, as well as the intellectual freedom to write essays or criticism on a wide array of topics. One of the goals of Vela’s current Kickstarter campaign is to fund bigger, more ambitious projects by women writers.
[pullquote align="center"]I wanted a space that would not be marketed to women as dealing with ‘women’s’ subjects, since I think part of the reason the byline gap exists is because certain subjects are considered “women’s” and marginalized…[/pullquote]
I’ll spare you the whole “I knew from the moment I wrote a prize-winning short story about a flying cat in fourth grade” spiel because really, I came to writing pretty late. I always loved writing, but it was secondary to whatever else I was studying; it was simply the medium for ideas. In college, I managed to major in a subject even less practical than writing: history of science. I assumed for a long time that I’d go back to school and get a Ph.D. in history. But then I spent almost a decade traveling and in the process came into writing not as part of a larger discipline, but as a discipline in and of itself. As much as this sounds like a statement from a cheesy application for a travel writing scholarship, writing was the natural way I made sense of all of those complex ethical questions of cultural relativism and difference, of the impacts American travelers have on the places they visit and of the ways they conceive of these places; in writing, I started to realize that these questions fascinated me.
When I returned to Mexico in 2008 after a year in Beijing, I decided not to take a teaching job and to instead “make a living from writing.” It took me about, oh, two weeks to realize that making a living from writing and writing what I wanted to write were two vastly different things.
I lived on about 0 a month for several years in Oaxaca, Mexico, grading Korean TOEFL prep exams and maintaining a blog named after a Cortázar short story. I used a few essays from that blog to apply to an MFA program in 2009, and was really lucky to be accepted with full funding. That gave me three years of paid writing time and made a huge difference in my career — not so much because of the time, which I had in Mexico, but because of the immersion in a world that had writing as its center. Talking about writing, talking about reading, reading, critiquing, teaching — it all fed my work. People criticize MFAs, but for me it was the first time I’d actually analyzed writing as craft, and it made a huge difference.
Above all, it taught me how to read as a writer. During the MFA, I did an internship at Harper’s, which was hugely educational and which I’d recommend to anyone who can afford to suck up the expense of living for a few months in New York with no income. I also founded Vela. Honestly, Vela has made my career. The site has gotten some really nice recognition and the experience of running it, editing, being edited, has taken my writing to another level. Editors have read the work I published there and encouraged me to pitch, and — I think this is an issue particular to women writers — I really needed that encouragement, that permission.
Thanks for asking about this. I know all of us at Vela have felt angsty and stressed about not paying writers ever since we opened to submissions. I also think, however, and I wonder how I can say this without seeming defensive, that it is extremely difficult to be paid for art. I cringe at using the term “art,” which seems like such a lofty horrible proclamation to be made in a fedora at some bar with antique sailing fixtures, but I think if you’re not writing journalism and you’re not writing for commercial magazines — in short, if you’re not writing on assignment for someone else — then it is very difficult to be paid for your work. This has always been true; artists and writers have struggled to find patrons, whether people or institutions.
Here is where I think many writers who are strident about always getting paid for your writing go wrong — when you’re just starting out, you’re probably not going to get paid for your painfully overwrought essay about your transformation in Chiapas (to take an example from my experience). If your goal is to get paid, you’re probably going to be writing service pieces for commercial mags, and then you’re going to be a paid writer but you’re going to wind up doing a very particular type of writing, with limited creative freedom. So you can choose that route, or you can choose to write what you want to write, and the latter route might take years and years before it becomes financially sustainable. In the beginning, because you’re just not good or experienced enough, and later because unfortunately there are fewer and fewer places that pay a decent rate for essays in particular. For Ursula Le Guin, it took 20 years.
Two, I think there’s a whole realm in between that typical dichotomy we’ve created between “for free” and its assumed opposite, “paid” — and then we have the whole issue of publications that claim to pay their writers and pay . There are ways, that is, to fund your writing that don’t necessarily mean getting paid by a publication: MFAs, fellowships, lifestyle arrangements. My intention here is not at all to say that publications shouldn’t pay — I think they absolutely should, and I’ll get to that in a second. But I think beginning writers have to find creative ways to make it work, and can’t assume they’ll be getting /word for their work. I spent years doing writing “for free,” and I think that has paid off. Literally. It got me into an MFA. The writing I did for Vela, for free, got me big assignments at magazines. It got me contacts, connections, a community, and now, after three years, the potential for funding a magazine I deeply believe in.
Hopefully all that work we’ve put in says hey, we’re legit, we have experience, and trust us to fund great writers and fund our publication. And I think I can speak for the other founding members of Vela in saying that the experience they got in writing long-form pieces, in editing and being edited, in publishing stories they could share with editors and use as clips, has gotten them to much more advanced stages of their careers. We’ve all gone on to score some big bylines, fellowships, residencies, and jobs.
And then I really do believe that after this initial period there comes a time when you say, okay, now I need to be paid. I think all of us writers at Vela have reached that point. And I think Vela has reached the point as a publication where it needs to start paying its writers to be reputable.
[pullquote align="center"]And then I really do believe that after this initial period there comes a time when you say, okay, now I need to be paid.[/pullquote]
I am of the persuasion that the great democratizing force of the internet is a fantastic thing for young writers, women writers, writers who’ve historically been excluded from the conversation. I remember this anecdote about a male writer — I think it was Chris Jones — literally knocking on the door of an editor in NYC, asking the editor to read his work. Shockingly, this worked. I could not imagine a woman doing this or getting away with it, but now the internet and spaces like Vela allow women to do just that. Hey! Here I am! Here’s my work.
Of course, the downside of that is that the internet has established this really pervasive expectation that everything should be free and everything should be shareable. I think for the internet to continue to be an empowering and liberating force for writers we’re going to have to seek new publishing models that ask readers to pay for content: via subscriptions, single issues, single stories . . . this is why Vela is making this push now to pay our writers, because we want to be part of a new and upcoming group of publications that is making the commitment to more sustainable digital publishing.
Oh no, please don’t ask me to do this! You know I’m going to recommend a whole slew of them, but please don’t judge me — I have three years of writing to choose from. Simone Gorrindo’s An Unwanted Guest is a breathtaking piece. Amanda Giracca’s Lives and Past Lives is a fabulous, slow-burning essay on domesticity that stays with you long after you read it. Miranda Ward’s The Purest Form of Play is one of those pieces I return to when I start to feel cynical and burnt out. A personal favorite, a piece I worked on with a lovely writer who was so generous and insightful and great with edits, is Lilac Stitches, about motherhood, Soviet Russia, and sewing. And Molly Beer’s Fire Ants is a stunning essay that weaves her experience teaching in El Salvador with the history of deported Central American gang members.
I could keep going. I suppose, if we’re really only picking one, read our manifesto!
This interview was edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Yes, it’s another culture post. I’m a Libyan who’s obsessed with the intellectual revival of my country, okay? While political flame wars are fun, it’s the artistic manifestations of this unstable and contrasting country that piques my interest. I’ve written about our cultural bankruptcy and Libya’s lost literature. And yes, I’ve revisited this topic several times before.
What really pushed me to write about it again was a book, namely Chewing Gum, by Mansour Bushnaf. I stumbled on this book almost by accident. There was a BBC report called “killing books in Libya” in which the author himself describes the dismal state of publishing in the country. My compulsive googling habits led me to discover his recently published book, and my rage at being unable to attain a copy led naturally to a prolonged Twitter rant at the injustice of not being able to buy books written by people in the same country they come from.
But a good samaritan noticed my twitter tirade and compassionately bought me the Kindle version of the book, which you can get here by the way. I won’t review the book here since I’ve already done so on Goodreads, but I do want to highlight my reaction upon reading and finishing it.
First off, since I have the unfortunate habit of underestimating Libyan talent, I was taken aback at the literary prose of the book. This is a translated book by the way, a fate that leaves many a written word stripped of the beauty and context of the original language. But the English prose here is even superior to many native English novels I’ve read. Picking my jaw up off the floor, I continued.
The subject matter, whoa. Prostitution, alcohol, love affairs, class division. Libyans like to pretend that this dark underbelly of society doesn’t exist, despite the overwhelming majority of society having some connection to it. But for someone to write about it, and sympathetically no less, was akin to revelation. Why don’t we talk about it? Why are Libyans so afraid of admitting that our social structure is unhealthy and unjust? If you thought ‘systematic repression that has become too ingrained into our subconscious’, then we’re on the same wavelength.
The novel was also, surprisingly, feminist. The repeated symbol of a woman whose intense passions have broken her down because of society’s inability to support her, was refreshing without being too preachy. And the heroine, Fatma, is a symbol of sacrifice for higher aspirations. Relatability, man.
An aged Libyan man wrote a strong female lead. Take a moment to let that sink in.
The story is actually a novelette, and left me with a thirst for more Libyan storytelling. The raw emotion and honesty in Chewing Gum presents a strong impression of one of the many facets of Libyan identity. Our identity is shaped by our surroundings, which is in turn formed from history. We don’t know much about our history because half of it is buried and the other half is being manipulated for political leverage.
Never mind history books, Libya has virtually no books, let alone some kind of widely available, neutral source of history where we can all read up on the path that led us to this crumbling wasteland of a country. “Those who don’t read history are doomed to repeat it.” I know it’s a trite, overused cliche, but it’s also true.
Libyans wouldn’t be apathetic (I hope) towards these new entities insistent on forcing an Islamist or Western identity if they had read Libya’s history and realized that we’re not insane fundamentalists who obsessively segregate genders or openly engage in debauchery. But the truth is painfully obvious when someone posts a picture of a younger Libya, where, for example, women and men both engage in social activities together, and people quote “Wow, I can’t believe this used to be Libya.”
We can’t believe it because we don’t know anything about it apart from aged photographs and our grandparent’s vague recollections. Without books, without history, Libyans will be mired in this identity crisis, trying on different cultural standards and discovering that none of them fit just right. We need to know who we are as a people and not wait for someone to tell us, because, news flash, Libya is a tempting place for several countries to manipulate and screw us over.
When you ask a Libyan to describe their society, you’ll often get the answer “we’re conservative”. People mistake this for being religious, when it actually just means that Libyans care about what other people think, which is most certainly not a Islamic trait. And it’s sad that we don’t have a more comprehensive answer, or that we limit ourselves to a very narrow political/religious identity. Even the attempts to describe the current conflict as ‘Islamist vs. Liberal’ is way off the mark, since the average Libyan is more moderate than anything else.
For the last three days there has been a cultural gallery here. I went to see the books available, but was sad to find that that section was gone (I went late on the third day). Instead I perused through the artwork and photography. There was some very impressive stuff (again, underestimated). Ask the average Libyan about famous artists and you might get one or two names at best.
One of the artists told us about a disagreement he had with his father. “He told me that I was wasting my time by painting,” he said, echoing a common reaction in Libya towards the arts and humanities. This is just my opinion, but I strongly, strongly believe that it’s the arts that will help us form a more national identity than any other pursuit.
Religion has played a large role in Libyan identity. So has tribalism, regionalism, politics, and our long history of invasion and occupation. The 2011 revolution provided a chance for us to finally show the world who we are, and in my opinion, we stuttered. Libyan culture is, among other things, an amalgam of outside influences. This will continue to be our predominate image until we start looking back through our history and start forging our own unique identity. One thing that needs to stop is our desperate cling to one homogeneous Libya. We can be united while still being diverse.
I’m so happy to bring you this letter. One of my favourite artistic collaborators, Dave Lamb, has written this beautiful, eloquent, generous and immensely clever response to Mitchell Browne’s Syndey Morning Herald article ‘WHY SHOULD ARTISTS AT WORK FUND IDLERS AT ART?’ Enjoy and, if you happen to know Mitchell, please pass this on. Dave wants to hang out.
My name is Dave, and I’m an artist. We’ve never met, although you assume an awful lot about my lifestyle.
Last week I read your opinion piece on the Sydney Morning Herald website, along with the comments it generated. I must admit, I originally felt a lot of the ire that was expressed there, but I realise it’s not fair or productive to respond with scorn or sarcasm – that would only serve to distance our positions further, and one of the chief goals of the arts is, in my opinion, to bring different perspectives of life closer together in an attempt to create mutual understanding.
I respond in that spirit, not to criticise or correct you but hopefully to further our understanding of each other. Most importantly, I don’t want you to feel that all I’m saying is “you don’t understand art” – that would be unfair, narrow-minded and probably quite offensive to you. My hope is that this response reaches you and that you read with an open mind, and possibly come to a different understanding of the potential and importance of the arts to our society.
Your central point – that 0 million funding for the Australia Council is in effect a robbery of hard-working taxpayers to fund the laziness of artists – seems to me to have 3 elements: firstly, that tax revenue would be better used if spent directly by the taxpayer; secondly, that artists take advantage of funding to be lazy and self indulgent; and finally, that funding the arts in general is a waste – that the people paying the taxes should be able to choose to pay or not, in whatever amount and for whatever work they deem worthwhile.
I agree that all government expenditure warrants scrutiny, and I understand that it’s easiest to complain about funding for the things that you don’t believe benefit you – I personally don’t believe that as much funding should go to the defence force, or to religious counselling in schools, or diesel fuel subsidies for mining corporations, but there are cases to be made for the programs and business models that receive that funding.
If we were able to choose where our tax revenue went, the very real possibility is that some things that were crucial to our society (roads and public transport, or maybe health and education, or perhaps defence) would receive far less funding than they need, because people don’t use them every day, or don’t recognise the flow-on benefits that such funded services provide. We live in a pluralistic society, which generally means that we accept the unique perspective and needs of every person that lives within our borders. Pluralism is about more than just race or religion or creed, it’s an understanding that even though I don’t particularly like or value the things that some other people do, our society and government operates to give as many people as possible the freedom and ability to live in the way they choose.
For some people, that includes the arts.
The purpose of government funding for the arts isn’t solely to pay an individual artist. Funding is often used to subsidise ticket prices for national arts events – exhibitions, festivals and companies – ensuring that access to art forms across a wide range of disciplines isn’t restricted just to those who can afford it. It means that participation in art, creatively or receptively, is possible for people from all backgrounds and sectors in our community, and sends a message that we encourage representations of lives other than our own – Pluralism. The existence of government funding for the arts is a statement that art is important to the development of a society beyond its current understanding of itself.
The 0 million funding is distributed to both individual artists and companies across myriad art forms for several purposes. In some cases, the funding is used to develop and present a piece or series of works in an artists’ discipline, in others it is used to fund further training in a particular field or form. In all cases, the recipient must have proved both a level of skill and capability in their practice that shows they are pursuing this art form as a career, as well as a plan detailing how they will use the funds to contribute something to the society that has paid for it.
Funding isn’t just handed out to whoever is standing in line with an idea – grants are given to artists who have already invested their own time and money in educating themselves and expanding both the skills of their craft and their knowledge of arts history and practice to understand where they fit and what they can contribute. For many artists, years have been spent working several different part-time jobs so that they can afford weekly classes and workshops. Crucially, the time spent on these unpaid creative endeavours is not the same as engaging in a hobby or playing for enjoyment. For a career artist, it is work.
The impression of the artist being idle is an old one, and if any artistic career looks easy than it’s a testament to the skill of the artist. The audience should only see the finished result. They shouldn’t see the pain, the uncertainty, the regret, the self-loathing, the incessant questioning and reassessment and screaming silently “What the hell am I doing this for?”
As an actor, particularly while performing in schools as an aid to English education (yes, that gets funded too, but out of the education budget rather than the Australia Council) one of the most common questions I am asked is “How do you remember all those lines?” The answer, invariably, is “Hard Work”, but the audience isn’t there for the hours of rehearsal and forgetting and paraphrasing, they only see the lines being remembered. Hopefully.
Often, we will pay for the hard work ourselves, either because we want to showcase our talents or because we believe so strongly in the work that we want to give it to an audience. But some works require financial backing beyond the capacity of a part-time cafe job. That’s where funding comes in.
The potential end result of funding individual arts projects is that individuals and companies receive both awareness among the audience and income from the presentation of the work, both of which afford them the opportunity to create more and different work supported by their own financial resources and a connected audience base that has the potential to grow by the expansion of access and awareness.
The intent, just as in any other instance of government funding, is that from an initial investment a company is able to grow to the point of self-sufficiency, generating employment for more artists, which in turn generates future tax revenue for the government that exceeds the initial investment – tax revenue on both the income from and audience and the wages paid to artists. The investment is intended to ultimately create ongoing return.
Funding for individual artists serves a similar purpose. The artist receives the grant to assist them in activities to further their skills and develop new networks. Think of it in the same way as a commonwealth supported trade apprenticeship – by providing support for an artist to undertake classes, workshops, creative development or exploration of form, the funding assists the artist in developing skills and networks that further their career prospects and employment potential, leading to more work that converts back into tax revenue for the government.
And now, some perspective on that 0 Million you’re worried about Mitchell. It equates to less than for each Australian citizen. Of course, not all Australians pay taxes. Statistics from the 2009-10 financial year indicated that 55% of adult Australians paid tax – that’s around 7.15 million people. So the 0 million in funding for the arts is around for each taxpayer.
For some people that’s still a lot of money, and I understand that it might seem like there’s no return for them, so what does their get them? Reporting from the last 6 years shows funding being distributed to professional theatre companies around Australia, which subsidises ticket prices for the audience; to art galleries to facilitate free entry; to tours of performances and festivals to regional Australia, ensuring arts access is not restricted to major urban areas. It has facilitated new work from musicians – both classical and contemporary; from writers – both literature and performance; from actors, dancers, visual artists, jewellers, sculptors, circuses and more. All of this work was available to Australian audiences in return for that of their tax revenue. And if they chose to engage, they would walk away with so much more.
Quantifying the effect the arts has on society is always a difficult prospect. Statistically, in a study performed by the Australia Council in 2010, 53% of Australians engage in the arts as an audience, and a further 40% also actively participate in creating art. That’s around 9.2 Million artists engaging in theatre, music, literature, visual art, dance, craft and more and 12 Million receiving that art.
In financial terms, ABS data from 2009-10 shows that the cultural and creative sectors provided a Gross Value Add of Billion to the Australian economy, outstripping the contribution of both retail and education, and more than doubling the contribution of Agriculture, Forestry and Mining at Billion. As a point of comparison, the mining industry alone received 2 Million in government subsidies in 2012-13, along with generous tax concessions.
But art is intended for more than financial gain – Phil Scott wrote (also in response to your piece, Mitchell) that “Art sees society through an individual and questioning perspective”. He echoes the opinion of Shakespeare, who thought the purpose of theatre “both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as ‘twere a mirror up to nature.” I agree with them both, but frame it a little differently.
I think the power of great art is not that it tells us who we are, but that it allows us to recognise elements of ourselves – emotional states, or behaviours, or hopes and dreams and fears – in other people. If we are told that we are a certain thing, either good or bad, we can listen and agree (or not), but remain largely unaffected. But in seeing elements of ourselves within a fiction or a representation – either on stage, or within a piece of music, or in the form of a sculpture or twist of a brushstroke – we have a very real chance of understanding that aspect of ourselves by recognising it and describing it in our own terms.
This is, I believe, a far more powerful and instructive form of self-reflection – nobody has told you “You are this thing”, you haven’t needed to be defensive or react to them to protect your idea of yourself, but you’ve come to understand something about yourself by observing. And once we acknowledge that we can understand more about ourselves, we acknowledge that we have the ability to change if we choose. And once we acknowledge we have that choice, then we become very aware of the effects of the choices we make. And then we can extend our understanding towards others, observing their choices and the effects they have. And, potentially, we find it easier to accept things in others we have previously just reacted to.
Do you see what I’m trying to say, Mitchell? Art gives us the opportunity to observe and understand both ourselves and others without threat or fear. Good art tells us something we didn’t already know, and great art helps us understand the things we already did. It shows us who we are, asks us if we accept ourselves in that way, and gives us the power to change if we choose. The very best art will tell us not just who we are, but who everyone is, and will allow us to accept and understand not just what makes us different but what makes us unalterably the same.
I hope you choose to engage with the art available to you as a result of government funding Mitchell. I hope you take a chance with your spare time and surprise yourself. If you’re ever in Melbourne and looking to fill an evening, I’d love to take you to a show that was funded by an Arts Council Grant and sit and talk about it afterwards. If you’re here during the Fringe or International Arts Festivals, I can make a week’s worth of recommendations – I’ll even pay for the tickets, it’s the least I can do.
Art offers us opinions and perspectives other than our own. Art offers us choices. But the first choice has to be ours. I hope you make that choice Mitchell, I hope you discover the other worlds that are there for you, and I hope it inspires you and your talented tradie mates to share your stories with the rest of us – I bet you could teach us a thing or two, and I hope I get to learn them.
Yours faithfully and artistically,
Dave is a Melbourne-based actor who is currently appearing in The City They Burned. He tweets at @davenlamb and, if you want to see him doing something utterly ridiculous… He calls this evidence that you shouldn’t take him too seriously. My deepest thanks to Dave for this wonderful letter.
More of Sarah Walker’s amazing photography can be found here.
I’ve updated this post after discussing the issue with my class.
I can think of no journalism professors I admire more than Clay Shirky and Jay Rosen. But I (so far) disagree with them on the subject of whether to allow students to use laptops and mobile devices during class.
Clay has explained in a blog post why he bans computers from his classroom. Jay chimed in his agreement:
— Jay Rosen (@jayrosen_nyu) September 10, 2014
They both have notably more classroom experience than I do, and they might be right. I encourage you to read Clay’s full explanation and won’t try to summarize it here, but he cites research about how multitasking can interfere with learning.
My limited experience is different. I was very glad yesterday that a student had her laptop and multitasked in class.
In my syllabus, I tell students that they are welcome to use their laptops (or other devices) to take notes, look up links relating to class discussion or even to livetweet our discussions. However, I said, if I see them using Facebook or otherwise giving in to the distractions the device can present, I will ask them to shut their devices. But let’s be honest: I’m in front of the classroom and not very likely to play laptop cop often. I presume some of them are communicating with friends, etc. during class.
But yesterday, when I had cause during a class discussion to mention the famous Kevin Carter photo of a vulture stalking a child dying
during the Ethiopian famine, a student found the photo in seconds so I could hold up her laptop and show the class. I hadn’t planned to mention the photo, or I might have had it ready to project on the classroom screen. I momentarily thought about finding it and showing it, but I had not even signed in on the classroom computer (I’ll probably do that before class now, even if I don’t have something planned to show) and didn’t want to delay the discussion while I signed on, waited for the projector to warm up and searched for the photo. But when I thought of the photo spontaneously as an example to make in a discussion we were having, showing the photo would have really helped make my point. The photo was shot in 1993, probably before most of my students were born. Many may never have seen it. And I was able to show it in class because a student took a few seconds to multitask on her laptop. I appreciated not just the example, but that she used her laptop to become more engaged in the class.
In another case, a student mentioned a video in class that related to another discussion. She emailed the video link to me during class (would she have remembered after class if I didn’t let her have her laptop open? I doubt it), and I posted it on the class blog.
In addition, I take better notes on a laptop than writing in a notebook, and I have decades’ experience taking notes on paper. I think and hope my students, who have spent much of their lives using electronic keyboards, will take better notes with their laptops than with pen and paper.
I value Clay’s and Jay’s experience and I’m sure that my students with their laptops open are facing other distractions and some are no doubt multitasking and missing some of what I say. But I regard it as my job to get and hold their attention. And I remember the distractions I could find simply by daydreaming when professors failed to hold my attention in pre-laptop days.
To a certain extent, I feel that adult students need to take responsibility for their own education. If they bring distractions into the classroom, then they are responsible for the damage from those distractions to the education they (and their parents) are paying for. And I welcome the better note-taking and the contributions from students who can find helpful material on their devices.
I especially respect Clay’s point about secondary distractions — students who are trying to pay attention being distracted by the material on the screens of their neighbors. I’m going to discuss this matter with my students tomorrow and I’ll let them vote on it (using their devices).
But, unless they embrace a laptop ban, students in my classes can use their laptops, tablets or cellphones and manage the distractions they bring. At least until I get as much experience and wisdom as Clay and Jay.
Update: My students were unanimous in wanting laptops. I invited anyone who’s bothered by distractions to text or email me and no one did. I remember two examples, including the one about the starvation photo, when students contributed to the class from relevant information they found on their laptops. I asked how many used their laptops either to pull up a link I was showing or to look for related information that they hadn’t shared with the class but had helped their understanding of the topics being discussed. Most hands in the classroom went up. One contrasted it with a class where she can’t use her laptop. She finds that handwriting is a distraction from what the professor is saying. She can’t keep up as well and she misses some things. I value what Clay and Jay (and others in comments here and on Facebook) have said. But for the Introduction to Mass Media course I’m teaching and for my teaching style and my students’ preferences, I think it’s best to allow use of laptops and other devices. Will let you know if I change my mind.
Update: Thanks to Steve Smith for sharing in the comments below a link to some research showing that students retain information better if they take notes in handwriting rather than on a laptop. I remain skeptical. I see some indication of bias both in the paraphrased explanations from the scholars and in the summary of the research by the Vox reporter. And I’m deeply skeptical of research that “proves” the researchers’ preconceived notions. The study, by controlling for the distractions of the Internet, also eliminated the opportunity of deeper engagement through relevant use of the Internet. For instance, the student who found the starvation photo probably has more retention of yesterday’s discussion than either students taking notes on laptops or taking notes by hand. But I will share this study with the students tomorrow and discuss these issues with them.
One more update: In my initial post, relying on my memory, I said the starvation photo was from Ethiopia. It was from Southern Sudan.