February 6, 2014

From Gerald R. Lucas

Missing a Better Person

I’m a better person when I read literature. My Ph.D. is in literature, so I used to read all the time — work and pleasure being essentially the same thing. I no longer teach literature. I’m a worse person for it. I miss me, the English professor.

Today, as a faculty member in the Department of Media, Culture & the Arts, I teach a combination of a sophomore humanities class, a new media theory class, Writing for Digital Media, and the occasional special topics class in either New Media and Communications (NMAC) or Humanities. No literature classes, even though my title remains Associate Professor of English. Yes, I teach literature sometimes in my humanities classes, but that’s not the same as a focused, rigorous, semester-long investigation of great works.

I miss Homer, Ovid, Dante, Voltaire, Pope, Molière, Goethe, Dostoyevsky, Mann… It’s been years since I’ve voyaged with Odysseus in the Odyssey, puzzled through Gregor’s nightmare in The Metamorphosis, laughed at Orgon’s all-too-human desires in Tartuffe, or picked up a new classic I’ve been meaning to add to my literary s(h)elf — my human self.

Not only do these works make me feel better, they also make me think better.

I’ve recently been going through some old blog posts. I’ve re-read some of my old ideas — not just interpretations of literary works, but literary interpretations of the world around me. Then, I always had ideas swimming around in my head, so I always had something to write about — to puzzle through. These days, not so much. Or, if I do have something to write, it tends to be about the praxis of writing, or it’s designing a new online course or tweeting about something brilliant someone else has written.

This is not really a big deal, I guess; I am still writing. I just don’t feel as creative and insightful as my old literary self. However, I find myself longing for these qualities in my writing more these days because of the great platforms now available for writing, specifically Medium.[1]

Recently, a neighbor of mine who happens to be a retired theology professor, wrote me an email out of the blue:

I rarely get feedback about my blogging, but when I receive something like this, it just encourages me to write more like my old self.

I mentioned the new writing community Medium. If McLuhan is correct when he states “the medium is the message,” then Medium’s message is “write more, write better.” I want to write something as beautiful as the software — something that deserves to be on such a great piece of software.

Medium’s a blogging platform like no other: it uses big, legible text, an elegant interface for composing, editing, and adding images, and looks fabulous on a web browser or a tablet. Medium approaches comments as if they are marginalia: unlike all other blogging platforms that have a comment section at the bottom, users can highlight particular areas of a post, then comment off to the side, as if they were writing in a digital book’s margins. Just beautiful and so elegantly nostalgic. Users can also recommend their favorite posts and curate their own collections.

Medium’s coded elegance is the literary form of the blog. It’s movable type compared to the handwritten tome. It’s the precision of the pen over the quill and inkwell. Yes, it recognizes that it’s part of the digital paradigm, but brings along the best parts of the print. Just compare WordPress’ or Tumblr’s compose interfaces with Medium’s. While I use both of the former platforms, I can’t stand their Microsoft-Word-inspired interfaces.

Maybe that’s part of the issue with the professional me. I’m using Microsoft Word when I want to be using Medium.

We might stop for a moment to consider the damage that Microsoft has done to software design — so much, in fact, that we’re still trying to recover. Now, I don’t want to pull out the soapbox, but folks, please stop using shitty, bloated software! I’m sure there are some professionals out there that might need some of the cumbersome features of Word, but I know not one of them. I don’t need it. My students certainly don’t need it. Why, then, do all of my students insist on putting it on their new computers? Why does my college insist on putting it on every computer on campus? Why do we still reward Microsoft for crippling the software industry? M$ Office is needlessly terrible software that we should stop using.

We can do better, no? Medium is a true Digital Humanities project: it’s open to all; it encourages collaboration and participation; it builds its own knowledge through collections; and it uses the best tools of the web to curate excellent content. Yes, there’s some junk and a user bias toward the tech industry and top-10-ways-to-do-this-or-that listicles, but I curate several collections about the arts and humanities, and I’m getting more solid submissions everyday. It’s one of my expert contributions to my community. Should I list it under “Community Service” on my cv? (I’m half-serious.)

Perhaps this is part of the reason why I miss being engaged with literature professionally. Yes, I like what I do, but it’s less academic, theoretical, and aesthetic. I like tech and media, but it doesn’t all have to be pragmatic. I think Medium’s designers get that, even if many of its users do not.

If I had but world enough and time, I could incorporate literature into my non-professional life. Yes, I still read — I’m almost finished with the Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice series — but it’s a different kind of reading. While not totally devoid of my academic eye — if I don’t have to write about it or teach it, I experience it differently — more like TV and less like literature.

I want to teach literature again. Barring that, maybe I can make myself write about what I read to reclaim some of the magic missing from my life. Medium provides a great incentive to bring back that better person.

Note

  1. I know what you’re thinking: if you like Medium so much, what are you publishing this here? Simple: I like Medium too much, so I post only more polished work. Check out what I have there already. Leave a comment. Recommend a post. Write your own. Be the best person you can be.