ETEWAF

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It stands for “Everything That Ever Was Available Forever,” and is used by tech and futurist types to describe the state of our present relationship with information. I thought about it briefly last year in my blog post about “otaku,” the state of being expert in something obscure and therefore cool. Patton Oswalt’s great Wired piece asserted that ETEWAF made otaku meaningless as both individual achievement and social state: if anyone could just read A.V. Club’s Gateway to Geekery on Frank Zappa and suddenly “know Kung Fu,” then what the heck was the point? We all could pass as otaku; we just had to invest the requisite fifteen minutes.

My school’s motto is lovely: “Esse Quam Videri,” “to be rather than to seem.” It was my intent upon entering college and grad school to become actually erudite: deeply knowledgable about things. Which things I had not really worked out, but smart things. You knew them when you saw them. The things smart people already knew (E.D. Hirsh become flesh, natch: knowledge as social currency first, actual utility after if at all). Oswalt is struggling with the “seeming” winning out over the “being” in the arcane pursuits that gave meaning to his childhood and the adult he became. I primarily wanted to seem more than to be: to seem like someone who read the Iliad and Shakespeare.

I guess I succeeded. I was a predictably insufferable undergrad at home on break (“look what I read and how it explains everything and calls you all out on your benighted lives”), though in hindsight I knew little and talked much. I was very concerned about appearing well-educated. About seeming to be someone who had extracted the hidden knowledge of the culture and was therefore a more authentic member of it. But I was CONCERNED, is the point. I knew there were things I did not know, and for reasons good or poor was hell-bent on finding them out.

It’s the perceived difference between me and my current students that has me writing here, especially the difference in how we navigate ETEWAF culture. I am a voracious Googler. I love that in thirty seconds I can have Wikipedia-level information on whatever I barely care to know more about. That capacity is an essential part of my daily life.

Actual stuff I know more about than I did twenty-four hours ago:

– Whether Topol toothpaste is better than other whitening brands (no, and is probably more dangerous to tooth enamel because it is off the charts on the Relative Dental Abrasive (RDA) index and the ADA hasn’t even given the stuff its seal of approval);
– whether or not Britney Spears ever emerged from the “swamp thing from hell” stage she was viciously portrayed as by Rolling Stone in 2008 (by the quality of her last outing, I think so – hope so, the poor dear);
– what the heck Naropa University is, and what studying education must look like in a Buddhist-inspired setting.

I did not start the day wanting any of this; it wasn’t on any syllabus prepared for me. My capacity to navigate the culture and have power in it is only marginally impacted by this knowledge (maybe I’ll impress someone someday with the Naropa thing, come off as more detached than I really am in a context where that’s valued or something). My teeth will be healthier for it, for sure. It’s not earth-shaking insight. The point is that I wanted to know something and went out and learned it.

And I do not know if many of my students in the last twenty-four hours would have shared my curiosity about any of this, or seen any of it as the sort of thing that one might learn more about through a few keystrokes.

I frequently ask my students to Google the authors we read for a just a minute or two before class, and reinforce the expectation by discussing what they found out first before we get into the stuff itself (lots of chances to show what you know, get teacher praise for your initiative, etc etc). Most of our authors have Wikipedia pages; none are obscure. Almost no one ever, ever does it. Why? Is the course so dull that the people we read in it must be dull too? Evals tell me no: it’s not a dull course, most find it the most relevant thing they have done in college so far. So why not venture out there for three minutes without a syllabus and find out more?

I am beating around a pretty obvious bush, I fear. When the pantry is always full, we cease knowing what it is to be hungry or even valuing the food we eat. As people join a culture where anything they want to know is easily knowable, they naturally become less interested in actually going out to find it. The wonder of a full cupboard or a lightning-fast Google search (even though it has to go to space) isn’t a wonder any more. Paradoxically, we explore and exploit it less because of its richness and effortlessness.

We also become exquisitely sensitive to the slightest discomfort in our engagement with it: the most insignificant gaps between our desires and reality become onerous. Here I am thinking of David Foster Wallace’s famous cruise ship essay (1), where he ends admitting that after a week of gargantuan luxury and indulgence, he pulls into port next to another ship and can’t help but notice how the other ship seems just a shade whiter, it’s umbrellas’ stripes just a shade more vibrant. There’s his thesis, and sort-of mine: satisfaction of every need leads us to be fine-tuned to those needs, and to create appetites that aren’t sated in a never-ending solipsistic free fall into ourselves (the interruption of which is the great theme of his work).

So what can we do to help the generation that never wanted for information come to value it again, even seek it and desire to organize and use it? I am a teacher, after all: getting young people to want to do that, and helping them develop the skills and dispositions to do it, is what I am spending my life on.

There may be some insight in Elizabeth Kolbert’s terrific New Yorker piece on spoiled children. Here our author compares the self-sufficiency and apparent equanimity with her place in the world of an Amazonian six year-old with the apparent helplessness and querulousness of a typical North American one.

So little is expected of kids that even adolescents may not know how to operate the many labor-saving devices their homes are filled with.

She wonders if the solution needs to include more benign neglect of children’s needs, the better for them to understand both their relation in the world to other’s needs (i.e., others have them) and to develop the context in which they have to learn to Do Things. And only in the context of having to do things will they actually learn to do them, and thereby develop the requisite self-confidence to try to do something else. It’s a developmental cycle that we paradoxically interrupt when we try to give them some further advantage – which parents of a certain class and social place do a lot, for some very logical emergent meritocratic reasons. It’s a great piece, you should read it (2).

I take from the piece NOT a conviction that my students are spoiled or so different from “the way we used to be.” That’s poisonous, and I have seen senior faculty become intensely bitter by believing it. Rather, I think it means that the developmental mechanisms of capacity and “self-efficacy” are closely aligned with the exigencies of actual need to figure stuff out yourself and then surprise yourself with your own competence.

This realization has big curricular implications for me: perhaps I need to put my students in higher-stakes settings where they must find stuff out for themselves, are made uncomfortable by the demand so they’ll do it and then see the payoff of having done it and use that self-knowledge to reinforce their confidence in doing it again. Concretely: maybe I start giving pop quizzes, where some info is not “in the readings” but out there to be found and synthesized? I hate “Web quest” scavenger hunt-style activities, but maybe something more independent where more varied (and authentic) outcomes are valued. I am actually pulling together a doc seminar right now that seeks to support advanced grad students in developing autonomy and self-confidence as readers, researchers, and synthesizers of previous thought toward their own. This challenge is everywhere.

I loathe how many talks and resources about “milennials” (the generation I teach) emphasize that they are so deeply different from me, their values so inscrutably remote from mine that all I can do is throw up my hands and let them Pinterest when they should be participating in class discussion. I think it’s on me to help them thrive in their information environment, to come into their own as ETEWAF surfers as well as masters of the curriculum I bring.

Apologies if this turned into teacher-talk inside baseball, but it’s eating my lunch as a teacher and I don’t think I (we) are doing enough about it. The ETEWAF world is a tremendous opportunity: how do we as teachers help our students use it to their own growth and strength and capacity? That’s part of our job. Some of my past students track this blog, I think: anyone want to weigh in?

1 – I know I am obsessed with the guy, but I come by writing about it again honestly. I am giving a paper on him in a few weeks, for crying out loud, calm down.

2 – I was personally amazed yesterday to witness my nine year-old make better pancakes than I can, with minimal supervision from my wife. I would not have given him the chance to, probably. Point exactly.

NB – I deliberately drafted this whole thing on an iPad in iA Writer, an app that eliminates all other distractions and just makes you focus on the words themselves – not the hyperlinks, formatting, etc. I am trying it in blogging to see if it helps make my prose more lucid and arguments more forthright than my usual laptop-pounding. Feedback?

I can’t remember where I got the image; New York Time several months ago, I think. Apologies, will cite when I find it.

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