The Ageist Myth of Digital Media: Or, My Chat with Papaw

Today, I talked to my grandfather.

Why did I talk to Papaw? Well, two reasons. 1) I like talking to Papaw. 2) For one of my classes, I need to write a blog post. Requirements stipulate that the post be in response to an interview of someone who has used a typewriter. I have used a typewriter, but one cannot interview oneself. Correction: one can, but one would look crazy. Besides, those moments reside in the far reaches of my childhood memories (and once in college). So I racked my brain. Who to ring up?


A former teacher?

Wendell Berry? I don’t know him but I once knew someone who knew him…

I rested on calling my grandfather, not because any of the above options wouldn’t have worked just fine for this assignment (Wendell Berry would’ve been downright cool), but because I am in the throes of dissertation proposal madness and wanted to talk to someone who composed his dissertation by hand and on typewriters, to find out what that was like. And to be reassured that this process is, in fact, this difficult no matter how or when you do it. And to learn some stuff about dissertating from someone who got his PhD at The University in Illinois in 1974 — a very different time, when dissertating meant library-going, dewey-decimal searching, and hand-drafting.

Papaw started by describing how his doctoral thesis came together — the word “laborious” came up more than once. He wrote his dissertation (I just learned this today — how is that possible? I’m ashamed.) on the electrical responses of houseflies’ hair receptors. Electrophysiology… or something. He wrote much of the dissertation by hand, piecing it together in various drafts and with various versions, typing it on a shared electric typewriter in the lab when it a chapter needed to be sent to a committee member. He didn’t type the final version; instead, he hired a neighbor/typist who lived across the street from him and Nana in the their tiny town of Homer, Illinois.

By the time Papaw was working on his PhD in the 1970s, typewriters were common. Were electric. Papaw has never really worked on a non-electric typewriter, though he and Nana had one — a hand-me-down from my great-grandfather that got lost in a move or a spring cleaning somewhere along the way. But though Papaw spent much of his adult life using electric typewriters — his job as an editor in New York pre-PhD required some time in front of typewriters, no doubt — he has since moved on to a computer command station that seriously puts mine to shame.

Papaw’s Command Station

He’s currently writing a book about American jazz pianist and organist Milt Buckner (did I mention my Papaw is also a professional jazz pianist? Someday I’ll be as cool as him), and has composed — and researched — the entire contents of the book with the aid of digital technologies.

When I asked him, “was there anything better about the way you used to do it?”
He said, very decisively, “No.”
And I laughed.

I laughed because my septuagenarian grandfather is one of the more digitally literate adults I know, and because I knew that would be his answer even before I asked the question. He went on to tell me how much more quickly he can work now that he has the Internet to help him track down resources, a word processor that allows him to revise in the moment, and the ability to cut and paste without literally cutting and pasting pages together. His book has been coming together over the course of the past year, and has involved phone and email interviews, Internet searches for Buckner’s daughter, and database hunts for books and articles at the U of I libraries.

As the “digital revolution,” if that’s a thing, has progressed, Papaw has altered his approach to writing and composing drastically. He has a system for converting old records into digital music files (this has always eluded me), he scanned and archived all the family photos (this came in very handy when I made a photo-video tribute for my Mom upon graduating college), and now he is composing a biography (for fun). He was a die-hard iPod user starting with the first version of iPod Mini. I’m not a Mac user, and I give him and the rest of my family plenty of guff for joining that cult, but I’m relatively astounded by Papaw’s willingness to try on, check out, and experiment with new technologies.

But maybe astounded isn’t the right word for me to use. I know plenty of people between the ages of 30 and 80 who know how to “use computers” in ways that many college and high school students do not. As I have designed my research study on teachers’ uses of digital media, many people I’ve talked to have questioned whether or not my findings will simply revolve around age. The mantra: “well that’s easy — the older teachers won’t use technology, and the younger ones will.” Though I see why this relatively ageist belief gets perpetuated in our society, I’m not terribly convinced. I talk to Papaw, who is using his digital devices to do everything from compose and disseminate music to write a book about a jazz organist, and I’m not convinced. I watch a veteran teacher use digital spaces to conduct writing workshops with her students, and I’m not convinced. I watch my undergraduate students in my composition courses struggle with how to create well-thought-out, rhetorically-intelligent websites, and I’m not convinced. Do I think that today’s adults face challenges when it comes to learning how to use digital media in ways that work best for what we want to do? Yes. But so do kids, especially when we fail to teach them how to use these technologies in ways my grandfather is using them now — carefully, critically, and with a purpose in mind.

Marc Prensky, in an essay that I really need to quit citing but that continues to rile me up, argues that today’s teachers are “immigrants,” today’s students “natives” when it comes to the “digital language” (first of all, Prensky, it’s not language, it’s literacy) of the 21st century. I’m going to set the offensive immigrant/native language aside for a moment and focus on the implications of his argument — if, indeed, teachers and other adults who grew up around typewriters and wrote their theses by hand are “immigrants” who can’t shed their non-digital accents, then the digital literacy divide issue should be solved with a generational turnover, right? Wrong. Today’s teacher education curricula do not contain emphases on critical uses of digital technologies, today’s students are slammed with tests that do not communicate the relevance or importance of digital literacies, and today’s teachers are forced to respond to legislation that threatens to take their jobs if they don’t raise test scores. In this environment, a generational turnover isn’t going to “solve” anything related to digital literacy smarts.

I often meet older adults — like Papaw — who are critical users of whatever writing technologies serve the purpose of the moment (and are relatively available). When Papaw needed to use a typewriter, he did. When something else came along that made comprehensive revision more possible and mistakes easier to fix, he learned how to use it, attaining new digital literacies that he did not have before. This isn’t to say that typewriters might not be the better choice for a writer, even today. It is instead to emphasize that it isn’t the technology, but what the writer wants to do, what the technology enables, and how these two things align, that matters.

As our conversation ran off on a tangent, away from typewriters and into Twitter, LinkedIn, and blogging, Papaw and I shared our experiences with various social media. I talked about how I have a Twitter account that I’m horrendously bad at keeping up with, and he mentioned how he has a LinkedIn account that he barely touches. We talked about the various purposes of these sites, who their audiences are, and how the various disciplines of music, art, academia, and business use different media to create their digital networks. Eventually I realized that I needed to read, write, and teach; that the conversation had strayed far from typewriters; and that I should probably get off the phone.

But the impact of my chat with Papaw lingers, and will likely linger throughout the week. This conversation raised a number of questions for me about the assumptions our society holds about young people, old people, and all the somewhere-in-the-middle people. Are our nation’s young people somehow naturally adept at using particular technologies in ways older people are not? Are the experiences, literacies, and technologies of older people obsolete in a 21st century world dominated by computers, tablets, and smartphones? My gut reaction, obviously, is a resounding no. My bigger question, then, is how to communicate that one can be, or become, a critical, intelligent, careful consumer and producer of digital media, no matter the times and no matter their age?

Thanks to Willard Woodward, retired biology professor, amazing pianist, and forever my inspiration.