A few years ago, a good friend of mine took a trip to Israel with his girlfriend. They both went as part of the “Birthright” tour, where young people of Jewish heritage are taken on a free tour of the country. About halfway through the trip, the pair visited the Wailing Wall, an important landmark in Jewish culture. As they neared the wall, they were approached by a black-clad Hasidim a member of the Jewish Orthodoxy, who asked my friend two questions: “Are you Jewish?” was the first, to which my friend responded yes. The second question was “is your mother Jewish?” which he answered no. At that the man politely nodded and moved on to another group of young men without another word. My friend, who had only gone on the birthright tour because it was a free vacation, didn't care that he had been passed over for what turned out to be an invitation to an evening prayer meet. His girlfriend, however, who had both a Jewish mother and a deep sense of religious and cultural identity, was angered both by the fact that she had been completely ignored because of her gender and because her partner had been judged as somehow lacking in Jewish identity. In the United States, both my friend and his girlfriend were identified as Jews. In the eyes of the Israeli Orthodox, though, neither of them were proper Jews; at least not in the ways that mattered.
As this was happening, I was busy with my first semester of teaching community college students. I had only just overcome the insecurities of a recent graduate; the students were comfortable with me, my nerves about the job had started to settle, and the impromptu syllabus I had assembled was beginning to come together. While my friend was an ocean away, being judged and found wanting, I was finalizing my plans for the next few weeks of class, a series of lectures about the basics of writing an argument. Many of my students were ESL or remedial, and I knew that the lesson would be accompanied by extensive lectures and questions. I was confident, however, that I would be able to answer any issues that might come up. Then I got tonsillitis. Just like that, my plans were shattered. All of the confidence I had built over those first few months fled as I first tried to ignore and lecture through the pain in my throat, and then when that failed, scrambled for alternatives that would give my students the tools they needed for the upcoming deadline. As an adjunct, I was lacking health care, financial stability, and the possibility of a substitute teacher, so I spent those two weeks figuring out a way to teach without the use of my voice. I wound up bringing handouts of my lecture to class, asking students to present them for me as part of their participation grade. When that didn't work, I asked for their suggestions. At their request, I spent the bulk of my time answering questions via email (or, as the deadline approached, typing out the answers onto the projector in class). I felt limited. I felt like I was trapped in my own body, helpless as it failed me and undercut the confidence I had spent so many weeks building.
These two events have little in common beyond a relatively (and, considering how fickle memory is, probably imaginary) similar timeframe. However, the arguments put forth in Ben McCorkle’s “Whose Body” and Kristin Arola’s “It’s My Revolution” reminded me of these two events, and of why I have so much (dare I use this word?) faith in the promises of technology. McCorkle, referencing the concept of embodiment writes “Thus, embodiment involves a state of comfort, which allows us to forget our bodies as objects. In the colloquial sense, embodiment is the state of being in the moment” (176), describing the ways in which our tools can temporarily remove us from the experience of our physicality, and when they fail, can also radically remind us of it. He also adds, in describing the design philosophy behind increasingly haptic technologies like the iPhone, that “[t]he pathway to the embodied interface doesn't just reconfigure the experience of bodily contact with the machinery; in some cases, the goal is to minimize or eliminate that contact altogether, creating an almost telepathic conduit between user and device to create an augmented mode of being that doesn't feel augmented”(180). In a way, this was reflected in my classroom experience as I became sick. Both my students and I had grown accustomed to a specific form of classroom interface, the traditional lecture, which had gradually become invisible. I felt comfortable in the mechanisms of the classroom, and when that mechanism was disrupted by the embodied reality of my illness, I had to redraw the contact lines in a way that not only restored my own confidence, but that allowed my students to keep up. In a sense, the power shifted in those weeks away from me and towards my students, as they ultimately wound up dictating which teaching styles did or did not help them. The first attempt to have my students lecture from notes that I prepared failed, but the technological medium of email allowed us to create a supplement to it that enabled them to decide the appropriate level of interaction (which turned out to be extensive). The “disruption” exposed some of the inner workings of the classroom lecture as a technology, and gave the students a chance to reconstruct it in ways that were beneficial to them. Whether this ultimately helped them or not is hard to say, but I do know that I subsequently changed my teaching practices to be less lecture-focused and more open to dialogue and conversation in and out of the classroom.
In describing the dilemmas facing mixed-blood Indians, Arola states, “These forces include real legal forces concerning what it takes to be an Indian—for example, blood quantum and enrollment cards to mark who still counts as Indian—as well as our own mythos of what an Indian should be. While there might be a real political or personal impetus for mixedbloods to be included as Indian, as Bizarro contends, the fact remains that mixedbloods don’t fall into a neatly decided racial category” (215). My friend and his partner were similarly confronted by a contact zone of the political and the mythological aspects of Jewish identity when they visited the wall. In Israel, there are numerous material complications surrounding the politics of identity in terms of “purity” of lineage and in terms of gender. Both were denied access to a potentially enlightening part of their heritage by these largely artificial distinctions - more so for the girlfriend, who, like all women, wasn’t even allowed to visit the wall proper. Both of them were rendered as “other”, though only one of them was a mixed blood. Returning to the issue of technology, Arola argues that the digital can serve as a space where people can explore their connections to cultural and racial heritage by adopting it as a form of Regalia. She explains, “Regalia, in the sense I’m using it, refers to the outfits worn by powwow dancers. In a powwow, the regalia functions as an expression of dancers’ lives and represents a range of the dancer’s experiences” (219). ). In this way, the digital space became Regalia for both of my friends and provided them a way to engage with their heritage and respond to its limitations. When his girlfriend was upset about being unable to see the wall my friend “snuck” her in by using his cell-phone’s camera to video conference the experience to her phone. She later complained about the discrimination on her Facebook profile, giving voice to frustrations that might have otherwise gone unspoken. Additionally, they were able to find out more about the ceremony that they had been denied when another Birthright traveler, who was allowed access, tweeted the experience to them. In their own way, each of them used the digital as a way to identify their own place within their culture. While my male friend illustrated his contempt for what he perceived as Orthodox Judaism’s outdated rules by using technology to subvert them, his girlfriend used the digital space as a way to affirm her Jewish identity by responding to and critiquing certain aspects of its tradition.
In “The Politics of Interface” Richard and Cynthia Selfe argue that the user interfaces of computers can be oppressive to students of different classes and cultures, stating that “If the map of the interface is oriented simultaneously along the axes of class, race, and cultural privilege, it is also aligned with the values of rationality, hierarchy, and logocentrism characteristic of Western patriarchal cultures” (491). This is echoed in McCorkle’s argument that “While technological standardization is not necessarily in itself insidious, it does create conditions by which control is exercised over people: by sanctioning purposes of use (valuing business and commercial interests, devaluing artistic, civic, or informal ones), reinforcing literacy thresholds (rendering learning or physical disabilities impediments to proper learning), and validating certain styles of delivery over others (devaluing gender or cultural differences marking how people speak or move)” and that “In order to stave off this analytical obsolescence, we ought to extend the conversation of access—that crucial buzzword that seems to offer us a way of bridging the digital divide between the technological haves and have-nots—so that it applies broadly to the realm of interface design” (186). I don’t disagree with either concern. Interface design – specifically ease of use – is essential to technology’s impact. The easier it is to use, the less time someone spends wrestling with or stressing over it, which means that they will have more time to actually use the technology in a way that is liberatory (or at least useful).
My friends in Israel were able to critique their culture and weave an online Regalia of their experiences precisely because their devices were intuitive and invisible; had they not been able to easily run a video feed or access their social media profiles, they would probably have just dismissed the whole episode out of frustration. Similarly, my students and I only thought to re-structure the mechanics of the classroom when the limits of my biology forced us to; the lecture format wasn’t necessarily bad for them, but until we were forced to critically engage with it we hadn’t even realized that there were better alternatives. While I don’t necessarily subscribe to McCorkle’s notion that the body should always be considered with regard to technology (one of the things I love about the internet is how it can liberate us from the limits of the physical), I do agree that it is at least important to periodically take a critical look at the ways in which technology interacts with us and how we interact with it, if only to see if there’s a simpler alternative. When it comes to the digital humanities, I think that the first thing to consider should always be ease of use for the widest range of people; technology works best when it makes problem solving simple.