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Looking Back

Feeling like a dinosaur

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One of the assignments my students appreciate is having to go to the library to dig up the newspaper on the day they were born and to tell me, based on their research, what the Philippines or the world was like on that day. In the course of their writing, the students compare and contrast the past with the present and conclude that not much has changed.

The same people are in the news. Incidents in the past of robbery, murder, corruption, tax evasion, political bickering, or kidnapping in Mindanao seem painfully contemporary. Discussing their papers leads them to conclude that history does not repeat itself, that it is we who repeat history and make it a convenient whipping boy for our folly. I always remind students that the learning of history does not end with knowing the past but finding a way to liberate ourselves from history.

This semester a handful read the Inquirer and said: “My teacher wrote an article in the newspaper on the day I was born.” That hit me in the gut, and I asked myself: Am I that old? My students were born in the early 1990s; they did not experience Edsa 1986, Marcos’ martial law is an ancient time they hear about from their parents, or learn about in school. If going farther back, to the Commonwealth under Quezon, or the First Republic under Aguinaldo, seems like ancient history to them, what more the American period (1898-1946, with a Japanese interlude in 1942-1945) or the Spanish period (1565-1898, with a British interlude in 1762-1764)?

I also see how different teaching is today. “Blackboards” that are actually green have been replaced by shiny plastic “whiteboards.” Teachers used to get their hands and clothes dirty with chalk until someone invented “dustless chalk,” which was rendered obsolete by the overhead projector and lecture notes written or printed on acetate or the clear plastic used for wrapping books. But then came the LCD projector and Powerpoint. I have been connecting my laptop to the projector for years; I thought I was cutting-edge until I saw my colleagues connecting their phone to the projector.

Soon things will go completely wireless and another round of innovations will be upon us. My students don’t carry paper notebooks, they carry laptops. When they need to copy something on the board, they just raise their phones, aim and click. A Jesuit professor who uses the classroom before me has killed many forests because he imposes photocopied readings one  dangkal  (handbreadth) thick. I make my readings available online, and during exams I have noticed that only a handful worked with hard copies, everyone else read from their laptops and phones.

Don’t get me started on the Internet that has opened the world to anyone with a fast connection. Two decades ago I had to physically go to a library to read old books on the Philippines; that meant going to the United States, Spain, and France in search of Filipiniana. Today I spend many hours until dawn downloading reference material from libraries abroad, all for free. There truly is so much more available on the Internet than porn, though historical materials on the Philippines don’t receive as many hits as scandal videos. Finding a citation for a footnote is easier to do these days. You don’t need a physical book at hand when generating a bibliography. All that can be done online. Writing a physical paper with footnotes seems almost effortless compared to the time when we used manual typewriters or wrote in longhand.

I asked my niece, a college freshman, how the term paper course is taught, and whether they still use 3×5 note cards to gather and organize their materials, and copy these out into a research paper. The question alone probably made her think I’m a dinosaur.

When I first joined a newspaper in 1985, the Philippines Daily Express had the most “modern” equipment, but we still used manual typewriters with long, continuous paper like rolls of teletype newsprint. You just typed wildly and organized the article literally by cutting the long sheet in parts and pasting (actually stapling) in the order of the narrative. Then you nervously submitted this to the editor, who drew big red circles on your mistakes or sometimes called your attention to parts of your text by writing “ojo” (the Spanish word for “eye”) on the margin. It was only later that I learned that the real Spanish imperative for “look” is “mira” and the Spanish imperative for “listen” is “oye.”

I’m proud to say my copy was hardly touched except for punctuation, which I still cannot understand today. But I learned a lot from the mistakes of colleagues who were screamed at. When typewriters were replaced by computers, newsrooms became quiet except for the clicking of keyboards. E-mail and texting mean that reporters need not submit a hard copy or be physically present at deadline time. One old-time editor complained that he no longer had the joy of tearing up a reporter’s badly written article in front of everyone when he learned to use “delete.”

Technology makes me feel like a dinosaur, but I am consoled by the fact that the process of research, writing, and teaching remains the same. We will only be extinct when a machine begins to think and write for us.

* * *

Comments are welcome at aocampo@ateneo.edu


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  • Mario Salinas

    I remember screaming at the typewriter (not at my sloppy fingers!) for all the errors I committed while typing my research paper in high school.

    And I remember the pure joy of copying all that delicious library info onto 3×5 index cards.

    Those were the days…

  • Islaslolo

    You said it perfectly and profoundly: “… that the learning of history does not end with knowing the past but finding a way to liberate ourselves from history.” How did your students react to that statement? Are they satisfied with the status quo?

    I was an engineering student in the 60s and I only saw a pocket-sized calculator in my final year. Though primitive by today’s standard, it was also expensive, much more expensive that today’s tablet computer, say a Microsoft Surface RT. So naturally I wasn’t able to own one. I did my engineering calculations either by hand or with the aid of a slide rule. (I wonder if your students know what a slide rule was.) But now, I use a souped-up workstation with all the simulation software I need to do my work. Indeed , the tools have changed but the basic sciences and the scientific method and economic analysis are still the foundations of engineering.

    In retrospect, it is still my strong grounding in mathematics, physics, chemistry and engineering fundamentals that kept me confident to tackle any engineering problem and my training in communications, written and oral, and problem solving that I was able to sell or push my ideas and solutions. In short, I owe it to my excellent teachers and my classmates in college and my colleagues at work who transferred and exchange their knowledge with me.

    Yes, I totally agree with your conclusion too. It’s still the basics that matter and not the tools and gadgets on how to impart these fundamentals.

  • TGM_ERICK

    Feeling like a dinosaur…a very appropriate title in relation to the news that hugs the headline during these days. They are still around and shamelessly. Your feeling like a dinosaur is nothing compared to them.

  • WeAry_Bat

    “I thought I was cutting-edge until I saw my colleagues connecting their phone to the projector.”

    I thought I was cutting-edge also until I saw what my two-year old baby girl did to my cellphone after I got it back. And the tablet also. I then spent 10 minutes wandering around the screens and menus to reset the settings. I learned a few things I would not have thought or accidentally set.

    What she did, I mentally projected to what older children would have done so I guessed, I was Middle Ages going Prehistoric in an exponential downward graph.

    I spent time reading the Reader’s Digest books in our parent’s library so I was able to guess, even imagine, the decade I was born. The Beatles, Vietnam, communist threat, high technology, space age, {mini skirts}; interestingly, the mop head is back, I can see it sickeningly common among the young male actors on TV; long-haired hippies, kaleidoscopic prints, swirly designs, flowery designs, concerns over drugs like LSD and heroin (the current, bad drug now is shabu), consumerism of appliances (stereos) and home products; but these were American setting.

    There was a blackhole of any other Philippine material. Except, a pamphlet by Marcos about the New Society. Thus, I thought, he was indeed very smart. But power corrupts, the rest is history.

  • Mux

    I took Computer Science in College starting 1984. Back then, writing a BASIC program that could show a flashing christmas tree on a green screen was already considered “high tech”!! Now, all my kids need is Photoshop and Windows Movie Maker and they can make their own anime, without knowing a code of programming.



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