Sunday, May 20, 2018
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Looking Back

Feeling like a dinosaur

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 “Blackboards” that are actually green have been replaced by shiny plastic “whiteboards.”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.

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TAGS: Ambeth R. Ocampo, column, dinosaur, History, internet, Technology
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