For Good Measure – Priorities

At 11:23 Friday, I used a break from my legendary opticianry to be witness to one of the saddest things I’ve seen as an American. It was delayed a few moments in happening to ensure safety, but at 11:29, Space Shuttle Atlantis lifted off, carrying four astronauts and supplies bound for the International Space Station.

This was the last shuttle mission. The last planned manned space launch. It was so definitely the last mission that, unlike all missions before it, no other Shuttle and crew were on standby to rescue STS135 in the event of craft failure in orbit. Thus, the crew was limited to only four, the number of people the ISS and a returning Russian Soyuz capsule could accommodate.

We let the shuttle program expire with nothing ready to pick up where it left off, and worse, the planned replacement isn’t even a sure thing. The earliest date for the US to return to space is set at maybe-gonna-happen-but-likely-to-be-delayed 2016. NASA is targeted constantly for defunding of its already ludicrously low budget.

I do not want to detract from the impressive and valuable work of NASA’s unmanned science missions in landers and probes. With Hubble, Spirit/Opportunity, and New Horizons as prime examples,the usefulness of our inspiring unmanned exploration initiatives is not the issue (although I’m not surprised that recent house appropriations proposals would see the James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to the aging Hubble Space Telescope, pretty much killed). What galls me, even as a humanities academic-to-be, is our complete disregard for the science necessary to support the future of humanity. We cannot stay on this single lump of dirt orbiting one star indefinitely. We cannot hope to eek out a “quality” of life equal to our current level forever if we restrict ourselves to this finite, limited Earth.

I’m not trying to be the Star Trek Geek Roger with this rant; I understand that the future of space exploration isn’t easy. Theoretically, we are going to be confined to this solar system for centuries, and may never be able to leave. Space is expansive and expensive, hazardous and humbling. While I personally believe that the limitations we’re unable to reconcile now have more to do with our inexperience than true, iron-clad, immutable laws, I recognize that it isn’t practical to see a future galavanting with the Vulcans, Klingons, and Cardassians – the science doesn’t support it. The science does support distribution of  population, resource riches great enough to achieve a post-scarcity society, and a better understanding of our/Earth’s evolutionary past. 

I don’t buy the argument that the money is better spent on Earth. When two years of Iraq/Afghanistan operations exceed NASA’s ENTIRE 50+ year budget, the argument of mutual exclusivity looks particularly absurd. Such backward thinking is what brought us here today, to an America without a manned spaceflight program and vague, ever-movable timelines for a return to the moon or a trip to Mars. 

When Atlantis returns to Earth on July 20 – the 42nd anniversary of the first moon landing and a painful juxtaposition to behold – it will be the last display of America’s human space flight for at least five years. Atlantis will then be decommissioned, stripped down, and take up residence as the centerpiece of a public exhibit at the Kennedy Space Center, flipped upside down with its bay doors perpetually open. The concept is to recall Atlantis as it lived, in orbit around Earth, frozen in a pose it may have held when it was 190 miles above our heads instead of 192 feet. Like all taxidermy, however, I’m inclined to think it will exhibit not a farcical recreation of life, but a chilling, spectral memorial of death. How long must we wait for a new friend to help us move on from the loss of a three-decade friendship?

Parting thoughts on #560wr Book Sprint

Above is a Wordle cloud for the second draft of Chapter 3: “Tearing Down the Wall: Defining ourselves as social instructors in-person and online.” Anyone wishing to view and comment on this work in progress is welcome to read it here (with permission from coauthor Scott Atkinson).

The Sprint is over, but did we find a book at the finish line? Yes. No. Did we find SOTAB (something other than a book)? Yes. No. Does the group’s collected writing have a future beyond this? Definitely maybe.

Last week concluded the ENG 560 Book Sprint course (cleverly referred to in earlier posts as Text Dash). If you look at the foremost goal of such a class being to foster durable scholarship, we’ve met our goals. The class certainly covered a lot of ground in a collective two-week writing binge, and even more in the following one week revisionfest. I, speaking strictly personally as a participant in the class as a student, am happy with the results at the end of the course. It was fun, engaging, and despite early angst over topic, roles, and planning, the collective cranked out a respectable stock of interesting work. I look forward to reading the forthcoming compilation.

As someone looking to take this beyond student territory, however, I confess I’m a little nonplussed over the overall disinterest in the work’s post-class life. When I first heard about the Book Sprint concept far prior to class, I found the possibility of producing such significant, detailed scholarship in so short a time enticing. I’ve always been a binge writer, and formalizing that into a collected effort with other like-minded writers sounded like fun, as corny as that may seem. As I said earlier, I understood a class based on Book Sprints would have to be structured differently due to time, space, and rubric constraints. I was fine with that because I thought the essence of Book Sprint would remain: a blur of collaborative scholarship kindled by common interest, and a hope to join the larger discussion, whatever the mode.

We met one final time last week, with the writing and first round of edits already done, and tasked ourselves with just one question: What now? The answer was a resounding shrug.

The one-two punch of a Book Sprint, in my personal view, was collaborate-contribute. One month ago, I thought part 2 was a given, and the angst over part 1 was our only obstacle. I wonder if a lot of indifference centered around a fear that what we’d written wasn’t good enough to publish. That’s fair; our collection isn’t publishable as-is and that shouldn’t be a surprise. The lack of willingness to continue with the project, however, is truly disappointing. I’m left wondering if some fellow students had ever planned on more than a transaction: enroll>get assignments>complete assignments>get grade. That we were never on the hook for further contribution has always been clear, but I had anticipated there would have been more interest than I saw last week. What’s frustrating is that very few people actively opted out, but neither did many opt in.

We ultimately “decided” (meaning, with no other plans gaining consensus, we settled) on waiting for responses to the forthcoming read-through of the collected work, and then deciding where to go after that. Through email – outside of class – when some are disinterested, some have graduated and moved on, and some are eager for some sort of plan beyond. I worry that it will be impossible to then build any sort of consensus on necessary edits/revisions, what to do with the work of those opting out, and in what format to pursue distribution. This seems to run directly counter to the spirit of collaboration and contribution Book Sprints should ideally foster.

As that final class wore on, I sensed this unfortunate fate taking shape, and feebly tried to express my (grudging) new interest in taking our work off individually. This was received about as warmly as anything else discussed that night. To be clear, this is something I do not want, and I would much rather remain as a part of a group effort, but seeing the individual efforts succumb to a collective apathy is something I desire even less. I tried to play it gently, not wanting to appear snobbish about the quality of the work Scott and I produced (because really, I think all of the chapters have the same potential to be independently published after revisions), but now I’ll come out and say it: Scott and I worked hard on this project, and both feel there’s a lot more left to do, and more we want to do. I don’t want to speak for Scott too broadly, so I personally will say that I feel held hostage to the apathy of others.

I really want to take this work further. I hope that after reading the whole of everyone’s work, others will think similarly. This project has the potential to not only be personally valuable to the contributors, but also the beginning of an interesting legacy for the UMFlint English program, maybe as sort of ongoing project that future graduate cohorts will want to contribute to. I hope the students in this first ever section realize the potential they hold to define how this class exists – or perhaps does not – in the future.