Awadewit: The Cloud

This morning I went looking for a photo of Awadewit for my classroom. I found this pic of her discussing Wikipedia. By pure coincidence, she is referring to my article on Harriet Tubman.

For two years, I only knew Adrianne Wadewitz by her Wikipedia username “Awadewit”. She was anonymous in that world, because she worried she might not be able to find a job in academia if her secret life editing pages online was revealed. (Eventually she removed the mask and became one of the great champions for an integration of Wikipedia and the academy.)

I first met Awadewit in 2007, when I submitted an article about the French novelist Honoré de Balzac for review as a “Good Article”. Experienced editors volunteer to do such reviews based on their own interests, so it was mostly luck that she happened upon my work. It was an incredible moment of serendipity that sparked the most profound era of my adult intellectual life.

Adrianne was ruthless in her commentary. She delineated all sorts of problems in my writing, from source materials to sentence structure. She knew her stuff, and she expected me to know it too, and she called me on it. But she was also incredibly supportive. She encouraged me to keep working on it, and make it good enough to be a “Featured Article” (which are described as “the best articles Wikipedia has to offer”).

We’re all familiar with Featured Articles; a different one is highlighted prominently every day on the Wikipedia home page. I had never dreamed that something I wrote might be considered good enough for such attention. (I was still glowing with euphoria when I got a tiny “Did You Know” tidbit to appear on the front page.)

Awadewit’s dual swords of high expectations and compassionate encouragement were vital to my entrée into that project. I would never have done anything worthwhile on Wikipedia if not for Adrianne.

I had done research in the past, of course, but working on that first Balzac article brought me fully into the world of serious scholarship, fastidious attention to detail, and (obviously) variegated usage of polysyllabic vocabulary. (At the same time, of course, she insisted that I “keep it simple”.) She was friendly and accessible throughout the process, and she was first in line to vote in favor of the article becoming Featured, once it had been fully developed. (She even said “it is a pleasure to read”.)

Awadewit was supremely nurturing in the years that followed. She gave me barnstar awards for “excellent teaching skills” and “superb copy editing”. She offered suggestions and reference help, on topics as diverse as 19th century literature and photograph copyright law. Ever fastidious about the tiniest detail, Adrianne never accepted sloppy work or the cutting of corners. Like many others, I became a stronger scholar because of it.

In the best tradition of conscious education, she adapted her relationship to every person as necessary by changing levels of expertise and experience. Once it became clear that I (sort of) knew what I was doing, she dropped some of the nurturing commentary when she wrote to me. I like to think that she was just saving it for people who needed it more; I know she was indefatigable in offering her robust knowledge and vital perspective to students and colleagues around the world.

Adrianne was also a feminist like me, and not afraid to use that term. She waged a vigilant war of ideas against systematic bias and underrepresentation. We bonded in part because of our focus on women’s issues (especially when I wrote the article on Emmeline Pankhurst), and she served as a powerful role model, blending feminist principles with relentless scholarship.

I’m not active on Wikipedia these days, but the things she taught me have woven themselves into my high school English classroom, my fiction writing, and my other forms of scholarship. I owe her a tremendous debt of gratitude and appreciation for her guidance, humor, and support. I can only hope that I have a fraction of the influence on students and other people that she’s had on me.

Three days before I learned of Adrianne’s death, I stumbled upon this short video clip by Vietnamese zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh:

He points out that we look at a cloud and think of it as a distinct entity. But when it is time for that cloud to become rain, we can still love the rain that it becomes, and take solace in the continued existence of the cloud as a vital continuity of our world.

I guess it’s time for Adrianne to become the rain, but dammit, I still want her to be the cloud. I want her to post silly things on Facebook, and send me emails that can’t be longer than two sentences, because she’s just too busy helping hundreds of other people. I’m happy to have her rain with me now, nourishing the roots of my intellectual garden. But I wish I could look up and still see the cloud.

Kindness Saves

Well, the blues passed and today I woke up feeling better again. (Diane’s loving compassion has a lot to do with this.) I decided I was going to snap myself out of it either way, so I washed the dishes and then worked out and then meditated and then ate fruit for breakfast. It seems to be working.

Best of all, I found two awesome things on the internet today. First, a Wikipedian named Gerda Arendt left me (back in August, heh) a lovely Precious Award for my contributions there. How nice!

I also stumbled into a recent Rolling Stone interview with John Goodman, in which he’s asked which role he’s fondest of. Guess who it is?

But my very favorite character is, surprise, from a Coen brothers production – Charlie Meadows in Barton Fink, because he was very sympathetic, for a man who was a snake, that is. He was someone I could sink my teeth into. Homicidal maniac, but kind of a nice guy. You don’t get many of those.

I guess that deserves a spoiler tag, but whatever. Life of the mind!

RIP Chinua Achebe

Chinua Achebe died today at the age of 82. He was a great writer; probably the most important African writer of the 20th century.

To learn more, please read the Wikipedia Featured Article about Mr. Achebe. It is remarkably well-written.

Why I Hate the Internet Sometimes

I consider myself a relatively intelligent person. I have a Bachelor’s of Arts degree in literature from New College, and a Master’s Degree in Education from the University of Florida. I have spent the twenty years of my adult life honing my perspective on the world, and developing my skills of writing and communication.

I am constantly trying to perfect my understanding of the world, and figure out what’s wrong with how I do things, when I do something wrong.

So when I have an online interaction that doesn’t meet my expectations, I immediately begin a thorough process of self-examination. Where did I go wrong? How can I do it right next time? Of course it’s possible that the person who is reacting negatively is just a jerk, or s/he doesn’t understand what I’m trying to say/do, or s/he is trolling with negativity just for the sake of trolling.

But I don’t like to write people off like that. I prefer to (as Wikipedia commands) assume good faith. We humans are much too quick to dismiss entirely those who disagree with us, and therefore most of us spend great swaths of our lives encompassed in cocoons of reassurance, where no dissenting voices can ever reach us (cf. the new US “Tea Party”).

Wikipedia

Take Wikipedia. For the last year I have slowly and meticulously composed the article about Honoré de Balzac’s wife, Eveline Hanska. Without boring everyone (by which I mean the two people who are still reading) with the details, I’ll just say that nominating it as a Featured Article Candidate (FAC) has been extremely frustrating.

I’ve gone through the FAC process thirteen times already, and come close several other times (before I realized that the article would never pass, so I shouldn’t bother). I know that it’s often annoying and aggravating. But I figured that by now I knew what to expect.

I began responding to the comments right away — fixing citations, clarifying phrases, etc. I was a little annoyed when a week went by and not one person supported the article. Now, almost two weeks later, I no longer care if the damned thing passes or not.

The worst part is — again — I feel like I’m crazy, since the experience has deviated so severely from my expectations. It’s not as though I based those expectations on some article I read somewhere. My entire understanding of what it means to contribute meaningfully has been mauled.

Reddit, Too

The same thing happens on my favorite site these days, Reddit. I’ll find something awesome or post something I’ve made, and expect that it will do well. (“I know what people on Reddit like”, I tell myself. “This will get some upvotes for sure.”) Then I post it and it gets downvoted into oblivion and no one ever sees it again.

Part of the problem with Reddit is that — as with Newgrounds and lots of other sites — the new stuff is subject to the whim of a very small percentage of the community, and if it doesn’t get upvoted on those first views, it will probably never get upvoted. Granted, much of the stuff in the “new” queue really is garbage, but I can’t help wondering how much other cool stuff is getting deleted because one or two people gave a thumbs-down.

I guess at the end of the day, that’s the problem — people on the internet can have such a powerful impact, usually without even realizing it. I’ve posted rap tracks to Reddit, things I’ve spent weeks working on. To see them get no upvotes — or worse, get downvoted — is just heartbreaking. And of course, no one ever says why they don’t like it. Just: “BAD! IT’S BAD! YOU SUCK.”

Ego?

I know that this has a lot to do with my ego, as much as I try to defend against that sort of thing. I take great pride in my thirteen bronze FA Wikipedia stars. After all, the article about Eveline Hanska is still just as superb without the star, right? So it’s obvious that ego is part of what drives that process for me. I can’t pretend like I don’t want barnstars and congratulatory messages on my talk page.

But it’s more than just ego. It’s about the self, and especially the intellectual self.

If someone says I’m not doing it right when I write a Wikipedia article, I begin to worry about what I’m doing wrong in other forms of writing. I start to worry if maybe I’m doing research wrong, or if maybe I need to change the way I approach things like teaching.

Of course several months from now I’ll look back and laugh at myself for getting so worked up about what one or two people say about that thing I worked so hard on (especially when I get the distinct impression that they didn’t read or listen very closely).

But right now I kinda hate the internet.

TimeWaster™

Here’s Joe Rogan talking for nine minutes about how messed up everything in the US is. Danger! Bad words!

Today I’m listening to: Soma FM!

Why Featured Articles Matter

As many of you know, I have contributed to many Featured Articles on Wikipedia. The FA process is a long and arduous one; it takes months of work (usually) to get an article up to snuff.

I could say many things about the FA process. I’ve met some really awesome people through working on Wikipedia, and it’s a real egoboo to see my work adorned with a little bronze star (or front page placement).

More than anything, however, seeing an article with an FA star indicates to me that someone has tended to the article. Having been through the process many times myself, I know how much blood and sweat goes into every single Featured Article. I trust the information in FAs, not only because it’s been presumably vetted by other people (though obviously not necessarily experts in the field), but because I know that someone has spent weeks and weeks living the topic.

So consider this a public “Thank You” to everyone who has ever written — or contributed to — a Featured Article. And a public “You’re Welcome” to anyone who has benefited from one of mine. (Because, you know, people are so hungry for information about Balzac novels!)

TimeWaster™

Watch this. It’s four minutes of beautiful.

Today I’m listening to: Flight of the Conchords!