Unkind Things I Said To You

Eeek! Not another metaphor!

Finally, today was her very first day of graduate school: blissfully surrounded by her equally enlightened peers, all sharing a collective love of learning. Her first class as a graduate student was an ethics class, a small group discussion about the psychology and downstream impacts of ethics. She was happy as she got to say goodbye to large lecture halls; jammed with students with varying levels of interest regarding the subject matter. She had finally ascended to a professional school and was the newest member of the academic club: she was in and she was ready to drink in the wisdom that she desperately craved.

As she prepared for the discussion and the arrival of the learned professor, she started to think how the motivations of her undergraduate past had to be put away. Grades take on a far different slant in grad school: no one gets less than a "B" and the professors actually act like they care what you think. However, she knew down deep, if she chose to go there, that they still really didn't care as they have their own pressures but at least will engage to a certain extent if general politeness is in their best interest. All of the professors needed graduate students to correct their tests, cover their office hours, organize and analyze the usual mountain of research and graduate students lined up like lemmings to be overworked and underpaid. The second year graduate students are usually the first choices to become indentured servants as they had earned their stripes in comparison to the new group but everyone knew that they all will get tagged.

Her professor dramatically walked in to the room with about one second before class officially began. He did not have any notes, material or a pen. He placed his glasses on the small podium located in the front of the class and looked around the room for a moment and said, "Words are tricky things: they can either be said or written with equal impact but the written word is a bit more inclined to be reviewed from an ethical perspective." He stopped talking, placed his glasses back on his nose and looked over the small group with a look of disdain. Cara and the others were frantically writing down the comment while relying on their new-found mental abilities to process the statement into something more practical and wise. The professor, now bored with his own mannerisms, began tapping the side of the podium loudly while awaiting some response from the group.

"Well?" said the professor with a tone of exasperation. He would do the same thing every semester and force the students into some fear-soaked reaction. Over the last years, he got the lines and behavior down to a high art: slightly dismissive tone with the use of the glasses as props. He eventually browbeat someone into speaking but this group was frozen with fear and he thought that this was going to be a tough class.

Finally, he spoke again with even more of a condescending tone. He pulled away from the podium, still sans glasses, and said, "As written words will survive long past failing memories but all things said or written will climb up into the ether to be amended, repeated, recalled or refuted. The recipient has the luxury (or the burden) of re-reading the message at anytime while the author has to rely on memory to remember the intent, the message and the purpose." The professor even went as far as to add non-verbal hand parenthesis with hopes of locking onto any student's eyes but his strategy fell short as all heads were locked on their respective notebooks, but computer-based and hard copy, as they frantically transcribed his remarks. One student quietly snapped photos from his smart phone; the Professor sadly (and correctly) assumed he was the first sign of the new lazy.

No sound was coming from the group; only the sound of pens scratching on paper and the low, rumbling tone and smell of internal fear of failure. The professor was amazed that no one was making eye contact or attempting to discuss the comments but ethics was a tough first course for new graduate students because it wasn't a short answer/fill in the blanks type of class; he wanted them to actually think and respond. They all were either intimidated by their first day of school and felt by acting like the self-fulfilled literate lemmings they could avoid the cruel light of accountability or they were just cowards. The professor couldn't go much further without some interaction; he could just keep on tossing out the bon mots in hope of somehow hitting a nerve or he could wait them out. After some quiet thought, he felt that that had to be the strategy as someone in this small group had to have some moxie.

Finally, Cara had finished writing his remarks and had a moment to reflect on them. His remarks, a bit on the pompous side, were fairly accurate and worth some thought. She raised her head and as she did, his eyes locked onto hers.

"Do you have anything to add?" asked the professor. He was so desperate for interaction, his tone of voice implied that Cara had done far more than look up. No one else in the room was in a situation to visually confirm it so he decided her mild curiosity was going to have be close enough for this first day.

"Not really, at least nothing important," said Cara. "But I wonder if you could remark on how your statements are impacted today by word processing, the Internet and the ability of all of us to produce large amounts of content with a simple cut and paste of a PC."

"An excellent question. In my opinion, and I do hope to hear more opinions from this group, is that these days, word processing can do wonders for one's memory but most of the best-written messages were old school: pen to paper. I also believe that today's technologies, especially the internet, have a tendency to make us all a bit lazier with research and purely from an ethic standpoint, more potentially culpable regarding plagiarism. It is too easy to cull large amounts of content from obscure sources and hope the review does not have software that can identify the poorly-thought out cut and paste. It is a lot easier to throw tremendous amounts of information against some virtual wall with hopes that something will stick."

A group of heads finally popped up around Cara. His guy was speaking their language and he finally found a nerve to get this party started. He wanted someone to build off his comment but everyone was frozen with fear. Cara made the mistake of blinking slightly and the professor took that as the equivalent of an enthusiastic arm wave.

"Yes?" said the professor. He had moved a few feet closer to Cara to emphasize his desperation for discourse.

"Well Professor," said Cara. "I agree with your observations but feel we need to add another brutal truth to it."

"Finally," thought the professor. He waited a moment to add some familiar drama and finally said, "And what is that?"

"I think no one reads all that stuff. It might have worked for a short period when cut and paste was still a little-known trick but these days, people will only look at the first few pages of the first document, even when you send them ten."

"Ah, academic gold" thought the professor. He further thought "It is time to bring out of my stories."

The professor smiled and took a deep breath. He said, "I remember back in the day, when hard copies ruled the world. I had a student that completely ripped off a book dealing with the psychological and communication impacts of New Zealand. The island country of New Zealand enjoys a unique culture based on the combination of its people. It is a fascinating collision of both the indigenous Māori people and the wide range of European and Asian cultures within its boundaries."

He saw all their heads, even Cara's, drop to write down this anecdote and he slammed his fist onto the podium. His glasses bounced up at the same speed and manner of the group's heads. "Don't write this down, keep your heads up and listen. You are now professional students, not professional note takers."

"In fact, close your notebooks and put down your pens. Eyes up and look at me." The professor used the universal sign of "I am watching you" with his two fingers and finally order was restored. He stood there, refusing to say anything else until someone in the group formally engaged. He continued to wait and had to consciously fight the urge to start tapping his finger again.

The gal next to Cara finally said something. Her haircut, resembling a poorly cut sunflower, had kept most opinions of her in the group to a polite minimum. Sunflower gal smiled and said, "Could you please continue with your example, Professor?"

"Thank you. The issue was with the narrow source material as not many researchers would focus significant resources in this area. I assumed, but could not prove, that this student plagiarized the only known book on the subject and was keeping this book from being returned to general circulation. In those days, one did not have an Amazon or Wiki-type resource available at their fingertips. If I wanted to prove this kid wrong, I would have to either request the book to be delivered to me from the correct library, at a time cost of five days, or I could walk over to the library and try to find it, with no assurances that it was available, all by myself."

Cara smiled; she saw where this was going. "So, are you implying that technology, or the lack thereof, just makes the ethical process more difficult or easy, depending on your role?"

"Not exactly," said the professor. "I like your thinking but I am trying to provide you all with a situation that was made more difficult due to the lack of today's technology but back then, I didn't have today's perspective."

"So what did you do?" asked Ms. Sunflowerhead.

"There wasn't much I could do at the time. Papers were read, graded and returned because we were fifteen years before the advent of the real use of personal computers. Back in the day, typewriters and white out were in dorm rooms and the only people using computers were the geeks playing one dimensional Star Trek and experimenting with BASIC code. The main research tools were hard copy periodic guides and friendly librarian assistants. The idea of seeing things on line, swapping documents and ripping off the internet were not even imagined so don't mock the old days: that is all we had. In fact, cut and paste mean just that: cut something out and paste it."

Cara drew in a deep, audible breath which was loud enough to get the classes' attention.

"What's the problem?" asked the professor. "Something hit close to home?"

"Absolutely," said Cara. "It just hit me how stupid I have been lately."

"What do you mean?"

"I have been mocking my parents and a few older friends about their general ignorance and inability to grasp the new, technologically-driven world and now I realize it that they did not have a choice: they used what they used and that was it. Today's solutions have no true context in relation to yesterday."

"Interesting observation and since that is the nature of this class, what impacts can we blame on technology?"

"I think 'blame' is too heavy of a word," said Ms. Sunflower. "I think technology enables us to cheat faster through both speed and the ability to re-use data. In the old days, you would give a photocopy of a research paper to a friend and they could either copy it verbatim if it was going to a different teacher or tell them to move a few things around if the same person was going to read it."

"And how ethical is that?"

"It isn't ethical," said the Sunflower with a squinty facial expression. "Cheating is cheating but we can't blame the tools which are misused just as the folks who cheated when the typewriter and carbon paper were rolled out."

"What about her issue with her smart mouth?" asked the professor while pointing directly at Cara.

"It is the same thing, especially with my smart mouth," said Cara. "An unkind statement carries additional weight because it is far easier to hurt and misinterpret feelings and to inspire and enlighten. Letters, and especially these days, emails, written in the heat of a battle or the apex of passion will no doubt be kept for continual review. This fact can be initially ignored in these days of instant news, instant messaging and an on-demand appetite of information but don't underestimate the ability of one to hold a grudge. The method and the medium are secondary concerns but one cannot ignore the exponential growth of email. People two cubes away would rather write each other notes that meet face to face. And I have not even considered all email games that go on with read receipts and blind carbon copies."

"So, poison penmanship is a dicey proposition for all involved?"

"Absolutely and ignoring the rhetorical nature of the question, be careful what you say or write, it will be around a while. The point is technology is just a point in time; early adapters of a technology will fall into obsolescence just slightly slower than everyone else and the moment you think you are on the cutting edge, you become yesterday's prehistoric, old school tools. We can't get any credit for where technology falls on someone's life; it just falls and is replaced by the next thing. The people, and their internal ethics, are the only constant, technology just adds some secondary backstory noise."

The professor looked at his watch and was surprised that for a class that started so slowly, the remaining part of the class flew by. He pointed at the clock and said, "Excellent work. Do your required reading and I will see you tomorrow. Don't take notes...just read the material and let it percolate appropriately."

As Cara walked out onto campus in the still-early morning, the petrichoric vibe of the day hit her as she was grinding away on the morning's lesson discussion. As the pleasant smell that first accompanies last night's rain washed over her as she walked out of the old building. She had a few things to make right but she was feeling smarter with every step.

This title was lifted and inspired from an old Jackson Browne lyric (don't even ask me the title). The song and album came out in the seventies, smack dab in the middle of my formative years. Once seeing the title, I almost ignored it for obvious reasons until the message within refused to go away. I was living alone for the first time and the lyrics spoke to me. This being during the war, a lot of non-traditional things spoke to me but the depth of the particular song (and this specific lyric), caught my attention when many other things shallowly bounced off my rather large-sized head. I rediscovered the album (now CD and then track download) and the same epiphany occurred again.

Being someone who thinks themselves as open-minded as well as not being able to ignore a good title, I decided it was high time to do some writing on this one. This is not even close to finished and I got to stop listening to this song.

Back to Short Stories