Guest Blog Post by (Former) Tutor Coordinator, Jennifer Rengachary
“All right,” said the computer, and settled into silence again. The two men fidgeted. The tension was unbearable.
“You’re really not going to like it,” observed Deep Thought.
“All right,” said Deep Thought. “The Answer to the Great Question…”
“Of Life, the Universe and Everything…” said Deep Thought.
“Is…” said Deep Thought, and paused.
“Forty-two,” said Deep Thought, with infinite majesty and calm.”
― Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Spoiler alert… if you haven’t finished the Hitcherhhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy*… Deep Thought, a supercomputer created to answer the Ultimate Question of life, the Universe, and everything, has amazing technological capacity but falls short of producing a meaningful philosophical response.
As some of you know, I translate scientific manuscripts for my day job. One of the most common questions I hear is, “Aren’t there computer programs that can do that?” In a word: Sure! In two words: Not well! Even when the software gets all of the word meanings right, it’s obvious that a robot wrote it. The technology is improving, but some experts argue that machines will never fully replace human translators. Language is too essentially human to outsource.
Automated teaching has similar limits. A lot of schoolwork occurs online these days. This makes for less paper waste, provides access to a rich world of resources, and doesn’t work at all when the signal strength is weak. Yesterday, it was weak (with the workshop in a different room than usual, which is apparently located inside some kind of WiFi Pit of Despair… you know the kind; it gives you just enough signal to get your hopes up, says it’s loading, and then… nope… wait, it’s getting it… nope…). Even when they’re working properly though, computers are merely an enhancement to, not a substitute for, human guidance.
This is why it’s so important for us provide one-on-one, in-person tutoring for the uniquely human skill of communicating through writing. The career universe into which our students will graduate will probably be uncertain and constantly changing, with some jobs disappearing to the cyborgs, but I feel confident that being able to write well will secure them a place in the professional market and in the world. And YourWords STL is the only local program that I know of that is systematically offering free creative writing tutoring to our under-resourced areas. A unique organization to teach a singularly human skill through irreplaceable person-to-person connections. How could we not do this?
This week the Marygrove students continued their science fiction unit, imagining just the sort of future world where robots, machines, and computers can do what it impossible today. Last week Anna asked them to use their abstract cognitive abilities to imagine a new technology worthy of a science fiction universe. This week, she started from the other direction, tapping into their basic 5 senses to inspire the creation of their fictional setting.
After reading a science fiction passage that richly described a techno-tastic setting, we listened to sound clips of various scenes. Focusing in on a single sense tuned our perception towards details that might otherwise pass unnoticed. With their senses thus heightened, the students began to use their words to build a world, focusing on what their characters would see, hear, smell, feel, and taste in their story’s setting. They did a brilliant job. Rather than try to describe it, I’ll just give you with a mashup of sensory-focused phrases that they hammered out during the last few minutes of class so you can judge for yourself.
eyes are strained with the darkness shifting to brightness
red liquid splattering
silver and gold
glittering chains on tigers
many different colors
ice lines the walls
metal brush is broken on the side
freeform patterns dictated only by the will of nature
dimly lit tunnel
dark and spacious cubical
humid air because the air conditioning unit just broke
bitter stagnant air bites through
brush the wall
thick down jacket
soft mud indulging their feet
crows ca ca ca over the field
reeking of war
I smell fresh paint
the smell of being in the office for two days straight
soothing relief of a cold carbonated drink
As always, there was applause after the readings. A previously self-described non-writer hung onto his flash drive so he could work on his story on his own time this week. Just as I was thinking, “it doesn’t get much better than this,” it did. A student treated us to a cello rendition of a Coldplay song as we cleaned up the room. I love that modern technology lets us hear a recording of almost anything, almost any time we want it. But there’s still nothing like live sound, actually hearing and seeing the person play the notes.
“Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western spiral arm of the galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this, at a distance of roughly ninety million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet, whose ape descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea. This planet has, or had, a problem, which was this. Most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small, green pieces of paper, which is odd, because on the whole, it wasn’t the small, green pieces of paper which were unhappy. And so the problem remained, and lots of the people were mean, and most of them were miserable, even the ones with digital watches.”
― Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Fair enough, but we got a few things right too. We invented music. And words. If you use your words the right way, maybe you can make things a little better?
*You haven’t?! Go read it right now. It’s my favorite.