Dance of the Infinite Veils

February 7, 2007

Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth. – Oscar Wilde

Despite Wilde’s gender exclusiveness in that statement, I think one could say that it applies to practically everyone. His aphorism may come from the 19th century, but it remains relevant today. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it has become even more relevant in the 21st century.

I came across a couple of writings today that made me think of Wilde’s quote, and that inspired the title of today’s posting (which alludes to another one of Wilde’s plays). Two of them come from The Chronicle of Higher Education, while another comes from Sivacracy.

James M. Lang, a professor of English at Assumption College, writes about the many masks he puts on for various aspects of his life: father, husband, good buddy over beers, musician, and professor. Since his piece appears in The Chronicle, he focuses on the last “mask,” which can actually change to fit various moods. Or, to carry the Wildean theme further, Lang has various veils for his professor mask; he mentions the “seminar leader” veil, as well as the “fiery orator” veil. Despite his efforts, Lang still hopes to find the appropriate mask or veil that he can put on for his students day after day. Still, he also concedes that he may never find it. Contemplating some writings about teaching by Elaine Showalter and Jay Parini, Lang believes that teachers need to somehow forge a teaching persona that makes students interested in the discipline. (More or less related, Showalter wrote an excellent book that features a whole chapter about Wilde’s Salome.)

The ideas suggested by both sound interesting, though I do agree with Lang on Showalter’s notion of a “true self.” I don’t think there is an essential “tiny ball of selfhood buried in my torso somewhere,” but we can show various aspects of ourselves to our classes. In the online course I’m teaching, I unveil little bits about myself if they seem relevant to the class. As for Parini, Lang describes his ideas about teaching as sharing similarities with the Wilde quote above; that we “wear a mask of some kind… to give sound to our voices.”

Also worth reading is Jeremy Clay’s piece about the problem of writing a definitive teaching statement. As Lang writes about teaching, Clay writes about his self-doubt, as well as his second-guessing about which mask or veil might work for specific hiring committees.

Beyond the two opinion pieces on choosing the right mask to “impress people,” Siva Vaidhyanathan writes in his blog about the masks that others impose on you. More specifically, he writes about a new service (or, as he puts it, “service”) that will customize search histories so that your results better match what you supposedly need. That actually sounds good on the surface. However, I had an initial reaction that mixed fear and loathing. My concerns echo those of Vaidhyanathan, who has a problem with the way Google ranks popularity, as well as assumptions that Google could make about his interests based on his searches for “intelligent design.”

I have problems with such “histories” based on past behavior. The recommendations listed in my Amazon account is a perfect example. Granted, I could go into Amazon and do some things so they can make “better” recommendations. However, I don’t have the time to tell Amazon what I really like, and such customization would not contextualize why I like some things and not others. What Amazon recommends for me is based on what I have written reviews about, as well as what I have ordered. I use Amazon for those two things, but I don’t expect them to stroke my ego with things like “My Amazon.” As long as they keep my ordering information protected from online thievery and send stuff to me in a timely fashion, I’m quite content with their services.

One thing I find less useful is something I learned about in an online conference, which discusses the “disconnect” between librarians and Millennials. A site (aptly) called Pandora allows users to listen to radio online, and to customize what they listen to by entering music preferences into a profile. I suppose that sounds fine if you like listening to radio, but I prefer listening to my own stuff whenever I want. (If I do listen to radio, it’s usually NPR or the local classical channel.) Paradoxically, one of the presenters mentioned that it was a more “active” technology. (Remember: active=good, passive=bad) Well, Pandora may provide more listener options than a regular radio, but it’s not nearly as active as going into iTunes and selecting what I want to listen to, when I want to listen to it. I also might like to listen to certain parts of pieces of music, which neither active nor passive radio allows me to do. Others might be happy with Pandora, but I don’t want some computer guessing my tastes. I prefer a much greater level of active listening.

Anyway… enough of the soapboxing. Getting back to the original point of this piece, we all choose our own masks or veils to get through life. Some of us wear them well, while others do not. (And I haven’t even gotten into online personae, which could be the topic of a future posting.) As for myself, I would rather select my own masks and veils for the digital and non-digital realms. I do not want or need user history and preference options to set them up for me. I’m also quite certain that Mr. Wilde would not have wanted that, either.


5 Responses to “Dance of the Infinite Veils”

  1. I’m with you on most of this, and have always loathed the “Daily Me” concept.

    Pandora’s actually something quite different–it may not suit you, but it’s different. Basically, Pandora says “name a song or an artist, and we’ll play stuff that has characteristics in common with that song or artist”–or you can name several artists or songs. It’s an interesting way to *discover* possibly-interesting stuff you didn’t know about. It’s not a computer guessing your tastes: A bunch of people (mostly musicians) are classifying pieces based on a set of criteria, and Pandora will even show you the criteria it’s using. Some social-software people think that makes Pandora inferior, because it’s based on human expertise rather than popularity/collaborative recommendation. [It’s closer to reader’s advisory than to Amazon’s “you might also like…”]

    I don’t use it much (if I listen to music, it’s mostly my own CD-Rs), but I’ve found it pretty convincing as a source of “similar” new possibilities. (You can have up to a hundred different “stations”–as limited as my use is, I have four.)

  2. Jason Says:

    Hmmm… if time allows, I might give it a try. The human element at least sounds encouraging, though I hope that the range of music covered is fairly broad. I just hope that opera and classical aren’t marginalized, and that people don’t make superficial recommendations. In my former life on MySpace, I’d get “friend” requests from bands saying that they sound like other bands I like (such as U2).

    For me to really get into Pandora, I’d have to get in touch with people who like music from many different genres. Come to think of it, maybe listeners with idiosyncratic tastes (such as myself) would make a good guinea pigs for testing Pandora’s effectiveness.

    As for the social-software folks, why do they put so much faith in systems? Bad experiences with people? I’ve had bad experiences with both people and systems, but I would put more faith in people who will actually listen to me than systems that base my preferences on clunky algorithms.

  3. dianessample Says:

    We have forty people wearing seven veils each. Is that acceptable?

  4. […] 8th, 2007 at 8:43 pm (Uncategorized) In the first portion of the “veils” discussion, I refer to two Chronicle articles about the personae one needs to put on in the classroom and for […]

  5. […] am (Uncategorized) In my two “Dance of the infinite veils” postings from a few weeks ago (on 7 and 8 February), I followed the lead of several posters in the biblioblogosphere who pondered […]

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