Thursday, June 11, 2009


by Cynthia McCarthy

Don’t look back: Something may be gaining on you.

LeRoy “Satchel” Paige, an African-American baseball player famous for his fastball, followed Jackie Robinson in breaking the sport’s race barrier. Nicknamed “baseball’s Methuselah” when he became a major league rookie in his forties, his age was barrier-breaking as well. Everyone understands it’s a feat to get a major-league performance out of an over-40 body. How about a new education into a 50-year-old mind used to a physical classroom?

In my second semester at SLIS, I might adapt Paige’s maxim as “Don’t blink: Something’s definitely gaining on you” and apply it to technology.

A few years ago, during a series of power and computer glitches in the newsroom where I worked, I told a young coworker how I wrote stories for my high school newspaper on a typewriter.

“How did editors know how many inches your stories were?” the young copyeditor asked me.

“We set the margins at 10 and 72,” I explained. “Every three and half lines were one column inch.”

In his mind, I think this scene was conjured in sepia, picturing us in trenchcoats and fedoras, smoking Lucky Strikes and drinking whiskey with off-duty cops.

By the time I started college in the fall of 1976, in a brand new $6 million facility at the University of Texas, the much-vaunted journalism school was training students to write news stories on computers. This was a brave new world.

In 1991, as a reporter for a rural zoned edition of The Sacramento Bee, I sent my stories to editors 50 miles away over a modem. I saw my co-workers about once a month. When I returned in 1996 after a five-year maternity leave, my young co-workers introduced me to something called “the Internet” and showed me how to use something called “email.”

Whoa! I’d be afraid to turn my back on technology for five years ever again in my lifetime! I’d have to be H.G. Wells to imagine what technology might be if I do live to be as old as Methuselah.

Last fall, more than a quarter-century after my last college degree, I started our online program. Mercifully, I had just completed a library science program at my local junior college that used the same online course management system, but I did it in their fairly-close-to-state-of-the-art computer lab. This way I dodged the expense and trauma of untangling what computer, programs, and Internet access I would need at home in the sticks. Before that, I had taken a few computer classes through our local adult education program, not so much to master new spheres, but to get a sense of what spheres exist.

To prepare for the first semester in this program, I printed out the home computing requirements from the SJSU-SLIS web site and took them to my local Apple store, 45 miles away. I did that because I didn’t really understand the rows of numbers and needed a translator. I might have wondered how I would fare in classes where my classmates probably didn’t need an intermediary to figure out whether their computer was up to the task, but it doesn’t do to think about that or you just back off from trying to catch up.

An adequate computer was in the house, but the Apple salesman explained that the speed of the required Internet access was far beyond the dial-up we had. DSL is not available here and cable would cost $10,000 or more to install. I got through my first semester using a laptop at local libraries. Since many libraries have cut their evening hours, classmates joining me in Elluminate meetings sometimes heard my comments over the hiss of an espresso machine at Starbuck’s. Thankfully, a satellite dish was installed before the start of my second semester. We were up and running within 90 minutes. Now the only equipment lacking a fast enough connection is between my ears.

Last semester, my four instructors were spread out from southern California to Washington state and I never saw a single classmate. In February, I finally met one of my instructors during a weekend on campus for a hybrid class. When I was an undergraduate, anything called a “hybrid” class would have been offered in the botany department.
Possibly encouraged by a solid performance in the four core classes I decided to tackle my bête noir and sign up for four classes, three of them about the Web and the Internet. What I learned before I dropped one of those classes - at 4:59 p.m. on the last day to drop - is that such classes tend to attract former software engineers and people who have been current with computer technology all along and spent time on computers for fun.

It doesn’t take long to fall behind the technological curve, and I can’t forecast how long it might before I feel caught up, but I do know that something’s gaining on you every minute. I now view keeping up with technology as gardening; something I dare not leave untended for more than a season. Any time a classmate suggests a new application or feature, I check it out and do my best to employ it right away. With technology, I don't feel I can wait for complete understanding and don't worry about looking like an idiot. I probably won't hit it out of the park, but I can at least take a swing.

Cynthia McCarthy, a former newspaper reporter, has written for The Sacramento Bee zoned editions, The Sacramento Business Journal, Sierra Heritage magazine and The Union newspaper in Grass Valley, Calif. She lives in the Sierra Nevada hamlet of Alta in Placer County with her husband, 17-year-old son and dog, Missy.

1 comment:

  1. This article hit home for me in many ways. I also started my working career with typewriters and carbon paper. When I began the SLIS program in 2004, I called up Dell, the company from which I'd gotten my laptop five years previous, and read off the tech requirements. I had been working in law firms for over 15 years, editing legal documents, and since I usually worked off hours I was the go-to person for all kinds of questions, including tech requests. Thus, I learned a lot about technology quickly because I had an attorney standing in front of me and the help desk was closed. While I felt fairly confident that my tech skills could cut it for the program, I still had a vague feeling of unease that, indeed, something was gaining on me and I'd have to face it at some point.

    Taking only two classes per year due to some personal constraints, I got though the first few years without any tech difficulties. I wasn't a computer whiz, but I got done what needed to get done. Then the tide started to turn. My dial-up became a constant source of frustration. My colleagues, whom I now never saw as all my classes were online, talked of software and blogs and techniques completely foreign to me; they might as well have been speaking Swahili. My professors threw out terms that caught me off guard. And then I left the legal field and went to work in a large telecommunications firm. My first temporary desk was in the midst of the design department. Suddenly I was surrounded by people who could make stars fly out of the screen if they so desired, who crunched SEO facts and figures for breakfast, who knew practically every download program available, who seemed to be half machine themselves. I was thoroughly intimidated. I began to feel like a dinosaur at the end of the era, dying in an atmospheric change.

    Well, it was either change or check out, so I began asking questions, writing down terms I overheard in conversations, visiting tutorial websites, reading some of those sleek IT mags laying around the lounge area. Then I took a web design class which absolutely proved what an old dog I am, but after four months I must say I learned some new tricks and, more importantly, I learned that I can learn this stuff but, like learning a new language, you need to keep up with it in order to use it.

    The list of new things to learn is infinite (and updated daily) and the learning curve is often long. But I really appreciated and take heart in Ms. McCarthy's closing line. "I probably won't hit it out of the park, but I can at least take a swing." As frustrating as technology can be, it's also fascinating (and frankly essential in today's world) and it's not unfathomable. While I won't excel at everything I try, I can at least understand it.