Friday, December 12, 2008


Here at NWU, we're on a rotation for new computers, every four years or so. For me, that's plenty often enough, since really wordprocessing, a spreadsheet for grades, reading pdfs, and looking up stuff on the web doesn't challenge a computer much.

My new one got installed today. First, it's tiny. TINY.

The keyboard and mouse feel all wrong. Just wrong.

And... it has no floppy drive.

I know, you're thinking to yourself, what kind of idiot uses a floppy drive these days? Shouldn't everything be on indestructible media such as a CD or USB thingy?

To be honest, it's not that I use floppies a lot, but I have my grad school teaching stuff on them, and my first several years of teaching files. So should I need to teach something by Pope other than "The Rape of the Lock" or "Sound and Sense" (both of which I teach in my intro poetry class, I have notes on there. Also notes for teaching other 18th and 19th c Brit lit. My notes from teaching intro women's studies are also on floppies. Maybe I'll never teach that class again, and maybe if I do I won't want to look at the notes because they're already so old. But how will I know that if I can't look at them.

When I first got here, they gave me a big disk called a "Zip" drive, and told me to back everything up on there. I still have the disk, and I think there's stuff on there, but I have no way to check. I think "Zip" drives are a thing of the past.

I have to admit, I'm looking longingly at my books. You know, despite lots of technology changes, I can still look at them easily. I just reach out, open it up, and there it is. And in most cases, the signal to noise ratio is nearly 100/approaching zero, and it's easy to make out. I realize that's not the case with lots of manuscripts that have been damaged or faded due to time, but do you think any of the media you're using right now will be useable in 50 years, much less 500 or more?

And the indestructability of electronic media? I wonder how much magnetic force totally messes up your average flash drive? I listen to books on CD from the library a fair bit, and it's rare that I can actually hear a book the whole way through. Books on tape, well, sometimes there's a problem, but surprisingly not as often as with the CD ones. And books in print? Well, it's rare that a page is torn out, but sometimes people do write on them. And with my own texts, the writing is mine, and sometimes actually helpful many years later. Neat how that works with printed texts, isn't it?

I know deep down that almost nothing I write or do is worth archiving for very long. But some things I want to last for my teaching career, just because there's something very right about having notes, even Dryden notes, just in case I ever want them. (And yes, I also have a paper file system, and no, I'm not switching to an electronic record.)

And this, folks, is why I'm a luddite, except one that also loves computers and stuff.

It's the last day of classes. Thank goodness my grading stuff is safely tucked away on the computer system, eh? Because that will never get lost, never "go down" and never, ever run out of storage space.

What language do your unicorns speak?


  1. Last I knew, Best Buy has external floppy drives that plug into your USB port --- we bought one a few years ago for under $20.00.

  2. And I think you can take your files to your local tech geek storefront (or even through your tech peeps on campus) and they can convert it a couple different ways for you--like onto a flash and as a paper copy if you want so you can archive it and look at it almost like a book...

  3. Anonymous11:26 AM

    Great post, though. I keep raising the issue of "hardware" around our campus and my professional organization -- we are all into using cool new technology for teaching at every possible opportunity. But what that means in practice is, a huge amount of turnover in hardware, which is of course an environmental disaster.

    I would love to *have* a new laptop, but I'm not willing to pay the guilt-price for it.

  4. Anonymous1:15 PM

    I don't think the media I'm using today will be valid in 50 years, but I think that just means it's our responsibility to ensure things get converted. Part of the price we pay for technology.

    I copied all my undergrad floppy disks onto my harddrive long the next few years, I will find all my very old Word files from there and resave them into a more modern version of Word, or perhaps save as PDF, as I am relatively confident that *some* program will always be able to handle basic PDFs.

    Part of the open-source movement is also about being able to access your data in public formats.

  5. My husband's computer still has a floppy drive (we ordered one specially) and I've copied most of the stuff from my floppies onto CDs. I like Dance's idea of saving them as PDFs. Of course what I should really do is go through my electronic files the way I try to go through my paper files and pitch things I don't need anymore. (How many draft chapters of my book do I really need?)

  6. Great post, although I didn't get much beyond "new computer" before thinking "oooh, shiny!" and wanting one myself.

  7. I'm a technology profesional and am attracted to new shiny geeky tech stuff all the time. But, there should always be a plan to convert data. I suppose that I shouldn't be surprised that at a state institution that they 'neglected' this, maybe because of funding. If they made the choice for funding reasons, it was shortsighted. Think of all of your time/effort invested in those notes, and all others getting new technology. Phew! that's probably much more expensive than the cost of a entry level tech to convert your docs.

    Theodora is correct: it is also an environmental disaster. Electronic waste is one of the largest and fastest growing component of municipal waste. Much of what goes into computers is toxic, and there is a black market that sells this waste in developing countries where people who have no other job opportunties disassemble the parts putting themselves, their kids, their water supplies in peril.

  8. Inside, I can also bring the disks home and transfer the info to a CD or two. It was just shocking that new computers don't come with floppy drives.

    Mrs. C., On my campus, the tech folks won't convert things for me. Faculty time doesn't count for these folks. It's not part of their bottom line.

    Theodora, That's a really good point. And in the current budget crisis, I asked about putting off the new computer for a year or two, but was told it had to go as scheduled. End of discussion. Seems wasteful.

    Dance, You've backed up that harddrive, right? Because harddrives crash. As do floppies, and every other media. And books get fire and other damage.

    Susan, I still have all my draft chapters in paper files. Are you implying that I shouldn't?

    Undine, LOL. You made me laugh.

    Cam, You and Theodora make good points about the environmental issues. Any suggestions for ethical ways to get rid of our computer waste?

  9. Anonymous6:34 PM

    Harddrive backed up, yep, a few times, though none offsite. Not sure that harddrive technology will be around in 50 years, either. But crashing is a different issue from inaccessible or outdated formats. (Admittedly, Apple stopped shipping floppy drives on laptops in 1999, so I had a long transition period to figure out that I needed to wean off them.)

    My department recently launched a thing (theoretically, not yet up in practice) where the work-study students will scan paper to PDF for us (and get us OCR software), which will be handy for things like unpublished conference papers that I may never want to look at but are not easily replaceable if I toss them. Or like draft chapters. It's part of the transition to a paperless office such that they had to buy the scanners and software for the admissions and advising processes, I think.

  10. I gave up on floppy disks two years ago after I did a school project that was larger than my floppy disk could hold (without anything on it).

    I now store my documents on my jump drive and some of the pictures I have taken with my camera. My jump drive has come in handy several times.