Last month, during Jan Term, I had an interesting conversation at a lunch-gathering with my Pseudo-Dionysius professor, Dr. Paul Rorem and a few other students. We started off talking about the inauguration, and I mentioned that I would be watching and “twittering” it along with 50 or so of my closest twitter friends. This comment shifted the conversation instantly to the subject of twitter, and my twittering “habit.” What follows is more of an approximation of our conversation than a transcription:
ROREM: So do you also twitter during sermons at church?
ME: Yes, and sometimes during interesting class lectures, too.
ROREM: But don’t you find that to be a distraction from what you’re trying to focus on?
ME: Possibly some times, but I also think of it as an enhancement. It’s broadcasting the sermon/lecture/speech to a wider audience, and bringing more voices back into the discussion.
ROREM: So when you’re in the middle of a really interesting novel, do you stop to twitter that? Doesn’t it break the flow of the story?
ME: I do sometimes twitter when reading a novel. And I also use my cell phone to look up words or concepts I’m unfamiliar with. In that case, my focus has already been broken by my own ignorance, and looking something up instantaneously actually restores my focus.
I didn’t have a good response to the part about twittering while reading a novel, but in the days since that conversation, and especially today, I think I have one now — ironically drawing from a medieval tradition I’ve studied in at least two of Dr. Rorem’s classes over the course of the past semester: Scholia.
Scholia are basically marginal notes in an ancient manuscript. They were often corrections made by a copyist based on comparison with other manuscripts, but sometimes they also served as commentary on the content of the manuscript itself — expounding, elaborating, or even disputing a section of the manuscript. The scholia themselves were then copied along with the text by successive copyists, and sometimes played an important role in the acceptance or understanding of the original. For historical purposes, they also provide insight into how a text was received in a particular era or by a particular person.
Now, I write notes all the time in the margins of the books that I read for seminary AND for enjoyment — including novels. Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath is perhaps the most marked up book I own. But those notes are primarily intended for me. Even if they were intended for others, I’d have to pass the book around to one person at a time. And if I want to know what someone else thinks about that particular book, the best I can hope for is an essay or a book review — not a play-by-play commentary on every page. Granted, my Bible does this, but sometimes I get frustrated that the footnotes (aka commentary) seem to represent one perspective, usually scholarly, and almost always Christian. I think that in many ways, the enriching, broadening, yet detail-oriented aspects of the practice of Scholia have been undervalued in the modern age.
Enter Twitter. If you don’t already know about twitter, watch this. If you’re already on Twitter – follow me! While twitter was intended as a way for people to answer the basic question “what are you doing” it has (in my opinion) evolved considerably. The first time I realized this was during last summer’s Presbyterian General Assembly. I couldn’t be there in person, but I watched the live video feed of the event, excited about Bruce Reyes-Chow standing for moderator of the PCUSA. I was also logged into twitter, as were most of my Presbyterian twitter-friends — some who were at the event, and others like me from afar. Not only were we witnessing denominational history, we were commenting on it. Not long, blog posts on the big picture, but little comments in response to certain specific sections of speeches and events. What’s more, we were sharing those comments with one another, and even commenting on comments. We were writing in the margins of an historical event!
Later, we all did the same with the U.S. Presidential debates, and just recently, with the inauguration. And of course, it wasn’t just Presbyterians commenting in the margins of Barack Obama’s historic inauguration — it was millions of twitterers across the world — kings, scholars, and peasants alike. Assuming that these “tweets” are somehow preserved in the ether (which I think is about as likely as the preservation of velum and papyrus over centuries) consider what an immense wealth of historical information and perspective they provide. Among the marginal comments can be found explanation, reaction, criticism, defense, and elaboration of just about every line of text, as well as comments pertaining to the visual, audio, and other perceptible aspects of the event — from those who witnessed it in person, to those who witnessed it a world away.
Today in my Systematic Theology class, my professor said something interesting, and I immediately pulled out my cell phone to twitter about it. I remembered Dr. Rorem’s question about being distracted from what would be said next. But I also saw several of my classmates taking notes on the lecture, and wondered if their note-taking distracted them from what would be said next. Perhaps. But unlike their paper notes (or even laptop-word processor notes) that will most likely be shelved after the final exam, or serve to benefit at most one person — I am filled with the hope that like the scholia of old, my comments in the margins of today’s lecture/novel/text/event will be shared in both community and in perpetuity. That seems worth a slight distraction.