The first step to getting better is admitting you have a problem. I am a digital hoarder. For some people, it’s pizza boxes and used car parts, for me it’s anything I can open on a screen. My fellow teachers are going to have to help me evaluate how serious this problem is because just like the lady profiled on the show Hoarders, I have no idea how deep I am in digital piles. I climb over digital stacks of mail on my way to bed each night, and I fear that after years of saying, “I’ll clean it out soon,” I’ve surrounded myself in a virtual mess.
First, I’d like to clarify that I do not suffer from the conditions that cause physical hoarding, which is very serious, and I’m not trying to make light of it. Like most people, I save many physical things. However, you will not find piles of papers in my home, with the understandable exception of my husband’s pile of magazines and computer print outs, which we/I will continue to forgive, or the stack of paper I am trying to grade at that time. I keep physical objects for sentimental, utilitarian, and aesthetic purposes. But, I regularly make trips to Good Will and calls to the Vets to donate physical things I no longer need. When it comes to my digital life, however…
Let’s start with my emails. I just spent an hour and a half going through my personal email account, which lists over 2500 “primary” emails that I’m saving. In my personal quest to “clean out” this email inbox, I find myself having a hard time deleting certain types of emails. Why can’t I get rid of email confirmations? Confirmation of purchases, memberships, vacations, they are all there, hoarded for some future purpose I can’t predict. When you change your password to any account, they send an email to let you know the password was changed; I have 71 emails about password requests and changes, and I can’t bring myself to delete them. It makes no sense. I logically understand that I have no need to remember the date I changed my Ticketmaster password, joined a gym, or renewed my subscription to Real Simple, and yet all those emails sit there, judging me and reminding me of my digital hoarding tendency.
My school email is similar in its overwhelming, wow-I-am-a-hoarder function, but I feel slightly less embarrassed by this email hoarding. There are some emails that on the surface seem useless, but you will want them when you get that kid’s younger sibling five years later and the mom says you have no idea what you’re doing. In those circumstances, which are not as uncommon as you may hope, you will be so glad you saved that email where said parent raved about how you changed her elder daughter’s life. Or, when the principal asks why you didn’t submit something, you can forward your original email that you submitted well before the deadline with a humble apology for not making it clear in the subject line (you know she’s busy, etc. etc.). These are two silly scenarios, but you get the picture. In teaching, it is better to have it and not need it than to need it but not have it (shout out to my high school French teacher who said that phrase so often it’s been chiseled into my brain).
A peek into my school email shows that the first email I have saved in my primary inbox (not a categorized folder, but the inbox I open at login) is from August 22, 2006. My hope is that it was the first email I ever got, and that my refusal to delete it is because of the sentimental value of my first work email received. I have emails that explain how to work our grading and attendance system that was phased out probably seven years ago. Hopefully, these emails still exist because it’s just too overwhelming a task to sort through emails that old, but I may have found my project for tomorrow.
Each year I taught is also given its own folder in my school account and within that folder is a subfolder for each class period I taught. Starting around the time we got that new attendance program, we have been emailed the daily attendance all 180 days we have students in the building. And, surprise, I keep them. Starting in 2011, I have the attendance email from every single day. WHY? What good could this possibly do me? Notice that like a hoarder, I try to rationalize that they are in neat folders and easy to access, like the man who tells you that the pile closest to the door are the newspapers from 2011 and the piles go in chronological order as you make your way toward the “dining room.” If I were to print out the files I’m saving, it would be literal hoarding. I have two pictures to demonstrate: the first shows two binders of emails I got for ONE CLASS PERIOD OF KIDS IN A SINGLE YEAR, the other shows two folders of emails I received over two years just about changes to our curriculum. Ok, it’s settled, my project for tomorrow is absolutely cleaning out my virtual mess, starting with those attendance emails!
If only it were just emails, no my metaphoric stacks extend beyond that dining room, through the kitchen, and well into the rafters of the garage. In the “old days,” teachers had filing cabinets where they kept a few copies of each activity. When the filing cabinet was full, there were two options, clean it out or buy another filing cabinet. When I inherited my classroom, there were four filing cabinets with a total of 11 drawers full of teacher clutter. Now, I have a mere one and a half drawers of printed materials, which is next to nothing. I keep a nice one-inch binder for each unit I teach, and all ten are lined up nicely on a single shelf. I am NOT a physical hoarder; my sickness stems from the flashdrive.
I call mine a flashdrive, but it’s the same as a jump drive or USB or whatever you call that device. That beautiful little two-inch miracle that holds EVERYTHING in one tiny digital space. I love my flashdrive, and should I ever lose it, you will never see me again because I will lose my mind. I do back it up when I remember, but an external harddrive is just not as sexy as my adorable, super flashdrive.
My current flashdrive and I started our relationship in 2010. Everything I created before that is in a folder called “Old.” Since 2010, each school year has its own folder (are you seeing a pattern yet) and within each academic year is a subfolder for each unit. Our curriculum evolves each year, but there have not been drastic overhauls, so I teach, within reason, the same things I taught ten years ago. For example, my students create their own suspenseful story around Halloween. And each year, I open the previous year’s “Suspense” folder, reread my project criteria, change next to nothing, and then resave it as the same name but in the new year’s folder. As a result I now have EIGHT copies of a document called “Create Story Criteria” (I am missing two years from my “Old,” pre-2010 folder). Why am I saving old versions of a document? In my neat hardcopy binders, lined sweetly on my physical shelf, I throw away the old version and just keep the newest version of whatever I have. Why don’t I do this with my poor little flashdrive? Why do I have four to eight versions of everything I’ve ever done? Why am I making my flashdrive carry around eight filing cabinets worth of handouts?
I actually know why. It’s because it’s digital. I can’t see it. As long as I don’t open the older folders, I don’t see the piles that are spilling out of the windows. And, I can hide my hoarding because no one else can see my digital mayhem to shame me into cleaning out. Thus, the reason for this post: if I can publicly shame myself, I can also hold myself accountable for tidying up my digital life.
I’d like to be able to say that is the end of my clinging to digital things, but it’s not. I have at least two blogs that I no longer use but never bothered to delete. I also have at least two websites that I used to use with my students that have been dead in space for years. But, as long as I can’t see it, apparently, my brain thinks it’s ok to hoard digitally.
I am currently reading a wonderful book about writing by Anne Lamott called Bird by Bird (thank you Rachel for the loan!), and in it is the wonderful idea of taking things in baby steps. She talks about driving a car at night. You can only see a few yards in front of you, and yet, you always get to your destination no matter how far away it is. Similarly, in life (and writing), we can take things in these small steps, concentrating on just one small task in front of us, and eventually arriving at our destination. I’ve decided this is my new motto for life. So, I’m going to cling to this metaphor as I embark on my virtual spring-cleaning because I can get this done, bird-by-bird.