Virtual Girlfriends

Sunday 31 August 2014

At Kastrup Airport in Copenhagen, I was reading John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany whilst waiting for a connecting flight. This would be in the early 1990s, a winter’s night, and I was suffering with a heavy cold. Despite the darkness, the chill, and my man flu, I was enjoying Irving’s humourous narrative. During one particularly funny episode, I started to laugh out loud as simultaneously I had a terrible fit of sneezing and coughing. The outcome was ugly, and I was moderately aware that other passengers were observing me, no doubt hoping that I wouldn’t be joining their flight.

Thinking back now, Owen Meany was probably the second of Irving’s novels that I read, and in the months following the Kastrup episode I read all or most of his output. I remember reading Irving’s concise memoir, The Imaginary Girlfriend. From memory, the book was a disappointment. You can, after all, only read so much about high school wrestling. I can’t now recall if Irving or anyone else in the book had an imaginary girlfriend, but the idea seems benign. Where is the possible harm? I imagine things all the time. You do too, a little Walter Mitty in all of us.

I was reminded of Irving’s imagined girlfriend yesterday when reading a short BBC article on a ‘virtual girlfriend service’ in China. This is how it works: For the sum of $2 US dollars per day, your virtual girlfriend can give you an early morning call to coax you awake. She will also, if you desire, wish you good night, and can be summoned at other times of the day if there are woes you wish to share with her. In the interests of gender equality, women can also hire a virtual boyfriend. The company providing this service, Taobao, also sells a range of other products, including drones, scorpions and breast milk soap. You get the idea.

Unlike Irving’s imaginary girlfriend, I’m less at ease with the notion of a virtual girlfriend, skirting, as it seems to, a liminal space between somehow real and somehow not real. In fact, let me be honest, I’m fairly confounded by the whole idea. As an experienced teacher, I am no longer paralyzed by the knowledge that I don’t know everything and never will. These are the anxieties of a younger me. Nevertheless, I can still feel a little fraudulent teaching ‘mass communication’ to groups of tweetuping, hash-tagging teens in a rapidly changing world that I find at least a little alienating.

There is, however, hope. The Language and Literature course is, I’m convinced, best taught when teachers give greatest attention to skills development. The topics in parts 1 and 2 of the course provide some framework for organization. It’s the content of the course, and may lead one towards discussion of social media websites such as Taobao. But content it is not a substitute for developing in students such skills as close textual analysis, an ability to organize and structure ideas, and a faculty for embedding in essays and commentary writing compelling supporting evidence. These skills are enduring, even in times of rapid technological and social exchange. Cultivating such skills, moreover, is one of the ways, as English teachers, we develop in students critical faculties, empowering them to participate meaningfully in the world they are inheriting. This is true whether your girlfriend is virtual or right next to you.


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