In the Clickstream, Part 1

0725 with iced coffee. I drop my bag at the door and close the office blinds, blocking February’s rising glare and heat. Early morning email and paper-shuffling, putting off grading. I don’t realize it’s a training day until Mala — Cadet Casey — shows up for facetime in camo ACUs and full gear.

She’s angry and tense. Lips pressed in a thin line and perspiration streaming. It’s what passes for a winter morning, but the way she flops in the spare chair and then props a foot up on my filing cabinet, she’s glad for the building’s laboring and antiquated central air. She pops the buckles on the composite shin and thigh pads, up one by one, speaking as she goes.

“Sir,” she says. “I know I’m early.”

Nod. “Hot out there,” I venture. She does the other leg.

“You have no idea.” Blows a stray hair out of her face. It’s not meant in a mean way: I don’t, actually. I’m a civilian. My car has AC. She’s in twelve kilos of body armor, web gear, batteries, distributed information systems, and she’s been going since 0520. I wait for the anger to spin out words.

Cadet Casey, of the neighborhood of Georgetown, Washington, DC, is one of those students, the kind you meet once or twice in a career. Overachiever: handle with care. First day of class, she tells me she went up the chain to get my cow Database Composition section because I tutored Cadet Maas into the Josephson Fellowship at Trinity. She wants some of that.

The Department’s made its own concerns evident in signs subtle and clear, their suasive force underscored by that subtlety. Cadet Casey is the only child of a certain outspoken and soon-to-be-promoted three-star flag officer. Indeed: that one.

Cows are juniors here. Frosh, plebes; sophomores, yearlings; seniors, firsties. I’m an outsider, a civilian, and I’m only slowly learning the terms and names, the protocol, what goes on at a military academy with its decorum, slang, traditions. Things unusual and usual: Cadet Casey isn’t in one of the permanent Lieutenant Colonel Academy Professor’s sections. She’s in mine. Remarkable in her poise, and in the absence of self-regard and self-consciousness common to the exceptional students I’ve encountered elsewhere.

She’s got the armor and distributed computing off, piled in a corner. She sleeves the sweat away again. “Sir,” she says, and chokes the R. I’ve never seen her this discomposed. The tops of her ears flushed red, her jaw set. “I got verbal seven minutes ago that I’m being boarded.”

A board is a combination of investigation and trial; an attempt to ascertain whether and how badly a Cadet fucked up. Military justice, with Cadet legal representation, and often for the minor stuff, it’s dismissed. On the other end of severity, though, there’s the possible prospect of expulsion, separation from the Corps, UCMJ action. Courts martial and sentences at Leavenworth, and worse.

I use my teacher voice. “OK,” I say. I suspect, but ask anyway: “What for?”

When they finally figured out service learning and database pedagogy, the military academies loved it. Air Force at Colorado Springs, Navy at Annapolis, Army here at the Point: we had the cash to send out Cadets, get them interacting with the world, the third world in particular, crafting collaborative and evolving documents with peer communities, getting those communities internetworked — and then, of course, hooking them into the broader observable network. Altruism meets military intelligence via data mining.

She meets my gaze and takes a breath through the teeth. “Honor,” she says.

Mala Casey doesn’t commit honor violations.

I thumb up the browser. “OK,” I say, and hand it to her. “Show me your clickstreams.”

Her thumbs fly. She’s T9ed all her life and it’s remarkable to watch her go as she SSLs in via her thumbs, and even more remarkable to hear the “denied” chirps. She’s stunned. “Give me that,” I say, and do my own thumbing, clumsy, until we’re in on the tiny keypad and then the command line prompt opens up with its vasty open blackness after the colon.


I seek: who’s up in my student’s clickstreams, tweaking her data, adding and modifying, getting her an honor board?

I get back nineteen discrete IP addresses, all of them geolocated here, plus one through Australia that’s probably Cadet Moser with a porn hider user agent he forgot to turn off. And one student, Mala, who’s got monthly traffic off the chart, local links, many of them from Database Composition students, but many more from yearlings and plebes.

I narrow my query. Nobody greps or agreps anymore, but the engines carry enough historical baggage to recognize the strings I throw. I get a hit: the clickstream that has to be the one that got her the board.

And when I see it, I realize I’m in a whole lot of trouble.

(To be continued)

This is a piece of speculative fiction attempting to imagine what teaching writing with database technologies might look like at some point in the future. The final episode has links to all the intermediate episodes, as well.

In the Clickstream, Part 1

9 thoughts on “In the Clickstream, Part 1

  • February 3, 2007 at 3:58 pm

    My office hours are nothing like yours ; )

    Can’t wait to read part two. Next Friday?

  • February 3, 2007 at 4:14 pm

    Next Friday indeed. As you can likely tell, it’s an attempt to figure out — twenty minutes into the future — what a wired database composition pedagogy might look like.

  • February 3, 2007 at 4:50 pm

    Gah! We have to wait until next Friday?!?!?

  • February 4, 2007 at 2:08 pm

    daannngg! ur killin me!

    you type a script with a potentially unsettling ending. hope it’s not too…

  • February 4, 2007 at 11:15 pm

    I love that you are back to your Friday nights. Been too long.

  • February 4, 2007 at 11:23 pm

    Thanks, Chel. I haven’t wanted to make a big deal by asking, but I guess I’ll go ahead: are you at more of a private place these days?

  • February 5, 2007 at 7:27 pm

    The place is the same, but I had some privacy concerns and went with a password. Let me know if you want the info, and I’ll email it.

  • February 9, 2007 at 10:22 pm

    Sgt Mike returns. You write so well in this mode. I look forward to the day when your two prose styles meet each other and embrace or wrestle one another to the ground.

  • February 10, 2007 at 1:22 pm

    Thanks, Tutor — although I might say that here I’m trying to walk the line between SGT Mike and PROF Mike. I’ll be curious to hear what you think about how I’m trying to put academic concerns into fiction.

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