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Anna Slatin Interview

1. Currents in Electronic Literacy spoke with Anna Slatin in her home in Austin on February 20, 2008. Anna explains how she and John met and graciously gives us some insight into their lives together and how they balanced their relationship with the many activities and organizations they were both involved in. Anna also explains her perspective on John's teaching philosophy and how his students impacted his life.

Click here to listen to the interview or read the transcript below.

Currents (C) and Anna Slatin (AS)

2. C: Hi, Anna. Thank you so much for agreeing to speak with us today. I guess I would like to start at the beginning with how you and John met, and what his interests were at the time, in terms of his work.

3. AS: We met in 1982, Christmas, December 27th--I mean December 17th--at a friend, Bill Neemer’s house, at a party. I was in graduate school at the time. And I went over to Bill’s house, and Bill Neemer taught with me at Austin High. He was a Writing Consultant and I was a math teacher. I was in graduate school to get my Masters Degree in the School of Social Work. And I was taking a final, and I went to Bill’s party at nine o’clock, after the final, and John and other colleagues were there. And John had gone to graduate school at Hopkins with Bill Neemer, and Evan Carton was at the party, and he had gone to graduate school as well with John. And Evan’s wife Janice and a lot of other academics were there. Liz Butler Cullingford and Al Friedman were there, and I met all of them at the party. And I immediately starting talking to John, and I immediately started liking him, and he immediately started liking me. We sat next to each other, and we were talking about teaching and our love of teaching, both of us, and how much teaching is really about love. It’s accepting, it’s already assuming that the people that you’re teaching already are whole people, and they already are beautiful people who don’t really need to be fixed. And just accepting them as whole people to start with, and then moving from that relationship forward, instead of thinking that they’re lacking something. And we both believed in that and it was really unique to discover that, even though I taught math and he taught English.

4. So, right after that I called Bill Neemer, the next morning, after talking to him till one in the morning, and said, “I really like your friend John.” And Bill said, “Well…” Bill was being very… he’s kind of a Victorian, bachelor, and he was like, “Well… you know, let’s give it some time. I’ll talk to John…” He didn’t give me his number. Then, that very night, John saw Bill at another party, and John said, “What is Anna’s number? I want to call her right away.” And Bill said, “I give up!” So John called me, and I had dinner over there and it was really nice. I had dinner with John; he cooked dinner for me. And we just fell in love. Right away, we knew we were just meant to be together. And we just hung out all the time, and then we got married the next year.

5. C: Oh wow.

6. AS: About a year… a year and three months later.

7. C: O.K., O.K. And, at what point did his interest turn towards technology?

8. AS: At about the time we got married, which is in 1984; March 17th, 1984. He was already using word processing and a computer. He had written his dissertation—of course, typed it—and then he had written part of his book manuscript, he had typed it. But then he converted it into… Word Perfect, I think, was the software then.

9. C: M-Hmm.

10. AS: And he started using word processing. But he really got interested in computers. He really liked computers and learned a lot about the word processing and the applications, and then got interested in the capabilities of the computer in general. I was really interested in, kind of the social aspects of computing, and went to a conference called CSCW: Computer Supported Collaborative (or Cooperative) Work. And it was the first one, I think. It was in Austin, at MCC. And I went to this conference and I had seen this presentation about hypertext. So I came back and I went, “John, there was this presentation about this linked process and approach.” And I didn’t understand it that well, but I read it to John. And he became really interested and so emailed… from that there was a call for papers to M.I.T. on using hypertext. So he put in to give a talk at M.I.T. on hypertext because he immediately wrote an essay on this will change everything. That’s how he wrote this paper on hypertext. And so, he got accepted, so we went to M.I.T. The conference at M.I.T. that year was also, simultaneously, the same time when Apple launched its hypertext software program—what was it called? Um… Hypercard. We didn’t know that because it was this conference at M.I.T., at the same time in Cambridge [was] where they were having the big conference, MacWorld, the big conference for Apple computer, at the same time. And it turns out that the interest in hypertext was coincident, was deliberately timed along with the release of Hypercard. So, we found out about it. At the same time [that] week, the same day, that John gave the paper, was when Hypercard got released. And so it became a really big deal, and John started investigating that.

11.He was really good with technology right away. He could remember things; he knew how to learn things. Some of the visual problems he had got worse later. So he always had to adapt the way he used technology and pretty quickly got a voice card with his computer… the voice programs, so he could type in and have it read back to him… to use the computer. But he loved computing, from day one. And he understood applications and he just learned new things on it much more easily.

12. Then he became kind of an expert in the English department on computers, and everybody looked to him to help them use computers more and more. And then he got interested in the lab. Somebody already had a computer lab set up—Jerry Bump. And then John became the next director after Jerry left.

13. C: Yeah. O.K.

14. AS: I’ve gone through a lot of years. I started in 1984, the year we got married, and then this all unfolded over several more years. I don’t have the exact dates. But you guys do!

15. C: That’s understandable, yeah. And I guess, related to that, so, John was a full-time professor, the head of the Accessibility Institute…

16. AS: Not—at the time, not then, because they didn’t have that. He was a full-time professor, then he became the head of the lab. Computers…

17. C: CWRL.

18. AS: CWRL, the Writing and Research Lab. And, after that, he got called by the Provost to start the Institute for Technology and Learning, working directly through the Provost. And, he did that, and then he worked that into the Accessibility Institute, because that was more what he was interested in. They were doing a project with public schools and then they morphed it into the Accessibility Institute because, I think… some of the schools were having trouble buying technology and there were some issues with that. So he really worked a lot with developing projects with the schools, and that worked out well. Then he wanted to focus more on accessibility because he himself was going through a lot of issues with accessibility. And then he got on the World Wide Web Consortium and all of that thing. That kind of unfolded over, really, a lot of years—like, a twenty-year period.

19. C: So, he was a very busy guy, correct?

20. AS: Yes. He was a very busy guy, ‘cause he had to, like, when he was the director of the Institute of Technology and Learning and then the Accessibility Institute… so he had to do everything, y’know, with his programs and work with all the different departments, because this was beyond the English department, beyond the College of Liberal Arts. He was working for the whole University. So he worked a lot with internal accessibility within UT, working with the webmasters and the people, and also working with external entities and research all over the world, and W3C, and he really loved his collaboration on W3C.

21. C: So, how did that impact your lives together? That he was trying to do so many different things?

22. AS: Well he was always interested in new things and so was I, so we really had a great, great, great partnership. And he would always be involved and interested in everything I was doing and all my friends, and all my colleagues, and all my customers—because I’m an independent consultant. I work—I have a small business called Interaction Design, and I work with designing training experiences for companies that are very interactive with people collaborating. Both of us have always been interested in collaboration, so we talked about it a lot—everything I was doing we talked about, everything he was doing we talked about. So I went with him on some conferences, even while he was sick—he had leukemia, he was in remission, though. We went to Spain, Asturias, to a conference, and he was one of the keynote speakers. That was the fall before his bone marrow transplant, after his first chemo, around Thanksgiving time. He just… he shared everything with me. So I would meet his friends.

23. In fact, in the early days in the computer lab we always had a huge party here every semester, and just invited everybody over. It was just a whole big party and we served a whole dinner. We had seating for everybody and tables set up. Fun. We sat and talked for hours, and I met a lot of his graduate students. And I liked to go to conferences with him; he sometimes went to conferences with me as well.

24. So we just made our work life part of our personal life, and our personal life part of our work life. I even collaborated with him in designing some training that got used in the lab and then later with the Institute, and then doing some work for groups at the University. And also from Knowbility, which is an accessibility company here in Austin, a nonprofit with Sharon Rush. I helped John put some materials together that they use, and I just volunteered my knowledge as a designer of interactive experiences to help him, and he helped me… his moral support with me and also just talked through ideas. So… and all my customers and clients who met him loved him, and people that I met in his group were nice to me and really liked me.

25. So, I think, it was just more we didn’t have boundaries about who we were going out with socially versus our work colleagues. We would go out and have drinks and do things, out to eat. Have dinner parties, and at the dinner parties we’d have people in University, and in other aspects of accessibility. Like Jim Allen, Jim Thatcher, Sharon Rush. Peg Syverson is a really close friend of ours personally. So we hung out a lot, we had dinners, just the three of us a whole lot of the time, the whole time she’s been here. And her son we knew, and our kids know them. And so, we just were really very open and incorporated our work life into our personal life a lot.

26. C: Since this issue is about how John impacted his graduate students, I wonder if you can give us any insight on how you thought of him as a teacher, or how he thought of himself as a teacher.

27. AS: I think John’s basic assumptions were that he really respected students and their knowledge, and was really impressed, and took them really seriously. In fact, sometimes that was a problem because he… like, if they started saying they wanted to do something, or came up with ideas, he took it really seriously, and he just treated them like they were an expert--maybe expected too much sometimes. Because he just really went: “Wow, that’s a really cool idea. Follow that,” and then really wanted them to develop the idea, and took it seriously. So he was never, I don’t think, paternalistic… Like, “I’m gonna take care of you,” or like, “You don’t know that much, but, y’know, I’m your father figure.” I don’t think he treated people like that. I think he treated everybody as a peer intellectually. And that could have been a little bit challenging to some students. I think he was really good with students who were really self-confident and students who were fascinated with ideas and were comfortable and confident in their ability to discuss and even argue with other intellectuals. John was a great teacher for that. But folks who really wanted to be nurtured a lot, or wanted hand-holding, or, want a lot of structure, you know constantly wanted a mother-hen type teacher, he wasn’t good at. Because he treated them like colleagues, he expected them to be adults, and just, does that make sense?

28. C: Yeah, it does.

29. AS: But I prefer his point of view, because I think he deeply respected them as complete, full human beings that were completely equal to him. He was really humble; he didn’t brag about anything. In fact, we had a dance group that we were in and there were people of all ages. And he was in that group, and people didn’t know who he was or that he taught. Some people probably just thought that he was a blind guy with no job. And he would never say, “Do you know that I’m a professor?” They didn’t know that he was a professor at all. There were people who did know, but if he just met someone, just sitting in the lobby at UT somewhere, he wouldn’t even say, “I’m a professor.” He just wouldn’t volunteer a lot of information about himself unless you asked.

30. So he was very, very… he rode the buses a lot, throughout the whole time he was in Austin. And people on the bus, he would just get to know really poor people who would get on the bus, they just knew him as John. They liked him, and they liked Dillon, his dog. And they just treated him like John, and they didn’t know that he was a UT professor. He was always like that the whole time I was married to him, almost twenty-five years.

31. C: I also wonder if you have any thoughts about how his graduate students impacted him. The journal this year will be about how he impacted them, but I wonder if you have any thoughts…

32. AS: I would say there—and I’m very sorry that I don’t know everybody’s names—there were a lot of people who, say in the accessibility world, who went on beyond their classes and just did fascinating things. They’ve worked at companies and they’ve written great things, and he really respected all those people, and called on them, even, in his work at W3C. They would have jobs and they were doing things, and he would call them… like, “I really need your help. I want to learn from you.” So I think he was open to learning from everybody, and he respected his students and felt really happy that they were well-placed and they were doing good things and they were influencing ideas, and he talked about how brilliant certain people were: “This is a brilliant essay, this person’s doing this really great stuff.” And he was really, really, really proud of all the students and happy to know them, even after they graduated and went on to other things. He stayed in touch with a lot of people, he emailed a lot of people. So, he’s my role model for respect, intellectualism, sweetness, humor… he just had so many great qualities.

33. C: Well, thank you so much for speaking with us and for speaking about your life with John. We really appreciate it.

34. AS: Thanks so much. Thanks for doing this everybody!

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