John Green: The nerd’s guide to learning everything online
Part of the appeal of Green’s YA novels, such as his number one New York Times bestseller The Fault in Our Stars, is his intricate weaving of literary and cultural allusions into the stories he writes.
Green’s books are in themselves maps of cultural and historical events. So it’s not surprising that he uses cartography as a metaphor for the creative learning process.
Paper Towns, Green’s latest novel, was inspired by the true story of a map company, General Drafting Company, which invented a town called Agloe on their map of New York to protect their copyright. Decades later, another map company, Rand McNally, featured Algoe on their map. General Drafting Company revealed that the town was an invention and accused Rand McNally of encroaching on their copyright.
The reply from Rand McNally was unexpected – so many people had followed the General Drafting Company map to Algoe that a town, albeit small, had actually been established.
In his TED talk, watched by over 2 million viewers, Green says:
And this is of course a completely irresistible metaphor to a novelist, because we would all like to believe that the stuff that we write down on paper can change the actual world in which we’re actually living, which is why my third book is called Paper Towns.”
Green extends the metaphor of the map to understand how learning works:
I believe that what we map changes the life we lead. And I don’t mean that in some, like, secret-y Oprah’s Angels network, like, you-can-think-your-way-out-of-cancer sense. But I do believe that while maps don’t show you where you will go in your life, they show you where you might go. You very rarely go to a place that isn’t on your personal map.”
Clearly Green is a man of eclectic knowledges, and yet his formal education began shakily:
So I was a really terrible student when I was a kid. My GPA was consistently in the low 2s. And I think the reason that I was such a terrible student is that I felt like education was just a series of hurdles that had been erected before me, and I had to jump over in order to achieve adulthood. And I didn’t really want to jump over these hurdles, because they seemed completely arbitrary, so I often wouldn’t…”
It wasn’t until Green discovered the value of learning communities that he became interested in school.
But a lot of the learning that I did in high school wasn’t about what happened inside the classroom, it was about what happened outside of the classroom. For instance, I can tell you that “There’s a certain Slant of light, Winter Afternoons — That oppresses, like the Heft Of Cathedral Tunes –” not because I memorized Emily Dickinson in school when I was in high school, but because there was a girl when I was in high school, and her name was Amanda, and I had a crush on her, and she liked Emily Dickinson poetry.”
After leaving school, and in his practice as a writer, the learning communities Green engages with online give him the support and stimulus he needs to pursue new ideas and knowledges:
But to me, the most interesting communities of learners that are growing up on the Internet right now are on YouTube, and admittedly, I am biased. But I think in a lot of ways, the YouTube page resembles a classroom.”
Green’s heroes are men like performance artist Ze Frank, currently president of Buzzfeed motion pictures, who makes online artifacts with astute social commentary. Sites like Minute Physics, Smarter Everyday and Vi Hart are also high on Green’s ongoing involvement in online learning communities.
Green’s talk is a reminder to continue to engage and discuss – to be involved and active learners:
And as an adult, re-finding these communities has re-introduced me to a community of learners, and has encouraged me to continue to be a learner even in my adulthood, so that I no longer feel like learning is something reserved for the young.”
Though Green does not explicitly say this, it is clear from his creative work that his commitment to continued education enhances the depth and breadth of what he makes.