Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Old School

It came to me recently that the party is really over.  Teaching and learning in the way people have done it since they were shaping spear points around a campfire has just about run its course.  It's only  a matter of time before we professors are replaced by robots.  Hell, they've already done it in Japan (see above).

I say this half-seriously with an emphasis on the serious side. 

Yesterday in my first-year seminar, for example, I used an ice-breaker to mix up the class for a pair and share exercise.  I asked the students to line up by birth date from oldest to youngest without talking or writing anything down.  The surprise came for me when I checked their dates:  2/3/94,  3/18/94, 5/12/94... 

Nineteen-freakin'-ninety four! 

That's three years after I began this job.  I've said it before, but teaching is a little like King Lear's unwiped hand.  Before proffering it to Cordelia in Act V, he says, "It stinks of mortality."  I mean, let's face it: dealing with 18-years olds semester after semester is guaranteed to remind you that you're not getting any younger.

Listening to those birthdays yesterday, I was reminded that my students really have grown up in a different world.  They've never known a life without a 24/7 Internet connection within arm's reach.  Most of them sleep with their smartphones and would be extremely anxious if they had to go off-line for an hour or two.  

For a few years I could get students to turn off their devices with jokes or reminders.  I could still engage them in a conversation.  Increasingly, however, that's become more difficult.  They simply cannot switch off and--more troubling to me--they have begun to resent it when I ask them to do so.  This semester, I have had to ask at least one student to put away a phone in nearly every class.

The new normal is that it's perfectly okay to be half-present in any real-time activity.  People yack away on their phones through entire transactions in a checkout line.  They text and drive.  They stroll across campus with noses buried in their on-line worlds, failing to see, greet or smile at anyone passing by.  One of my favorite things to do is to arrive at class a few minutes early and chat with my students.  It's a chance to establish a human connection outside the official boundaries of the classroom. 

That opportunity is almost gone now.  If I get to class early, almost every student will have his or her face trained on a tiny screen.  Imagine it.  Here you have a room full of fun, lively young people, yet no one is saying anything or bothering to relate to one another.   I can almost feel the exasperation when class begins and I have to ask for their attention.  I clearly have interrupted something infinitely more interesting and less demanding than anything I have to offer.  As the anthropologist Sherry Turkle laments,
Technology is seductive when it offers to meet our human vulnerabilities.  As it turns out, we are very vulnerable indeed.  We are lonely but fearful of intimacy.  Digital connections... offer the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship.  Our networked life allows us to hide from each other, even as we are tethered together.  We'd rather text than talk.
No doubt there are professors out there who can turn Twitter into a teaching tool, who can use wikis, text messaging and all manner of pedagogi-gadgetry in their teaching.  I'm not one of them and I don't want to be.   The best classes I have taught were absorbing conversations between human beings who were fully present in the moment.  There was some troubling beast of a question before us and we were all intensely focused on finding an answer.  Creating these wonderful moments gets harder and harder.  My old bag of tricks just can't compete with the seductive, safe and less demanding illusion of being connected without being there.  The truth is that reality has become an inconvenience and meaningful conversation in real-time with real people is just a drag.  It's old school.  

Lucky for me, I only need this job for another 15 years or so.  Then bring on the robots.


One summer, long ago, during the Ford administration and the waning days of my parents' unhappy marriage, I laid each afternoon upon a...