Ah Bartleby, ah humanity

One of the books I use in the Core Capstone is Sherry Turkle's Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age.  Turkle, an MIT professor, has long been interested in how human beings use and are shaped by technology.  An early advocate of our "always-connected" digital society, she has increasingly become more measured in her views.

In Reclaiming Conversation, she argues that all of our texts, tweets, posts, emails, instant messages, and snapchats have diminished the amount of time we spend in face-to-face conversations and this has produced some unfortunate side effects.  Conversation, she argues, is “the most human thing we do.”   Listening to each other, taking each other in and noticing a tone of voice, a body posture and the little "tells" that accompany our physical being are how we learn to read, understand and empathize with one another.  This skill atrophies when we spend less and less time actually doing it.

It makes sense. Developing empathy requires us to hear other people's stories and make the crucial imaginative leap into another perspective. Increasingly, however, we spend most of our time with fractured attention or zipping in and out of conversations to look at this screen or this latest "just in" text (and faculty are just as bad about this as students.  Just look around any meeting).

Turkle makes a second and perhaps more disturbing point about the consequences of  diminished face-to-face conversations.  She says we like it.  Live conversation, after all, is filled with awkward lulls.  It doesn't allow us to carefully edit or curate how we come across.  Conversation means effort and it makes us vulnerable to a messy performance of self.  When we discuss Turkle's idea in class, my students often agree.  They would rather text than talk to people.  Talking is work.

Along these lines, I had something of a first this semester.  After two weeks of class, one of my students asked me if I would please not call on her in class.  She said that speaking in class makes her feel uncomfortable and she would really prefer not to do it.  In 25 years of teaching, I've never had a student request this kind of accommodation.  I'm not sure if this was a 'one-off' or a portent of the things to come, but I do know we handled the entire exchange on this matter in a couple of emails.


Anti-Dada said…
Interesting. I inadvertently wrote about empathy and direct contact with another recently, but that wasn't the thrust of the writing. After reading the last paragraph I realized that I'm definitely of a different age: talking is easy, texting is mind-numbingly painful work. Email is okay, but that's mostly because I email pretty much like I talk or otherwise write essays. I've never tweeted, never will. I don't even know what a snapchat is and I don't want to know. IMs are painful as well. I think I'd be the opposite in your class: "Can you please call on me in class so i don';t have to check my emails, texts, or any other electronic communication device? I like having my time to myself to do what I want and having to be on call all the time pisses me off. So just call on me a lot in class so that I can focus on other things when I'm not there (outside of assignments, of course)."
nelly nancy said…
I prefer to communicate through e-mail. I get too much information in a face to face conversation and need a filter.

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