Last semester has supplied me with a lot of new “material,” alas. I am resolving to return to my blog.
But I want to begin by looking back, and offering a meditation on some of the changes that are affecting not only my students’ language skills, but also their lives.
This is an editorial I wrote two springs ago for the Connecticut AAUP newsletter I edit, VANGUARD. The title was “Silent Spring,” partly because this editorial was written for the Spring issue (2016), and partly because yes, I was thinking of Rachel Carson. This past semester my first-years all carried out research projects having to do with social media, and they have concluded that the kinds of things I addressed here have only gotten worse. Anyway, here goes:
In 1962, Rachel Carson published the landmark environmental book Silent Spring, the result of her study of the consequences of indiscriminate use of man-made pesticides, particularly DDT. She envisioned a future in which the Springs would be silent because insect eradication by poison was passing the poison on up the food chain to birds, killing them outright or so weakening their calcium production that their eggs were not viable: hence, the glorious sound of birdsong that is their territorial and mating music would be no more.
The book and its vision appealed to the general public as well as to the scientific community, and created strong pressure to ban the use of DDT. As I sit in my kitchen with the deck door open and listen to the glad songs outside, I thank Rachel Carson (for whom my niece is named) for awakening us before it was too late.
Her title phrase resonates with new meaning for me 54 years later, when I walk into my classroom building and have a moment of wondering whether I have misread the calendar and shown up to teach on, perhaps, a Sunday morning. Or maybe there’s a holiday I missed…. The building is silent. Well, the ground floor is never very busy.
I ride the elevator up to the third floor, home of my busy department and my scheduled class. Silence greets me. Has The Rapture actually occurred?
Into my classroom I go, to find twenty students or so waiting for class. They seem to be alive, but they are soundless, each gazing into a tiny screen, heads down, thumbs a-gallop.
As I make my way to the front of the room, I remember other days. Long ago the halls were alive with chatter and murmur, and beginning a class session meant getting the students to wind up their conversations with neighboring students and focus on beginning the day’s work. I taught with my door closed to mute the random bursts of chatter in the hallways and deter the occasional passer-by who otherwise wouldn’t resist putting his or her head in to see what was going on, or waving at a friend. As soon as the formal class was over, students would turn to one another and begin to talk—expressing reactions to the lesson, making plans to get together, sharing jokes… Sometimes one or two would ask me to join them for coffee so we could continue a class discussion.
Before things changed in the classroom, they started changing in the halls, as cellphones become more and more popular. Voices were raised because the phone connections were sometimes weak, or because the speaker couldn’t hear his or her own conversation over the phone-shouting of someone standing nearby. Signs appeared in the hallway: PLEASE USE CELLPHONES IN STAIRWELL ONLY. In the classroom, soon thereafter, electronic music would suddenly burst forth and a student would sidle out to talk to mother? friend? boss? Colleagues and I began announcing policies for cellphone use in the class.
And then cellphone use became silent, thanks to the innovation of texting. In the classroom my policy now is: “If I see you gazing happily into your lap and notice that your hands are moving, my first thought will NOT be ‘texting.’ You don’t want to know what my first thought will be.” (Amazing how effective this is, once they realize that first thought and blush….) A friend says she marks student cellphone users Absent: “Your mind is certainly not here.”
The halls are still full of students. There are students in the classrooms. But they make no sound. My colleague is right: they are not “multitasking,” at which it turns out none of us is very good despite our confidence to the contrary; they are absolutely elsewhere. Before class they aren’t thinking about the class, preparing their minds for some lively interaction; they’re thinking about whatever the mother? friend? boss? on the other end of the text is saying. (They haven’t even turned on the lights, since the phone screen makes its own illumination. At first glance they look, especially the ones wearing hoodies, like monks at prayer in a dim cloister.) After class, same: out come the phones, down go the heads. What has been going on in the classroom—let’s call it the “lesson”—is a little capsule framed by completely other concerns. Curiosity, challenge, reconsideration, reflection on lesson or assigned text: the texts of a different world take their place.
In the halls and on the sidewalks, students walk straight ahead, heads down, thumbs moving. They don’t see the leaves coming out, the birds flying by, the blue of the sky. They don’t see me jumping aside or hugging the wall so as not to be walked directly into. Sometimes they don’t even look for traffic in the street they’re crossing.
Yesterday one of my slightly-older students dropped by my office after class, “looking for someone to talk to.” I enjoy talking with him: he’s curious, reflective, funny. So of course I’m not talking about everyone. In fact, one thing he talked about was the creepy silence in the halls….
Like DDT, cellphones are man-made. Like DDT they are weakening our students in many ways: their ability to pay attention to one line of thought; their ability to discuss ideas and challenge interpretations; their comprehension and retention of class material; their willingness to engage with one another face-to-face. Will they realize this by themselves, and seek a different kind and quality of communication? Can new policies limit the danger and the damage? Or will our Springs, and Autumns, and Summer Sessions fall silent as our technology saps our students’ willingness, and ability, to participate in their own lives? —RAB