A little out of season, but an attempt at a return…

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:

Silent Spring

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

About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

14 responses to “A little out of season, but an attempt at a return…

  • myrahmcilvain

    That’s a sad story, but it is not fiction.

  • tahenryauthoress

    I have one student who routinely misses class because he is so engrossed in his phone he doesn’t notice everyone else has gone off to class. He is actually quite sad when he figures out he missed class. But can’t see to break the pattern.

  • sarahjesusnlily

    First, let me say that I’m so glad to see that you’re returning to your blog! Yours has always been my favorite of all the blogs that I follow, and I’ve so missed it, and you, in your absence. That said, I must say, I heartily agree with you on today’s post!

    I don’t own a smartphone, and I dislike texting rather intensely.

    I think texting is depriving people of the ability to be the social creatures that they were intended to be. They’re so busy looking down at their smartphones so they can send/receive/read the latest text, or play the latest and greatest video game, that they’ve forgotten about the most interesting thing of all: other people!

    Someone ought to give them an assignment to fast all technology for one month, and during that month they’re to record their reactions and thought processes in writing (written by hand). I think people would be surprised at what they’d find out about themselves.

    • RAB

      One of my colleagues assigns a fast of 24 hours…and they have trouble with it! Maybe, come to think of it, it’s too SHORT: no time to adjust. I will suggest a month to him. Thanks for this welcome back–now I’m obligated! ;-}

  • solberg73

    My thoughts exactly, stated to perfection unto tears in this piece!
    I feel so alone in my disgust at what dogs hath wrought; like in the Body Snatchers, they fall victim one by one.
    I personally view the thumbnists trudging along my sidewalk oblivious to any nature or daily curiosity as (my metaphor), the rightly derided Chinese with their mandatory ‘Little Red Mao Books held dutifully in hand.
    You are quite perceptive and original at seeing the poison for what it is- poison.
    I’ll grant that their closing their senses and abandoning the interchanges which once made life meaningful is not malevolent. I do my best to simply look away in sadness.
    Q: Will this dysentery pass? Or is it really The End?
    Lots of dog-walkers and baby-stroller strollers here: it’s been forever since I saw anyone ‘off the phone’… paying attention instead to the child or even the dog!
    Once again, perfectly stated. And we missed you madly!

    • RAB

      As I missed you. I am now inspired to keep at it. Maybe not tomorrow–we’re trying to shift a mountain of junk mail, to-look-at-later mail, oughta-save mail, catalogs,oops-better-pay-that bills, and student papers, so that we can have a little New Year’s Eve party with chairs to sit on. Moving a mountain is no small task! See you soon, though. ;-}

  • philosophermouseofthehedge

    “Absolutely elsewhere” is right.
    A drastic shift is occurring
    Thrilled to see you back!

    • RAB

      I’ve been enjoying your posts all this time–the least I could do is get back in the, um, writing chair ;-}

      • philosophermouseofthehedge

        As schools are starting here, consider reposting this one again.
        I find the heads down, fingers flying by students as classes begin very very disturbing – and ominous.
        (Worse – I’ve seen it with adult secondary teachers who were supposed to be in/and being paid for training sessions with state standard authors, researchers, data analyst, intervention specialists – all there to discuss where/how schools were lax or completely failing instructionally – and offering specific strategies to rectify….if these teachers behave the same way in their classrooms as the kids – which I have no doubt many of them do, no wonder mush headedness is so prevalent.)

  • Helen Baumgartner

    I missed blog. Too. Happy and with multiple viewpoints to bring into my dreams.😘

    I had my session with Carol Kellper. There is a
    link to cell phones and other electronics….and more. More later.


    Helen Baumgartner (602) 418-6822 HelenB2002@msn.com

  • myrahmcilvain

    I need to add my delight at seeing you return. You always make me think.

  • dragermeurtant

    DDT had a nice smell. Still can remeber spraying the stuff in the den where I kept chickens. 1959 or so. Now, round-up (glyphosphate, by Monsanto) is as effective. In this part of Europe, insect populations fell with 75% of the past decades…
    Cell phones: one reason for the increase in energy consumption…

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