A conversation with most faculty about students usually leads to laments about their decline in communication skills, both in writing and orally. Some of this is due to the old faculty game of comparing the present generation of students with an earlier one. Exaggeration and hyperbole may be the norm, especially when you have become an old curmudgeon like me. However, don’t trust me. Consider the observations of Sherry Turkle who has been studying technology and students for decades.
Sherry Turkle, a professor in the social studies of science and technology at MIT, provides an informed opinion about this in her new book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (New York: Penguin Press, 2015). Acknowledging that “Face-to-face conversation is the most human – and humanizing – thing we do” (p. 3), Turkle considers how this basic human activity has deteriorated. Why? She places the problem squarely on the increasing use of and dependence on ourdigital devices, leading us to be “forever elsewhere” (p. 4).
While based on extensive research, Turkle’s book is not an arcane research monograph intended to be read by a few specialists. She writes for the public; in fact, she is the prototype of the public scholar. Turkle argues that mobile technologies are not going to disappear, but we need to understand how they impact our lives. “We can both redesign technology and change how we bring it into our lives” (p. 7), she explains and offers practical advice at key points to do this in her text.
Turkle makes a compelling argument for why we need to be more critical regarding our use of mobile technologies. “Technology enchants; it makes us forget what we know about life” (p. 11). Everyone has experienced this to some degree. “We have not assessed the full human consequences of digital media. We want to focus on its pleasures” (p.16). Visit any computer store, such as an Apple store, and observe how it plays on the happiness that their snappily designed machines can give you. I’m a cynic, and even I find myself taken in.
Turkle offers lots of advice about how to cope with technologies. She suggests that we develop “sacred spaces” that are “device-free” (p. 44); try it – it helps. This suggestion comes in the recognition of our need for solitude; time on the Internet is not solitude – we turn to our screens when we want not to be alone. I love solitude. Turkle believes that creativity comes out of solitude: “When we let our focus shift away from the people and things around us, we are better able to think critically about our own thoughts, a process psychologists call meta-cognition. Everyone has the potential. The important thing is to nurture it. The danger is that in a life of constant connection, we lose the capacity to do so” (p. 67). She adds to her concerns about creativity, with “We are often too busy communicating to think, create, or collaborate” (p. 319) and “Unitasking is key to productivity and creativity. Conversation is a human way to practice unitasking” (p. 321). Some years ago, I took up landscape and seascape painting, an activity I most enjoy when by myself and needing some quiet time, and it works. In doing this I feed my creative side.
Some of her most disturbing conclusions concern our capacity for reading and concentration, topics that many faculty will be interested in and will have their own stories to tell. She says we need to train ourselves to do “deep reading, the kind that demands concentration on a sustained narrative thread with complex characters” (p. 69). Our obsession with activities such as multi-tasking and the reliance on PowerPoint tend to idealize online learning, and our continuing drift to such activities spell poor consequences for our society and culture. Turkle is someone who believes that true education comes in the connection between teachers and students: “If you ask people who are lifelong learners where their love for learning comes from, they usually talk about an inspiring teacher. The most powerful learning takes place in relationship” (p. 231). Some will guffaw at this, but not me. While my connection with students is not perfect, it is certainly far better than in my experiences with teaching via distance. I have done the latter, that is, teach online, and I am not convinced of its value. I do not get to know the students, and I believe the students do not get to know me. More importantly, students do not develop their writing, reading, and conversational skills to the same level.
It is hard for some proponents of the digital world to accept the potential negative consequences of the increasing array of glittering information technologies. “The web promises to male our world bigger. But as it works now, it also narrows our exposure to ideas. We can end up in a bubble in which we hear only the ideas we already know” (p. 307). Some students seem to have been nurtured in precisely that kind of environment, and it can be unsettling when they are challenged with new and different notions.
We have tended to dupe ourselves in our thinking about the technologies supporting the digital era. Turkle has a clever way of expressing this problem: “The digital world is based on binary choice. Our thinking about it can’t be” (p. 329). Talking to machines makes us forget about what makes us human. We need “to remember who we are – creatures of history, of deep psychology, of complex relationships. Of communications artless, risky, and face-to-face” (p. 362). For most of my academic career, I have thought about what I teach through the lens of history, including the professional problems and issues. Turkle, in her approach, makes me realize that there are others who think people and their needs apart from the technologies they use. Thank you.