The Professor’s Lament

This semester was my first one teaching in addition to working as a university administrator.  Rarely have I longed for a Christmas break like I did for this one.

Teaching brings up emotions that are difficult to describe.  You have so much invested in the students.  Do they show respect?  Are they listening?  What’s going on behind those laptop screens?  Can they be helped to understand what it is to form a legitimate research question or to argue persuasively for some point of view?

And then there is the grading.  Some papers and exams are profoundly gratifying.  Others are incredibly frustrating.  you feel as though their writers simply occupied space in the room and learned nothing.

But enough about my thoughts.  What moved me to post was this beauty by Joseph Knippenberg (a friend and mentor of mine).  Here’s a sample:

We have a technologically-induced short attention span. We like, and can have, our information in short, easily digested bursts, soundbites, if you will. These are not arguments, but at most quips or wisecracks. They almost have to be short because they are placed in a context where there are many competitors for the audience’s time and attention. What’s more, because we have the capacity to accompany them (and compete with them) with video and audio, it’s relatively easy for the words and arguments to be overwhelmed by the images. Stated another way, our multimedia age privileges images and the emotions they evoke over arguments that are more likely to appeal to reason or to provoke a reasonable response.

I’m going to throw myself against the tide this semester.  I’ll be teaching an intro to political science survey where I intend to have the students leave the laptops shut and to read through Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Machiavelli, Mill, Locke, and many others with me.  We will find the passages that are jewels and dwell upon them.  I’m praying lots of lights will come on.

Digital Natives?

I teach political science courses at Houston Baptist University in addition to my work as an administrator for the school.  I also occasionally speak to young people in other venues.  Something that I see now, which was nearly non-existent when I first gained teaching responsibilities as a grad student years ago, is the backside of a bunch of laptops facing me while I lecture.

Speaking to a colleague in the education department, I expressed my concern that students are too distracted by technology to pay attention and learn.  She assured me these young people have different brains and can handle the multi-tasking.

I’m not so sure.  I imagine that while I’m lecturing the students are partly listening and are dedicating the rest of their attention to online chat, email, facebook, fantasy football, and wedding planning.  There may be some evolution of neural pathways, but I find it hard to believe there is any substitute for actually reading material, listening carefully to a lecture, asking questions, and discussing the subject matter without any other distractions.

And forget the immediate question of education in the classroom.  Are these the kind of people who can pay sustained attention to public policy debates so they can participate meaningfully in the democratic process?

When I send my son (now 6 and pretty tech savvy) off to school, I may be looking for one that bucks the trend by promising me that he WON’T have a laptop in class.