Friday, March 21, 2008

Dwelling in Possibilities

Students in my COMM 149 class get to read a terrific essay by Mark Edmundson in The Chronicle Review (March 14, 2008). In this piece, Edmundson presents an overview of his perception that Americans increasingly privilege speed and motion over thought and place. Young adult college students in particular seem enamored with multiphrenic technologies that hasten the dissolution of identity into overlapping shards of media simulation. Recalling Kenneth Gergen's Saturated Self, a book that influenced me in graduate school, I was drawn to Edmundson's description of student-simultaneity:
I asked the group, "How many places were you simultaneously yesterday — at the most?" Suppose you were chatting on your cellphone, partially watching a movie in one corner of the computer screen, instant messaging with three people (a modest number), and glancing occasionally at the text for some other course than ours — grazing, maybe, in Samuelson's Economics rather than diving deep into Thoreau's "Economy" — and then, also, tossing the occasional word to your roommate? Well, that would be seven, seven places at once. Some students — with a little high-spirited hyperbole thrown in, no doubt — got into double digits. Of course it wouldn't take the Dalai Lama or Thoreau to assure them that anyone who is in seven places at once is not anywhere in particular — not present, not here now. Be everywhere now — that's what the current technology invites, and that's what my students aspire to do . . . The students were a little surprised by the conclusions they came to about themselves. "It's when I can see it all in front of me," one young woman said, "that's when I'm the happiest."
Seeing "it all," even in an illusory way: this is part of the pleasure of the omnitopian enclave. A result of this phenomenon is a collapse of our traditional notion of place, the locale that attaches time and character to the physical environment. Being "here" "now" seems much less meaningful than the next place, the next interaction, the sense of having access to "all places" at the same time. I know this feeling. When traveling on a roadtrip, an event I'll anticipate gleefully for months, I must constantly remind myself that "this" place is worth savoring. "These" people are worth getting to know. In so many ways I am reminded: the map is not the territory. Yet I seem to suffer the same fate as many of my students, traveling only for the sake of movement.
And once you do get somewhere, wherever it might be, you'll find that, as Gertrude Stein has it, there's "no there there." At a student party, about a fourth of the people have their cellphones locked to their ears. What are they doing? "They're talking to their friends." About? "About another party they might conceivably go to." And naturally the simulation party is better than the one that they're now at (and not at), though of course there will be people at that party on their cellphones, talking about other simulacrum gatherings, spiraling on into M.C. Escher infinity.
Recalling recent catastrophes, and anticipating those that loom beyond stormy horizons, Edmundson offers compelling justification for this tendency.
There's a humane hunger to my students' hustle for more life — but I think it's possible that down below bubbles a fear. Do it now, for later may be too late.
The fear that this moment may be literally shattered in the next 9/11 leads many of us to take less faith in places that promise permanence. Certainly, Americans have always romanticized travel. Piercing the horizon -- the border, the "West," space (the "final frontier") -- has motivated all manner of Conestogas. It's no surprise that the original series of Star Trek was labeled (humorously, I imagine) a sort of "Wagon Train to the Stars." Yet from the Puritan errand into the wilderness onward, fear of some unknown, some demonic presence or foreign threat, has motivated so many of our journeys. When faced with the darkness, we often find it best to keep moving. Sometimes toward the light. Sometimes just toward.
[T]he children of the Internet are Romantics, for they perpetually wish to be someplace else, and the laptop reliably helps take them there — if only in imagination. The e-mailer, the instant messenger, the Web browser are all dispersing their energies and interests outward, away from the present, the here and now. The Internet user is constantly connecting with people and institutions far away, creating surrogate communities that displace the potential community at hand . . . The Internet is perhaps the most centrifugal technology ever devised. The classroom, where you sit down in one space at one time and ponder a text or an issue in slow motion, is coming to feel ever more antiquated. What's at a premium now is movement, making connections, getting all the circuitry fizzing and popping.
Rather than the train whistle, the highway, or the globe-girdling jet, we now find pleasure in the device that connects us to a version of the world. The internet becomes a meaningful place, a "second life" that spins us perpetually outward. We need only click to find something new, the rush of flow.
For students now, life is elsewhere. . . . The idea is to keep moving, never to stop. It's now become so commonplace as to be beneath notice, but there was a time that every city block contiguous to a university did not contain a shop dispensing a speed-you-up drug and inviting people to sit down and enjoy it along with wireless computer access. Laptops seem to go with coffee and other stimulants, in much the way that blood-and-gold sunsets went with LSD and Oreo cookies with weed. (It's possible, I sometimes think, that fully half of the urban Starbucks in America are located in rental properties that, in an earlier incarnation, were head shops.)
Yes, I read this piece first at a Starbucks, and I had to laugh. Starbucks is the promise of commodified connection. A quick jolt of sociability between home and work. I visit my local node about once a day, ordering the same doppio espresso in a demitasse cup. They know my name, even though I often sit only for a few minutes. It's a rush of safe sociability, a shopping encounter with something vaguely exotic, a brief sit-down vacation. Soon thereafter, I return to my office or a class, anticipating the twitter of mobile phones. I'm lucky if class ends without so much as an overly loud "vibrate."
When a seminar is over now, the students reach their hands into their pockets and draw — it looks a little like Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. But what they're reaching for, after discussing Thoreau, say, on the pleasures of solitude, are their cellphones. They've been unwired, off the drug, for more than an hour, and they need a fix. The cellphoning comes as a relief: The students have been (give or take) in one place, at one time, pondering a few passages from Walden. Now they need to disperse themselves again, get away from the immediate, dissolve the present away.
What is the role of the college professor in this environment? It's often claimed, particularly by folks seeking to condemn higher education, that a nineteenth century time-traveler crossing over to the twenty-first century would be amazed by our highways and our skyscrapers and our other myriad wonders, but she would be quite at home in a classroom, with its rows of seats ordered to transfix students' attentions upon their instructors. The edu-disciplinary apparatus has changed that little, they say. Alternatives range from more multimedia stimuli, more synchronous and asynchronous collaboration, and more student-centered learning -- all the way to abandoning the schools of today as the dominant "place" of learning. Edmundson proposes that we avoid leaping so far from our traditions, proposing instead that college can and ought to be a place where people can slow down a bit and contemplate a while. I would add that such a place would remind us that "learning outcomes" ought not be confused with learning.
We teachers need to remind ourselves from time to time that our primary job is not to help our students to acquire skills, marketable skills, bankables. And we don't pre-eminently teach communication and computation and instill habits of punctuality and thoroughness. We're not here to help our students make their minds resemble their laptops, fast and feverish. We didn't get into teaching to make trains of thought run on time. . . . To live well, we must sometimes stop and think, and then try to remake the work in progress that we currently are. There's no better place for that than a college classroom where, together, we can slow it down and live deliberately, if only for a while.
Read the entire piece: Dwelling in Possibilities: Our students' spectacular hunger for life makes them radically vulnerable.

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