As a teacher, I constantly find myself competing against Facebook for students’ attention. I teach in computer labs, and the students have access to the Internet throughout class. When you do the math, they pay $1.11 per minute to update their statuses and play Candy Crush during my class. And that’s without factoring in the 6% student loan interest our illustrious Congress thinks is needed to finance oil companies and bank subsidies. I have tried to make the economic pointlessness of surfing during class dazzlingly clear to them, but to no avail. Today, a student wore headphones and stared at his computer screen the entire class. I was going to say something, but I didn’t think it was worth disrupting class to correct someone so obviously aloof, and I didn’t think I could do so without swearing. Based on that experience, I could conclude that Facebook, and, by extension, the Internet, is making us dumber. Or at least more rude.
However, there are two stories in the past week that I think argue against that conclusion.
The first has to do with my alma mater. I love the University of Illinois. I bleed orange and blue. So, when a few students took to Twitter to voice their discontent over the Chancellor’s decision not to close the campus due to the record subzero temperatures, and when some of them expressed their “thoughts” in racist and offensive ways, I was more than a bit mortified. That’s not the impression I want others to have of my school, and it’s a shame a few neanderthals have such an accessible platform for shaping far-reaching and lasting impressions. Left at that, Twitter is a negative. However, consider the backlash. Many other Illinois students responded to that hashtag with their own more thoughtful posts, arguing a very different perspective, and chastising those who seemed so determined to prove that intelligence and maturity are not predestined bedfellows. In other words, we saw this bad behavior called out, publicly decried, and thoroughly mocked. And the press drew attention to it, starting with Buzzfeed, where the idiocy and offensiveness of the comments were mercilessly laid bare without even having to editorialize them. Finally, the next day, the President of Illinois’ Student Government issued a letter to the University community reiterating the University’s commitment to diversity and unity and inclusion and the tremendous benefits fostered by those virtues. Ugly, dumb thoughts that would have otherwise been uttered in private among a few confused, angry, foul-mouthed souls were elevated to the national stage and met with a swift, appropriately indignant rejection and a healthy dose of shame. We had a teachable moment, Twitter style!
Perhaps the student who wore headphones today in class was just watching his Facebook Lookback repeatedly. Who am I kidding? Lookback put me in a good mood, but not a delusional one. Still, social media, with its unbelievably powerful ability to distract, can just as powerfully direct our attention to what we really should be seeing.