What’s a Teacher to Do (in an Age of Distraction)?


Turkle pic

Sherry Turkle, a sociologist and professor of Technology and Society at MIT, has a new book out that should be relevant to anyone interested in the changes taking place in college classrooms. The title of the new work (October 6, 2015) is Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. An adaptation of a section of the book – “How to Teach in an Age of Distraction” – appeared in a recent edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education.

This new work continues the investigations that she made in her 2011 Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. From her position at MIT, she has had an opportunity to observe her own teaching and that of others, and conduct interviews with the many constituencies on campus about their uses of digital tools.

Turkle’s observations can be divided into problems (or what is the current state of affairs?) and solutions (or what might teachers and students do “to use technology with greater intention and to live in greater harmony with our devices”?)

When talking about students, she makes use of a distinction provided by literary theorist Katherine Hayles at Duke University. Hayles believed that regrettably students live in a frequent state of “hyper-attention” and much less so in a state of “deep attention.” Even in their classroom and library lives, students long to be part of a “circuit of apps” that lets them know that they are in connection with others. They grow impatient with the boring presence of the instructor, even if she has a dynamite PowerPoint presentation, and frequently resort to texting and surfing in class.

This observation corroborates a similar conclusion drawn by Naomi Baron in Words Onscreen which I reviewed in an earlier post. According to Baron, rare is the student who has not sent a text while in class. Students who text in class add to the usual classroom distractions and give other students permission to conclude that the class is boring and that they have peer permission to check out.

Turkle bemoans the choice of the accommodationists who are loath to make their classrooms “device-free” zones and want to take advantage of the students’ use of electronic tools. Students are encouraged to “Google Jockey” providing a commentary on the instructor’s lecture. Students who abandon attention to the lesson in order to shop for shoes or to check their fantasy football league make other students resigned and, in some cases, angry about a situation that they can’t control. She regrets that instructional videos are trimmed in length acknowledging the reduced attention spans (six minutes maximum) of today’s learners.

She’s also attacks the apologists of “multi-tasking,” citing much research that shows that performing multiple tasks interferes with deep learning. And she’s not a fan of online education, especially in MOOC form. While she concedes that the virtual classroom can create a new equality in which every voice, theoretically, has a chance to be heard, she bemoans the sense of isolation that accompanies it. Furthermore, the absence of the instructor means that students are deprived of the opportunity to watch the work of “intellectual personality,” who may serve as a model for students on  how to form their own intellectual selves.

In her diagnosis, Turkle makes one other trenchant observation: that in academic situations, with peers and faculty, students are nervous about “the give and take of conversation.” Such anxiety means that many students choose not to visit faculty in their office (finding e-mail contact sufficient) and choose to work on group projects by using Google Docs rather than meeting face-to-face, even when the collaborators are in the same dormitory.

Some of Turkle’s solutions are implied in her diagnosis: the insistence of a device-free classroom and the encouragement of “unitasking” by taking hand-written lecture notes.

Others are developed more thoroughly. First, Turkle wants faculty to let students know that classroom boredom can be good if it leads not to touching an on-button but rather to the “deep attention” that lasting learning demands. The silences in the instructional hour can be extremely useful. She wants students to be comfortable in their occasional boredom and to exploit the opportunities it provides.

She also wants the teaching of conversation to be at the center of the educational enterprise, and not just because good interpersonal interactions are essential to productive and creative work lives. She seems to be an advocate of the “flipped” classroom, one in which content deliver takes place outside of the instruction hours with much of it shifted online so that the mastery of higher order tasks – like good conversation –  can take place during class hours. The ability to make an argument in public and to patiently and respectfully listen while others make theirs is one of these important intellectual goals that can be best achieved in the classroom. In how many of our classrooms would be see rich conversation taking place?

As the title of her book suggests, faculty should be in the forefront of “reclaiming conversation.” Faculty can help greatly in getting students to be as deeply attentive as they are hyper-attentive. This sub-curricular goal is not addressed very often in discussions about curriculum that focus on to a great degree on required courses. What would it mean for Lewis to set as an important subset of “the ability to communicate” the ability to enter into a sustained conversation with a small group of people?

A personal note: After a number of years of deliberation, I finally bought an IPad mini. I eagerly downloaded links to my magazine and newspaper subscriptions, the articles in which I will probably read as often on my device as in hard copy. I did download the link to Kindle where all of my book purchases are available in the cloud and transferrable to the IPad. But I don’t think I will do much of my book-length reading on the IPad. Although the quality display is better than on my Kindle, the distractions are much more available. I can get to The New Yorker on my Kindle, but it is a much more laborious process and access if more temperamental. I like the idea of saving my novel reading for the unidimensional Kindle. Though I am intrigued by an app that Turkle mentions, one that blocks access to mail and weather and Facebook while I’m immersed in fiction.




About Dr. Michael Cunningham

Dr. Michael Cunningham is Professor Emeritus in English.

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