Wednesday, March 19, 2008

get connected

In my Advanced Editing and Revision class at Quinnipiac, which is composed of juniors and seniors, mostly English majors, we've been talking about Silence: the function of silence in our culture, be it in the form of political apathy, political correctness, or covering up political corruption. I recently discovered the writer Derrick Jensen, who is something of an eco-critic, an outspoken activist, perhaps even an anarchist, and the students, much to my surprise and delight, are excited by his ideas.

To summarize briefly, Jensen was horribly abused by his father as a child, and uses this abuse as a lens through which to view other, more universal abuses: rape of the land, disdain for the environment, genocide, exploitation, etc. As a child, he found solace in talking to animals, something he still believes is possible. In his autobiography, A Language Older than Words, he sets out to find others who have had the experience of communicating with "non-humans."

An especially precocious student in my class took Jensen's question of whether or not we can communicate with non-humans and used this as a springboard for her essay, which began with her own question: Can we, in our "connected" culture, communicate with humans? She used the university community as her specimen, and provided amusing anecdotes in which she and her roommate were sending instant messages to one another, only to realize that they were sitting 20 feet apart from each other. So she decided to launch an experiment: she disabled her Facebook and AIM accounts, and vowed to keep them disabled for a month. Radical.

She was amazed at all of the time she now had on her hands. She realized quickly, though, that she had not made any attempt at outreach, so she called her friends. They were surprised. Why not email?

This incited an in-class discussion about what electronic communication has done to interpersonal relationships. Absent from emails and text messages are the important elements of body language, voice tone, pauses and sighs. No dialogue descriptors. And then, with email, we worry when our friends don't respond right away, start imagining what we might have done to provoke their silence. Worse, we don't even know if our message ever reached its intended target.

And what has email done for teacher-student relationships? I think back to my college days, when, believe it or not, I had to wait in line in the computer lab to use a computer to type my essays or send an email. None of my professors distributed email addresses, if they had them. And this was only ten years ago. Granted, I was in Fort Collins, Colorado, not exactly the technological hub of the US, but still. . .. If I wanted to talk to my professors, I found their office hours and met with them in person. Now, in the age of email, I feel like I'm the on-call help line. "I've just added this line to my essay; does this make sense?" And sometimes email is the student's outlet for his or her frustration over an assignment. On occasion I get the 1:00am email that says something like, "I have no idea what you mean by 'close reading,' and I have other work to do, so can you please get back to me right away?"
You know the little paper clip guys that pop up when you're typing something in Word and say things like, "It looks like you're typing a letter. Can I help?" Well, they should make one for students, one that pops up and says, "It looks like you're overstepping a boundary with your teacher and could possibly say something inappropriate. Can I suggest taking a deep breath and walking outside for a bit?"

Don't get me wrong, I like email. I'm not techno-adverse. But I am a little concerned. And I miss handwritten letters, those bygone relics; reading other people's handwriting is so much fun, such a window into their mood.

And does anyone else find it bizarre that text-messaging, which requires a ridiculous amount of button-pushing, is the preferred method of communication for most teenagers? But I've always been a purist, and in a few years I'll probably be a curmudgeon. And a hypocrite: I'm sitting here typing on my computer, not a clue as to who will read this, and I'm complaining about electronic communication. What would Derrick Jensen say?

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