As teachers with advanced academic degrees, we spent years living more in the past than in the present. We acquired a body of knowledge that came from the past and we reinvested it in our theses and our course plans; we acquired a discipline of thinking that helped us identify and learn from a select few of the hundreds of voices that had ventured remarks on our area of expertise. Many of us entered the profession before or at the very beginning of the transformation into present-centeredness Strate identifies in his essay.
That we appear to think differently from our students is often painfully clear to us, although we tend to dismiss it as an attitude problem. When students won’t read detailed assignment instructions, or spend their class time on their phones or laptops, or populate their submitted work with the first three hits from a Google search, we bemoan their lack of self-discipline. We wonder why their priorities are so skewed, how they can possibly think they will get a job if they just surf their way through college with Cs and Ds.
I think the notion of present-centeredness gives us some insight into what is really going on here.
I don’t need your words, your slides, your help. Your assignment sheets look like something my grandmother did on her typewriter. Your slides are about as sophisticated as the cartoons my little brother watches all the time. Of course I’m surfing on my phone. That’s where the real stuff is. Besides, you won’t Like my paper, none of you ever has, so why shouldn’t I be looking at all the interesting and fun things others are doing while I’m stuck sitting here? And skip the you’ll need this to get a job crap. Ain’t true. It’s all about networks, and I bet you don’t have 800 friends on Facebook. I’ve already got two posts about summer work. I just got another email and that’s probably another job. You can’t promise me anything I don’t already have right here. You’re telling me about windows of opportunities? Get real.
Before you say, “That’s absurd,” remember that for many of the students you face each day their experience of the world at large has been visually mediated: the TV or movie screen, the laptop display, the smartphone touch screen. The world we struggle in, the world of academic and professional success, appears for granted there, sui generis without toil or effort. More importantly, the mechanism by which this world manifests itself before them appears to be in their control; it does not require our intervention.
In the infancy of the virtual society, with a black and white TV or AM radio as the only window, we knew little about the “outside,” and our access was controlled by others. But with a tablet in our hands, the world is ours. As Slate put it, we can create our own history as we create our own news feeds or virtual selves on line. The three are, of course, interrelated: I am what I have experienced, and what I have experienced affects how I see where I have been and what I take as ‘news’ rather than noise.
We all, and always, create ourselves and our history. The difference between a linear physical creativity and its virtual counterpart is the speed of creation and the power we can wield. It is no surprise then that researchers analyzing internet behavior measure participants’ sense of self-efficacy and autonomy now that we have far faster, more pervasive, and more eclectic materials from which to create our selves. In the beginning was the click, and the click was god. I click, therefore I am.
Fortunately, it does not stop there. Even our most internet addicted students are not the alpha and omegas of their worlds. Every page or song or post or comment or video they encounter can be shared. Intrinsic to the isolated experience of the now is the invitation to Like, Link, Tweet, that experience. Virtual space is at once isolating and congenial: there are empty seats in our train car and we can invite others to sit and share the view.
That may be a clue to teaching the denizens of the now: invite them along for the ride.
I know that in my own academic training I more often learned the most in semester-long projects intended to solve, or at least illuminate, problems posed by the professor. In the latter case, the words weren’t boring, they were a means to an end. The graphically primitive slides were mind maps not finished products. The help was more like coaching – go out and do your best for the team. We are all depending on you, not just we your classmates but we who have to deal with this problem. There were few ground rules for we were (or at least we believed we were) breaking ground.
Courses such as these invite students along for the ride. The professor morphs from Purveyor of Knowledge to the blogger inviting comments from her readers; the topic becomes a dynamic, emergent topography of comments and ideas and notes and questions and complaints and dead ends and maybe if you’re lucky a middle of the night post on the course LMS blog entitled LOOK WHAT I FOUND!
That title is an invitation to take a seat. It is also a promise – but unlike the self-depleting promise that is the reportorial or appreciative email, text, or post, this promise does reassure the future, it reveals progress, it urges us to care, and it gives us something to do, some insight we can work with and build on.
This, or something akin to it, is what I meant by turning topography into communion.