I’m going to start a conference paper today– really, I will!– that focuses on the need for a stronger critique of consumerism in the study of computers and writing, in part to avoid a potential backlash against new communication technologies, and in part becuase without that sort of criticism our field risks intellectual and social irresponsibility. The backlash, as a recent Washington Post piece illustrates (“More colleges, professors shutting down laptops and other digital distractions”), continues to gain momentum.
In the liberal arts, a certain segment of the academy always believed that these new technologies are alienating, if not anathema to the traditional transformative goals of higher education. In computers and writing, we’ve long argued that this was both wrong and misguided. Wrong because few tools short of the atom bomb are wrong in and of themselves; what matters is what you do with them. Misguided becuase English Studies seems less relevant every year. If we miss the boat on the web, we risk becoming irrelevant.
There’s a certain irony to the complaint that notebooks are a distraction in a large lecture hall. What isn’t a distraction in a large lecture hall? But there’s also a certain amount of common sense, particularly as the third and fourth generation devices make it increasingly possible not just to Tweet, but to catch up on those Project Runway episodes you missed. I have no doubt that many students simply don’t have the self-discipline to focus. Professors can make their lectures more engaging, too, but that’s a very limited solution.
I think that we are going to see a long period of backpedaling on technology in the classroom, at least when it comes to internet access and laptops. The first won’t be difficult to shut down, although it will never be perfect; the second seems nearly impossible. I suppose, though, that schools could begin to insist that students take notes by hand. The question, of course, is whether or not the older technology can successfully counter the twitchy mindset of modern consumerism or the chronic lack of respect, in the U.S., for both education and teachers.