Posted in English 1103, Teaching, Writing

ENG 1103: Left to Our Own Devices: One Teacher’s Meditations on Walden Zones for the Digital Age

In his recent essay “Scrolling,” physician and writer Gavin Francis recounts a visit to the woods near Concord, Massachusetts, where Henry David Thoreau built his cabin and wrote Walden. Although Francis anticipated that the area—now a tourist site—would be busy, what he didn’t expect “was the forest of arms holding smartphones, taking selfies, engaging in video calls.” Francis opens his essay with that anecdote about his visit to Thoreau’s woods to emphasize the pervasiveness of digital devices in our lives. Not even at a place synonymous with the retreat from daily distractions can we turn away from our phones. Francis observes one of Walden’s visitors, a student perched on a rock, “arms outstretched, angling his phone while shouting out to his retreating companions: ‘I don’t think you guys realize how much this place means to me, I mean privately.’”

Disentangling from our distractions is particularly problematic for those of us who teach, whose role in our students’ lives involves cultivating the undivided attention essential to learning. Seeking a balance between screen time and time away from it is an ongoing process, one that has taken on new importance in the last year and a half, since the onset of COVID-19. Even as the pandemic has required us to spend more hours in front of our screens, we have witnessed the critical need to turn away from them.

That ability to turn away from the screen has substantial benefits for us when we write. In their textbook, Writing Analytically, David Rosenwasser and Jill Stephen detail the problems that present themselves when we begin the process with our fingers on the keyboard:

Perhaps the most common problem with writing on a computer is that this practice can lock you into a draft or a particular idea too soon. Words that come up on a screen look more like finished text than handwritten words in a notebook, and so, the problem of trying to draft and edit at the same time is more likely to arise, as is the likelihood that you will close off fruitful options too soon by prematurely hitting the delete button. And then there is what we might call the low-hanging fruit problem: the temptation to keep interrupting ourselves to chase links to other people’s thinking (and any number of funny pet pictures) online. (125)

Rosenwasser and Stephen, professors emeriti at Muhlenberg College, note that “[w]riters tend to be more than a little divided” regarding writing on computers versus writing on paper, and they acknowledge that they “have had students who manage to capture their best ideas by jotting them down on their cell phones” (124). Still, they recommend that “at earlier stages in the writing process, and also, perhaps, in trying to work through a difficult revision, taking pen to paper might be the better tactic” (125).

Though many teachers have moved to all-digital assignments, I still require my students to draft longhand and move to the keyboard during the revision process. My initial reason for  continuing that practice was the benefits it offers us as writers, including the ones cited by Rosenwasser and Stephen. Now I realize that the benefits extend beyond writing. Putting pen to paper means less time in front of the screen. That said, drafting longhand doesn’t eliminate digital distractions for writers; it simply delays them. But the deferral alone is a plus. Even as I wrote these words that you are reading, I struggled to maintain my focus. I found myself returning to pen and paper to develop my ideas, ones that were too easily cut short when I hit the delete key.

Along with drafting handwritten assignments, my students play Scrabble once a week. Initially those weekly games served primarily as companions to their writing, exercises in word building and analysis on a smaller scale. But like writing longhand itself, Scrabble presented another opportunity to turn away from our screens.

In the process of writing this paper, I found minimal research on Scrabble. Notably, the one article that focused on Scrabble in the college classroom mentioned that “[t]abletop games appeared to receive less attention from game researchers than video games, particularly within the postsecondary context” (289). The author of that study, Mark Hayse, co-director of the Center for Games and Learning at MidAmerican Nazarene University, drew his findings from the reports of three of his colleagues who incorporated tabletop games into their classes in Christian leadership, theology, and history. The professors’ focused their attention on the possible connections between gameplay and twenty-first century “learning and innovation skills,” also known as the “4Cs”: critical thinking and problem solving, creativity and innovation, communication, and collaboration (290).

The MNU professors’ primary research question was, “Does tabletop gameplay require the practice of 21st century skills?” (290). Their secondary question was, “What initial links might be drawn between tabletop gameplay, 21st century skill practice, and undergraduate learning?” They found that two of the four Cs, communication and collaboration, figured prominently, and the students themselves identified collaboration as the primary component of their gameplay. All three professors reported “that tabletop gameplay helped students move from classroom passivity to classroom ‘engagement’” (298). In my own classroom, I have observed the same movement from passive learning to active learning when my students play Scrabble. Sometimes they are so absorbed in their games, they are surprised to hear me announce that it’s time for their five-minute break. I also shared the MNU professors’ observation that “[e]ven though tabletop gameplay technically was coursework . . . the nontraditional nature of it seemed to render it as play more than work” (298). Even though some students don’t like the particulars of the game—such as the rule that prohibits proper nouns, acronyms, and hyphenated words—most of the students enjoy the time collaborating with their classmates on an activity that doesn’t seem like a compulsory task.

Describing the process of gameplay, one student in the MNU study said, “There were those intense suspense moments, but there was also this ‘Oh yeah, we got this’ when we were strategizing [together]” (299).  Those intense moments of suspense occur in my classes during Scrabble games when a team challenges a word and waits for me to find it in the dictionary or deem it unplayable (because it isn’t there). And there are frequent we-got-this moments when a team suddenly sees a possibility that wasn’t apparent to them before; for example: a square between two vowels where they can form two, two-letter words by playing one of seven consonants on their rack. Determining how to move forward with of only consonants or only vowels—or nearly all consonants and vowels—serve as some of Scrabble’s best opportunities for creative problem solving.

The findings of the MNU professors are markedly similar to my own classroom observations. And although adding Scrabble to the English 1103 curriculum has not been a subject of research for me, the process of writing this paper has prompted my interest in building on the study of MNU’s Professor Mark Hayse, perhaps with a project that explores the links between the problem-solving aspects of Scrabble and the writing process.

As I continue to reflect on writing longhand and playing Scrabble and how they figure in my classes, I am grateful that those practices—ones that I chose for skill development—have taken on greater importance as endeavors that lead us away from our screens.

The challenge of turning away from the digital devices that consume more and more of our lives isn’t simply a good habit to aspire to—a mere item on a list of New Year’s resolutions—instead it’s a critical need. Recent revelations regarding Facebook’s own internal research underscore the platform’s harmful effects, ones to which young people are particularly vulnerable. One of Facebook’s research reports found that “social comparison is worse on Instagram” and that the app’s Explore page, “which serves users photos and videos curated by an algorithm, can send users deep into content that can be harmful” (ctd. in Horwitz et al.).

Riana Elyse Anderson, an assistant professor of health behavior and health education at the University of Michigan, observes that “we’re watching college students really get impacted by the comparison that they’re seeing in their classmates online, in social media. They’re using comparison and they’re feeling particularly anxious about it for themselves” (qtd. In Yang).   

While Anderson notes that she’s heartened by Gen Z students’ willingness to seek mental health resources, “[i]t’s another thing, though, when . . . professors like myself are now saying, what do we do? How do we contend with teaching, with meeting, with doing the things we have to do for school” (qtd. In Yang). Many of us who teach college students find ourselves asking the same questions in the face of both our own anecdotal evidence and the reports of mental health crises on college campuses. 

Less than a month after The Wall Street Journal reported the findings of Facebook’s internal research, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill canceled classes after student leaders demanded a mental wellness day following the suicides of two students—and the hospitalization of another student after a suicide attempt. A 2021 study conducted by the American College Health Association “found that 48 percent of college students reported moderate or severe psychological distress, 53 percent reported being lonely, and one in four had considered suicide” (ctd. in Yang).

Facebook’s internal research includes an Instagram research manager’s report of teenagers “wanting to spend less time on Instagram . . . but lack[ing] the self-control to do so” (ctd. In Horwitz et al.). I observe that same lack of self-control in some of my students. And to help them overcome it, I follow a variation on a piece of advice from journalist and technologist William Powers. In his book Hamlet’s Blackberry, he recommends that “[e]very home could have at least one Walden Zone, a room where no screens of any kind are allowed” (191). When my students put words on paper and form words on a Scrabble gameboard, they are in the Walden Zone that I have created in the classroom, a place where we become temporarily free of the screens that occupy so many moments of our lives. In his conclusion to Walden, Thoreau remarks on “how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route” (990). The one that leads us to our screens again and again cannot be abandoned, nor should it be, but the Walden zones we can strive to maintain offer a much-needed detour.

Works Cited

Gavin, Francis. “Scrolling.” The New York Review of Books, 23 Sept. 2021,             https://nybooks.com/scrolling/?lp_txn_id=1284156.

Hayse, Mark. “Tabletop Games and 21st Century Skill Practice in the Undergraduate       Classroom.” Teaching Theology & Religion, vol. 21, no. 4, 2018, pp. 288–302., https://onlinelibrary-wiley-com.libproxy.highpoint.edu/doi/epdf/10.1111/teth.12456.

Horwitz, Jeff, Deepa Seetharaman, and Georgia Wells. “Facebook Knows Instagram is Toxic for Teen Girls, Company Documents Show.” Wall Street Journal, Sep 14, 2021. ProQuest, https://libproxy.highpoint.edu/login?url=https://www-proquest-com.libproxy.highpoint.edu/newspapers/facebook-knows-instagram-is-toxic-teen-girls/docview/2572204393/se-2?accountid=11411.

Powers, William. Hamlet’s Blackberry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age. Harper, 2010.

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden; or, Life in the Woods. 1854. The Norton Anthology of American Literature: Beginnings to 1865. 9th ed. Robert S. Levine, General Editor. W.W. Norton, 2017. pp. 919-96.

Yang, John. “College Students’ Stress Levels are Bubbling Over.” PBS News Hour, 2 Nov. 2021, https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/college-students-stress-levels-are-bubbling-over-heres-why-and-how-schools-can-help.