Archive for the ‘Social Media’ Category

Collage head shot by Richard McGee

Perhaps it was my questioning faith in the salvation of technology that led me to disconnect from Facebook when Easter converged with April Fool’s Day. Deactivating my account wasn’t a response to the recent revelations about data breeches but rather another step in my ongoing efforts to limit my screen time.

Along with reducing the number of personal hours that I’ve spent on my phone and laptop, I devoted the school year to a revised curriculum that aimed to strike a balance between on-screen and off-screen endeavors. My students maintained blogs but also composed snail mail once per month. They drafted each essay by hand in class and revised each handwritten draft in class on their laptops.

Trying to convince students of the value of beginning their work on paper was difficult but not nearly as challenging as separating them from their phones. Once those digital devices were tucked away in backpacks, some of their owners powered off as well, like androids themselves, disconnected from their vital components. How could anything as primitive as pens, journals, and physical textbooks (no e-books permitted) animate students in the digital age? Despite the hard sell of low-tech class days, I persevered, bearing in mind these research findings:

  • Jean M. Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, who has studied generational differences for twenty-five years, has observed a significant shift in teenagers’ behaviors and emotional states beginning around 2012, the year when the proportion of Americans owning smartphones first exceeded fifty percent. Twenge’s findings present a portrait of adolescents who are psychologically more vulnerable than those of previous generations, and the evidence that links depression to smartphone use leads Twenge to recommend that parents limit their teenagers’ screen time.
  • In “The Science of Handwriting,” Keim Brandon explores how his belief in the benefits of writing longhand finds scientific support in recent studies. Keim recounts a five-year research project conducted by Virginia Beringer, an educational psychologist at the University of Washington, that demonstrated second-, third-, and fourth-graders’ ability to write more rapidly and express more ideas when they composed by hand. Along with Beringer’s study, Keim outlines brain-imaging research conducted by Karin James, a cognitive neuroscientist of the University of Indiana, Bloomington, revealing that learning cursive activates multiple areas of the brain that remain dormant when we type.
  • Natalie Phillips, an English professor at Michigan State, and her neuroscience-collaborators at Stanford conducted brain scan research revealing evidence that close critical reading of literary novels activates regions of the brain unaffected by casual reading (Phillips ctd. in Vedantam, par. 13).

Simply put, putting pen to paper, studying literary texts that place demands on us as readers, and turning away from the screen contributes to our intellectual development, and studying literature and reading away from the screen benefits our emotional well-being, too.

In early May, near the semester’s close—and one month into my two-month break from social media—I began reading my students final reflective essays, which included these observations:

[T]his journey was a real wake-up call for me. It made me realize how much I do not pay attention in class and how much I depend on my devices. This class has taught me there are times to use your devices and times not to. I also found some good apps to keep me on task while using my laptop. One app called Self-Control lets you block certain websites for a set amount time so you can get your work done.

English 131 has helped me understand more why we are supposed to read books and even given me a passion to want to pick up a book on my own . . . English 131 helped me better understand the books that we read, whenever we would go over certain parts of the book together as a class. Discussing what was going on in the chapters we were supposed to read didn’t just help me understand the book, but it made me more interested in it since I knew what was going on

Now as I write, and the semester draws to an end, I have seen my writing improve because I am more aware of what I am actually writing, or at least it feels like I care more about it because I have realized that my iPhone, PlayStation, laptop, and TV are not as important as I made them out to be at the beginning of the semester. Taking time away from the screen has been an enlightening experience where I have learned a lot about myself and about learning. I have learned that the relationships you build, the connections you make are what really will make me successful . . .

As for me, now at the end of my second month away from social media, I feel reinvigorated. I’ve read more, I’ve written more, I’ve generated more ideas, and I feel more creative and less anxious. Though I’ll reactivate my Facebook account, I know that I’ll use that platform less—and in general spend fewer hours of the day experiencing the world mediated by screens. I haven’t lost my faith in digital technology, but I see it now more as a trinity with pen and paper, those other ways that words are made flesh.


Keim, Brandon. “The Science of Handwriting.” Scientific American Mind vol. 24, no. 4, Aug. 2013, pp. 54-59. Academic Search Complete. Accessed 11 Nov. 2013.

Twenge, Jean M. “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” The Atlantic, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/09/has-the-smartphone-destroyed-a-generation/534198/, Sept. 2017, Accessed 24 Jan. 2018.

Vedantam, Shankar. “A Lively Mind: Your Brain on Jane Austen.” NPR: Morning Edition, https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2012/10/09/162401053/a-lively-mind-your-brain-on-jane-austen, 9 Oct. 2012, Accessed 31 May 2018.

Bruce Eric Kaplan’s “Screen Time” / newyorker.com

Today when I first saw this week’s issue of the New Yorker, I thought again of Twenge’s article.  Cartoonist Bruce Eric Kaplan’s depiction of a toddler fixated on a smartphone, oblivious of the looming flat-screen TV, reminded me of Twenge’s observations of her own young daughters: “They’re not old enough yet to display the traits of iGen teens, but I have already witnessed firsthand just how ingrained new media are in their young lives. I’ve observed my toddler, barely old enough to walk, confidently swiping her way through an iPad.”

While Twenge stresses the importance of instilling moderation, she admits that “[p]rying the phone out of our kids’ hands will be difficult, even more so than the quixotic efforts of my parents’ generation to get their kids to turn off MTV and get some fresh air.”

Quixotic. For Twenge the word simply serves as a synonym for impractical, but I can’t shake the image in my mind of the Man of La Mancha himself, alternately tilting at MTV and smartphones.

 

Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” doesn’t offer a definitive answer to the question of its title, but the evidence that its author, Jean M. Twenge, identifies linking depression to smartphone use leads her to recommend that parents limit their teenagers’ screen time. Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, who has studied generational differences for twenty-five years, has observed a significant shift in teenagers’ behaviors and emotional states that began around 2012, the year when the proportion of Americans owning smartphones first exceeded fifty percent. Twenge’s findings present a portrait of adolescents who are psychologically more vulnerable, and whose increased vulnerability coincided with the dual rise of smartphones and social media.

For tomorrow, for their first reading assignment of the semester, my students will read Twenge’s article on paper, making notes in the margin as they read. Last week as I composed that assignment, stipulating that students print the article, I heard their voices of dissent in my head.

In the process of reading Twenge’s article, some students may decide that my requirement was reasonable. Others, perhaps most, will see it as unnecessary.

When I first read Twenge’s article a couple of weeks ago in the September issue of The Atlantic, I knew that I would ask my students to read it as well, in part to demonstrate why I limit their use of digital devices in the classroom. But I also knew that I could not in good conscience ask them to read Twenge’s words on the screen. If, as she reports, two or more hours a day on electronic devices negatively impacts mental health and sleep, it would seem nothing short of cruel irony to require my students to read Twenge’s 5,000 words online.


Twenge’s article is adapted from her forthcoming book, iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy–and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood–and What That Means for the Rest of Us.

Essays on Writing (2009)

Essays on Writing (2009)

When my students and I read Wendy Leibowitz’s article “Technology Transforms Writing and the Teaching of Writing,” I found myself drawn less to the details about blogs, word processing, and email that dominate the article and more to a single observation about composing longhand: “I encourage students not to write their first drafts on a computer, so they might actually think before putting words on the page” (Bernard qtd. in Leibowitz). That sentence led me to reflect on the continuing role of old-school writing in my own classes. Although my students use new technology (posting blog entries and submitting papers to the university’s Learning Management System, or LMS), they frequently put pen to paper as well. I have persisted in requiring them to write longhand as a way of cultivating focus and depth in their prose. But is writing by hand still relevant in the digital age? That question—one that’s frequently raised now in response to the new Common Core Standards—prompted me to explore the science of handwriting and to consider what new technologies teachers are using with, or in place of, the old.

The bibliography that follows consists of Leibowitz’s article, which spearheaded my research, and two additional articles: one that examines the role of handwriting in cognitive development and a second that investigates how blogs have become a fixture in many college courses, in some cases replacing the traditional term paper. Together, the three articles create a strong case for preserving the tactile custom of putting pen to paper while embracing the new technologies that will inspire the best writing.

Whether these annotations (all drafted by hand) will serve as preliminary writing for an essay of my own, I cannot say. Either way, the insights I have gained through this research will inform the choices I make as my teaching—itself, a work in progress—continues to evolve.

Annotated Bibliography

Leibowitz, Wendy. “Technology Transforms Writing and the Teaching of Writing.” Essays on Writing. Ed. Lizbeth A. Bryant and Heather M. Clark. Boston: Longman, 2009. 137-142. Print.

In “Technology Transforms Writing and the Teaching of Writing,” Wendy Leibowitz reports that writing in the digital age presents both “perils and possibilities” for students (138). Her conversations with professors reveal that their attitudes and approaches vary considerably. While some require students to use digital technology throughout the writing process, others advocate limiting screen time, correlating online reading and writing with diminished critical thinking and writing skills. Whether they adhere to April Bernard’s view of Web writing as “adjunct to traditional forms” (140), or to  Robert Coover’s belief that it’s a “fundamental element of literacy” (141), professors find themselves rethinking the tactile experience of putting pen to paper and seeking effective strategies for using the newest technologies to improve writing instruction.

Leibowitz’s interviews with eleven professors do not constitute comprehensive research, but her article presents an informative overview of the variety of ways professors teach writing in the digital age. Though she writes for academics—specifically readers of The Chronicle of Higher Education—her straightforward prose speaks to a general audience as well. Readers who encounter her article now, more than a decade after its initial publication, may wonder how the professors she interviewed have since adapted their teaching to address the prevalence of social media and texting in students’ lives.

In addition to publishing articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Leibowitz, an attorney turned journalist, has written on technology and the law for The National Law Review and The American Lawyer.

Keim, Brandon. “The Science of Handwriting.” Scientific American Mind 24.4 (2013): 54-59. Academic Search Complete. Web. 11 Nov. 2013.

In “The Science of Handwriting,” Keim Brandon explores how his belief in the benefits of writing longhand finds scientific support in recent studies. Keim recounts a five-year research project conducted by Virginia Beringer, an educational psychologist at the University of Washington, that demonstrated second, third, and fourth graders’ ability to write more rapidly and express more ideas when they composed by hand. Along with Beringer’s study, Keim outlines brain-imaging research conducted by Karin James, a cognitive neuroscientist of the University of Indiana, Bloomington, revealing that learning cursive activates multiple areas of the brain that remain dormant when we type.

Writing for readers of Scientific American Mind, Keim addresses a general audience of readers interested in psychology and neuroscience. His reporting of Beringer’s and James’ studies points to the critical role of handwriting in cognitive development, a subject of particular concern to many parents and educators as the Common Core Standards Initiative—which deemphasizes handwriting in favor of keyboarding—has prompted a national conversation about the future of cursive in the classroom.

Brandon Keim, a freelance science journalist, has written articles for Wired and Psychology Today, as well as Scientific American Mind, and has been featured on broadcasts of National Public Radio’s Science Friday and Talk of the Nation.

Richtel, Matt. “Blogs vs. Term Papers.” Newyorktimes.com. The New York Times Co., 20 Jan. 2012. Web. 13 Nov. 2013.

In “Blogs vs. Term Papers,” Mat Richtel reports on the debate in higher education on how best to teach writing in the digital age. While some professors have followed the lead of Duke University’s Cathy Davidson, replacing the traditional term paper with shorter, more frequent blog assignments, their detractors—including Douglas B. Reeves, columnist for The American School Board Journal and William H. Fitzhugh, editor of The Concord Review—argue that blog writing lacks the academic rigor that fosters critical thinking. For Andrea Lunsford, professor of writing at Stanford University, pitting blogs against term papers creates a false opposition. Rather than replacing term papers with blog posts, Lunsford requires students to produce multi-modal assignments: term papers that evolve into blogs, websites, and video presentations.

Richtel’s article offers New York Times readers a glimpse of the contrasting teaching approaches adopted by writing professors who find themselves at a critical juncture, illustrating for a general audience how, as Andrea Lunsford says, professors are “trying to figure out how to preserve sustained, logical, carefully articulated arguments while engaging with the most exciting and promising new literacies.”

A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Matt Richtel writes for The New York Times about technology and its impact of society and culture. His series of articles “Our Brain on Computers” (2010) explores how our constant use of digital devices affects not only our behavior but also our thought processes. His 2009 series about the dangers of distracted driving won the Pulitzer for national reporting.

 

W. W. Norton’s decision to replace its Scholar’s Prize with the Writer’s Prize reflects some recent and not-so-recent changes in undergraduate writing assignments. From 1998 to 2008, the Scholar’s Prize recognized what Norton calls “an outstanding undergraduate essay on a literary topic,” an essay of the sort that many of us who teach composition frequently wrote when we were freshman. Our own students write fewer literary analyses than we did, because many composition courses are no longer literature based. Instead, they’re interdisciplinary.

writers_prize_2013I’ve been thinking about these changes for the past few days as I’ve reread my students’ work to select something to nominate for the fourth annual Norton Writer’s Prize, a competition that invites a broad range of submissions, encompassing the variety of writing that’s now typical of composition classes: “[l]iteracy narratives, literary and other textual analyses, reports, profiles, evaluations, arguments, memoirs, proposals, mixed-genre pieces, and more: any excellent writing done for an undergraduate writing class will be considered.”

For their final major writing assignment of the school year, my students wrote ethical reasoning arguments per program requirement. But over the course of the year, they also wrote blog posts, snail mail, personal narratives, timed essay exams, cover letters, résumés, and highly imaginative scripts in which they placed themselves in conversation with the writers of some of the articles and essays they’d read. For some students, those scripts evolved into traditional research arguments. For others, the process of working with those sources revealed that their real research interest lay elsewhere.

I wish I could have nominated more than one piece of writing. For reasons of privacy, I won’t address the particulars of the one that I chose, and I won’t offer any details from the nominating letter that I wrote to accompany it. I will note, instead, how many students shone brightest when an assignment took them by surprise, asking that they write in new ways.

Last week in the midst of writing letters of recommendation, I decided to devote my next blog entry to the subject. As I tried to explain to students why they should waive their rights to read their letters, I realized that in our age of social media, many students have never stopped to consider why they should waive their rights to read what their professors and employers have written about them.

Here’s why: You’re asking someone with whom you have an excellent working relationship to vouch for your abilities. If you aren’t sure the person thinks highly enough of you to write a strong recommendation, don’t ask that person for a letter. Ask someone else.

Not waiving your rights implies not only a lack of trust–I’m asking you to write a letter, but I don’t trust that it will be good–it also indicates a degree of self-doubt. (I doubt that I’m good enough.) When selection committees and potential employers read your application, you don’t want them to question your trust in others or your confidence in yourself.

When you ask someone to write a letter for you, give that person a copy of your resume. As a professor, I can address my students’ work in the classroom, but I can’t refer to their extracurricular activities and awards if I don’t know what they are.

Lastly, on a practical note, make sure that you give your letter-writers the full address of the company, school, or scholarship foundation to which you are applying. Even if the letter-writer will be submitting the letter to you in a sealed envelope to include in your application–and often that’s the case–the letter-writer still needs the full address of the recipient.

Why does the letter-writer need the recipient’s address if the letter-writer isn’t going to mail the letter?

The answer is simple: The recipient’s address appears in a business letter below the date and above the salutation (Dear Dr./Professor/Mr./Ms.). If a letter-writer doesn’t follow proper form, the recipient may question his or her credibility. And you don’t want  selection committees and potential employers to question the person you’ve called upon to vouch  for you.

For more valuable advice on letters of recommendation, see Mitch Harden’s “Waiving Your Rights“–which isn’t just about waiving your rights, it offers other useful tips as well.

Sunday’s New York Times Magazine featured an essay on narration that a friend mentioned on Facebook. I didn’t see her comment initially because I don’t frequent Facebook. My husband posts there several times a day though, so he passed the news along to me. Now that I’ve read the essay, I’m ready to enter the conversation–but not on Facebook, where it seems too late. My friend’s request–“I’d love to hear more thoughts on this”–now lies buried beneath four days of links and “likes” and photos.

The essay “Once Upon a Time, There was a Person Who Said, ‘Once Upon a Time‘” reminds me of Ray Bradbury’s story “‘The Veldt” (1950), which my students and I read and studied this week. The  story’s crystal-walled virtual-reality nursery leads the Hadley children away from creativity toward passivity. When the son, Peter, admonishes his father for removing the picture painter from the nursery, George Hadley replies: ‘. . . I wanted you to learn to   paint all by yourself, son” (76).

“I don’t want to do anything but look and listen and smell,” Peter replies. “What else is there to do?” (76).

Ray Bradbury’s short story collection The Illustrated Man (1950), which includes “The Veldt.”

In “Once Upon a Time. . . ,” writer Steven Almond addresses how visual media (Bradbury’s crystal-walled virtual-reality) has changed how we conceive of storytelling. “Traditionally,” Almond writes, “stories represented an active collaboration. Listeners and readers were called upon to create the world described by the artist. Film advanced a new model of collaboration. An array of artists (screenwriters, actors, cinematographers, set designers, etc.) worked together to invent an ultra-vivid artificial world. The audience’s role became increasingly passive–to absorb and react, not to imagine. Television shrunk the wonders of film and delivered them directly to our living rooms.”

The absence of narration in “the shrunken wonders of film”–now shrunken to fit our iPhone 5 screens–isn’t simply the loss of a literary device. It’s the atrophy of an essential skill: one that enables us to make sense of the world. It’s no surprise that Almond’s creative writing students produce short stories that lack coherence. Or that many of the freshman in my classes struggle to produce essays of more than 1,500 words. If I write any more, I’ll be repeating myself, they often say, not because they can’t write more, but because they can’t imagine writing more. To do so would require the sustained attention and reflection that our digital culture leaves behind.

Posting to Facebook about the decline of narration isn’t the equivalent of driving and texting about the dangers of driving and texting. But it does underscore a consistent contradiction in our lives. As a writer and a teacher, I attempt to reconcile that incongruity with blog posts–writing that my students and I can draft and revise before our words enter the sphere Almond describes as “the simulated world through which most of us flit from one context to the next, from Facebook post to Tumblr feed to YouTube clip, from ego moment to snarky rant to carnal wormhole.”