Posted in English 1103, Scrabble, Social Media, Teaching, Writing

Left to Our Own Devices. . .

The blog post that follows is my version of the final essay and annotated bibliography, which I wrote as a sample for you.

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, but I came across one article that focused on Scrabble in the college classroom. It 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 MidAmerica 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.

Annotated Bibliography

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

Gavin Francis’s essay-review “Scrolling” examines three books that explore how technology impacts our lives: Bored, Lonely, Angry, Stupid , Fragments of an Infinite Memory , and The Stars in Our Pockets. Bored, Lonely, Angry, Stupid: Changing Feelings about Technology from the Telegraph to Twitter, by Luke Fernandez and Susan J. Matt tracks changes in social norms and in human emotions occasioned by advances in technology across a couple of centuries and concludes that out twenty-first-century situation is different from earlier shifts both in the rate of change and in the problems introduced by cybertechnologies. Mäel Renouard’s Fragments of an Infinite Memory presents a series of thoughts experiments that circle the Internet’s impact on academia, our social lives, and its near-limitless capacity to fuel both nostalgia and the search for what’s new. Howard Axelrod’s The Stars in Our Pockets explores the author’s anxiety over what our phones are doing to our brains, and builds on the success of his 2015 memoir, The Point of vanishing, an account of his two-year trip to the Vermont woods after an accident in which he lost sight in one eye. His partial blinding occasioned a reckoning, a recalibration with the world.

Francis Gavin is a doctor and an award-winning author whose most recent book is Intensive Care: A GP, a Community & COVID-19 (2021). He contributes articles to The London Review of Books, The New York Review of Books, and The Guardian.

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.

This qualitative study examines three cases from the disciplines of practical theology and history, utilizing the methods of video recordings, written assessments from students and professors, and student debriefing exercises. Undergraduate students and professors reflect on and self-report their experiences playing tabletop games in the classroom. They report that tabletop gameplay appears to intensify active learning, classroom engagement, and student motivation.

Mark Alan Hayse serves as Honors Program Director, Faculty Development Coordinator, and Professor of Christian Education in the Christian Ministry and Formation Department of MidAmerica Nazarene University. “Tabletop Games and Twenty-First Century Skill Practice in the Undergraduate Classroom” is his most recent publication.

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.

In “Facebook Knows Instagram is Toxic for Teen Girls, Company Documents Show,” investigative journalists Jeff Horwitz, Deepa Seetharaman, and Georgia Wells report on Facebook’s three-year study of how its photo-sharing app affects its millions of young users. Repeatedly, the company’s researchers found that Instagram can how young women view and describe themselves.

Jeff Horwitz is a San Francisco-based technology reporter for The Wall Street Journal . He covers Facebook’s business and its impact on the world. His reporting has won repeated recognition, including a Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing award and a Gerald Loeb Awards finalist citation for articles he produced with two colleagues about Facebook’s struggle to police hate in India. Deepa Seetharaman is a reporter covering the intersection of technology and politics from The Wall Street Journal’s bureau in San Francisco. Her stories explore the way tech companies and executives shape politics and society. Georgia Wells is a technology reporter for The Wall Street Journal based in San Francisco, where she covers the uses and abuses of social media. Her work has won recognition from the George Polk Awards, the Deadline Club, the New York Press Club and the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing.

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

With Hamlet’s Blackberry, William Powersaims to help teach people how to connect more wisely. To that end, Powers looked to the past, where he found several precedents to both the current information age and the anxiety that has come with it. For example: The Roman philosopher Seneca, for example, was plagued by the connectedness that came along with living in the capital of a vast empire. Powers observes that “[t]here was noise and there was business,” and that “[t]here was more work, there was paperwork—it was papyrus work at the time, but it was paperwork. There was bureaucracy. There was just a lot of incoming.” Another major figure Powers examines developed his own strategies for coping with overstimulation. In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the title character, the Prince of Denmark, is visited by the ghost of his murdered father, who informs Hamlet that his murderer is none other than Hamlet’s uncle.

Powers notes that “Hamlet is so overwhelmed by this news, this new piece of information, that he’s not sure what to do with it.” So, Hamlet reaches into his pocket and pulls out his “tables,” an object Powers describes as a sort of proto-electronic planner. Powers says that in the Elizabethan age, tables were a new gadget designed to help people bring order to their lives. In his words, “It was basically an erasable, plaster-like surface inside of a little booklet,” one that “[y]ou could write notes during the day and then wipe them away clean at night.”

Richard Powers is an American novelist whose works explore the effects of modern science and technology. His novel The Echo Maker won the 2006 National Book Award for Fiction.[1][2] He has also won many other awards over the course of his career, including a MacArthur Fellowship. As of 2021, Powers has published thirteen novels and has taught at the University of Illinois and Stanford University. He won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for The Overstory.

Rosenwasser, David and Jill Stephen. “Writing on Computers vs. Writing on Paper.” Writing Analytically, 8th edition. Wadsworth/Cengage, 2019. pp. 124-25.

In “Writing on Computers vs. Writing on Paper,” David Rosenwasser and Jill Stephen examine the pros and cons of writing longhand and typing on a keyboard, and present the argument that typing, while faster, can “lock you into a draft or a particular idea too soon” (124-25).

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.

Walden is a work of nonfiction by American transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau. The text is a reflection upon simple living in natural surroundings. The work is part personal declaration of independence, social experiment, voyage of spiritual discovery, satire, and—to some degree—a manual for self-reliance.

Thoreau is considered one of the major figures of Transcendentalism, the nineteenth-century movement of writers and philosophers in New England who were loosely bound together by adherence to an idealistic system of thought based on a belief in the essential unity of all creation, the innate goodness of humanity, and the supremacy of insight over logic and experience for the revelation of the deepest truths. Walden is widely regarded as a literary classic. 

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.

In “College Students’ Stress Levels are Bubbling Over,” PBS News Hour correspondent John Yang reports on how during the pandemic, colleges and universities have been struggling to cope with ever-increasing levels of mental distress among students. He notes that a recent study by The American College Health Association found that one in four students had considered suicide.

John Yang is a special correspondent for the PBS News Hour. He previously worked for NBC as a correspondent and commentator, covering issues for all NBC News programming, including NBC Nightly News with Brian WilliamsToday, and MSNBC. He has also worked for ABC News as a correspondent.

Posted in English 1103, Reading, Social Media, Teaching

ENG 1103: Page and Screen and “The Chaos Machine”

The Chaos Machine, the new book by New York Times journalist Max Fisher explores how social media has altered our lives. Because Fisher’s books focuses on our class theme, our lives in the digital world, it’s an ideal text for us to examine, and the High Point Univeristy Library has agreed to buy a copy for our use. We will study an excerpt from Fisher’s book in class, and you will have the opportunity to use it as one of the sources for your final essay and annotated bibliography.

Next Up

At the beginning of class on Monday, I will collect your completed worksheets for Lesson Three in the Check, Please! course. If you are absent from class today, Friday, September 9, when I distribute the worksheet, you can download a copy from Blackboard.

Also, in class on Monday, we will examine two additional models for your literacy narrative, and you will collaboratively explore the writers’ use of description and development.

Posted in English 1103, Reading, Social Media, Teaching, Writing

ENG 1103: Notes on the First Day of Class

Required materials (l-r): Writing Analytically by David Rosenwasser and Jill Stephen, pen with dark ink, writer’s notebook/journal, pocket portfolio for class handouts, loose leaf paper for drafts and in-class exercises.

Am I the person who will teach your English 1103 class? I posed that question this morning as a starting point for analysis, one of the key features of the course.

To begin the collaboration and inquiry that will figure prominently this semester—along with analysis—you worked together in groups to find the answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about the course. Continue to review the syllabus, which is posted in the Content section of Blackboard. An additional copy of the syllabus is included at the end of this blog entry. If you have any questions about the assignments, the course policies, or the calendar, please let me know.

Textbook

All of you in sections 23 and 24 of English 1103 are required to have the paperback edition of the textbook, Writing Analytically, 8th edition, by David Rosenwasser and Jill Stephen. Bring your copy to class on the days when the title, Writing Analytically, appears in bold on the course calendar. On those days, we will examine portions of the chapters in class and complete some of the exercises related to the reading.

Your first reading assignment in the textbook will be scheduled for mid-September, which will give you ample time to order and receive your copy before you are required to have it in class. (Unlike my copy, pictured at the top of this blog entry, your textbook will not be in a binder.)

Other Required Materials

  • Writer’s notebook/journal, bring to every class. 
  • Loose leaf paper (for drafts and short in-class assignments), bring to every Monday and Wednesday class
  • Pen with dark ink, bring to every class
  • Pocket portfolio (for class handouts), bring to every class

WordPress Blog

As practice in developing your web literacy and writing for a broader online audience, you will maintain a free WordPress blog for the class. As soon as possible, create a free blog at wordpress.com. After you create your blog, email the address, or URL, to me, and I will link your blog to our class page, English at High Point. If you encounter technical difficulties creating your blog or publishing a post, email help@wordpress.com or contact the HPU Help Desk: helpdesk@highpoint.edu, 336-841-HELP (3457).

You will post the revisions of all of your major writing assignments both to your blog and to Blackboard. The posts that you publish for class will be public. You are welcome to create additional posts on your own. If you prefer for some of those posts to be private, keep them in draft form or choose the private visibility option. 

You may also be asked to post comments to your classmates’ blogs and to mine.

Next Up

For class on Wednesday, August 24, complete the Habits of Mind exercise, Part I, distributed in class. If you missed today’s class, you can download a copy from the link below.

Syllabus and Habits of Mind Exercise, Parts I and II

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Posted in English 1103, Scrabble, Social Media, Writing

ENG 1103: Stance, Structure, and Sources

Today in class you revisited the exercise of examining the stance, structure, and sources of an essay. But instead of studying those components of my sample essay–as you did in groups on Monday–you looked closely at those parts of one of your classmates’ essays and composed a blog repsonse. That close study of the building blocks of a research essay is one of the most beneficial practices to engage in when you’re in the process of developing a research project of your own. It broadens your understanding of how stance, source, and structure combine to create a unified piece of writing and can serve as an example of how you might move forward with your own paper in progress.

Next Up

This week you will post your final essay to Blackboard and publish it on your blog (if you haven’t done so already). The hard deadline is Friday before class. Remember that you have the opportunity to earn extra credit points for consulting with a writing center tutor. To schedule an appointment, go to https://highpoint.mywconline.com/. If you encounter technical difficulties when you try to schedule an appointment, email Professor Justin Cook, director of the writing center: jcook3@highpoint.edu.

Coming Soon

Friday marks our last Wordplay Day for the month of November. To prepare for class and to up your game, review the Scrabble site’s tips and tools.

Posted in Reading, Social Media, Teaching, Writing

Faith Unplugged: Resurrections and Reboots

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.

Posted in Reading, Social Media

Screen Time: A Postscript

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.

 

Posted in Reading, Social Media, Teaching

Left to Our Own Devices, or Left to Turn Away from Them

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.

Posted in Reading, Social Media, Teaching, Writing

Old-School (and New-School) Writing in the Digital Age

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.

 

Posted in Reading, Social Media, Teaching, Writing

Reading for the Norton Writer’s Prize

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.

Posted in Social Media, Teaching, Writing

Letters of Recommendation

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.