Backchannels and Consumerists, All

Ironically, I’ve been reading the New York Times much more frequently since it instituted a monthly article limit; the “most popular” list is now tailored to my specific interests (philosophy, education and cooking) and I can read at my leisure through the loopholes of Twitter and my cell phone.

Unfortunately, this often leads to an elevated heart rate at an inconvenient location.  Last week, waiting for a delayed plane, I read this flippantly upbeat suggestion that teachers embrace social networking as a classroom tool:

With Twitter and other microblogging platforms, teachers from elementary schools to universities are setting up what is known as a “backchannel” in their classes. The real-time digital streams allow students to comment, pose questions (answered either by one another or the teacher) and shed inhibitions about voicing opinions. Perhaps most importantly, if they are texting on-task, they are less likely to be texting about something else.

Forgive me, but this is about as silly as encouraging your children to experiment with drugs in your own house, since “they’re going to try it anyway.” Our attention spans are already hopelessly short, and our ability to relate on a human level severely hampered:

“When we have class discussions, I don’t really feel the need to speak up or anything,” said one of her students, Justin Lansink, 17. “When you type something down, it’s a lot easier to say what I feel.”

Of course it is, Justin.  It’s always easier to type an angry e-mail instead of confronting someone, or to text “luv u” rather than declare your feelings outright.  Why are we encouraging this, then, instead of helping our students to focus on the interactions and articulations that make them uniquely human?

If I’d read that piece with openmouthed indignation, I read this condemnation of the college experience with a wistful sigh of resignation:

In a typical semester, for instance, 32 percent of the students did not take a single course with more than 40 pages of reading per week, and 50 percent did not take any course requiring more than 20 pages of writing over the semester. The average student spent only about 12 to 13 hours per week studying …

Not surprisingly, a large number of the students showed no significant progress on tests of critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing that were administered when they began college and then again at the ends of their sophomore and senior years.

The article goes on to mention colleges’ tendencies to invest in residence and athletic facilities and to rely on student opinion forms as the main barometer of an instructor’s skill in the classroom – which pushes instructors to be pushovers, which further dilutes the academic rigor of the school.  I’ve certainly seen this in my graduate school, where I’m at the top of every class through a reasonable, but not burdensome, amount of effort – embarrassing, really.  College should be hard.

Well, harrumph.  That’s what I get for reading the paper.