February 19, 2010
"Killer Paragraphs" and Other Reflections of PBS's Digital Nation

Cross-posted from Confessions of an Aca-Fan: February 3, 2010

This week, PBS stations around the United States are airing Digital Nation, a documentary which claims to offer us insights into life in the digital age. I was happy to participate in this important production, though, I must confess, more than a little disappointed in the finished product. It raises important issues, to be sure, but does so often in a one-sided manner which panders to the biases of public television viewers rather than challenging them to look at the potentials of digital media in education through new lens.

What I value from the production is the website which gathers together extensive interviews with key thinkers with a range of views about the value of digital media in education and our everyday life and which has collected the voices of everyday people many of whom share stories of how they have built productive relationships with and through new media technologies and practices. The website allows us to chart our own paths through this debate, to drill much deeper into different points of view, and offers a more balanced picture of the current state of the debate. The website allows us to ask questions, while the television show tells us what to think. Granted it does so in a way that is much more subtle than the typical Fox News scare story, but it is hardly "fair and balanced" either.

The existence of the website with so much raw footage alongside the completed documentary offers a unique resource for teaching basic media literacy skills, allowing us to question the choices the filmmakers made, and how various rhetorical devices shape how we respond to the words and images included.

All of this points to discussions we should be having, including a consideration of the potentials and limits of multitasking and whether it is inherently linked to our relations to digital media (or rather an artifact of a much longer history of economic and social pressures which have resulted in a more demanding and fragmented lifestyle). My one comment included in the film centered around the ways that people throughout the 20th century saw their lives as disjointed, understood their eyes as pulled in many different directions, and worried about distractions, yet also developed strategies which allowed them to cope with these pressures.

One of the passages in the film that annoyed me the most was its depiction of contemporary MIT students as the advance guard of technological development and yet as somehow failing in their classes because of an over-reliance and over-confidence in their multitasking skills. I wanted to share some reflections of my own perception of the MIT students, given how prominantly Sherry Turkle's concerns about these students played in the opening segments of Digital Nation. I know Sherry well, I hold her in great affection and respect, but on many points here, we've come away with different impressions. I should note that I taught at MIT for 20 years, arriving there before digital media hit most of the country, and leaving only six months ago. I also for 14 years was a housemaster in an MIT dorm so I saw these students in the classroom and where they lived.

Let me start with the concept of "killer paragraphs," a phrase used by one of the MIT students to describe his writing. I recognize the point of the piece was that they had difficulty connecting paragraphs together to form a coherent linear essay. On that point, I think we can all agree. But I think the student who described himself as writing "killer paragraphs" was getting at something that is easy to ridicule or dismiss, yet may be a significant shift in what constitutes good writing. The writing of MIT students has to do with the production of densely written, carefully argued, powerfully presented, meaningful chunks of information. They can and often are really "killer" in that they condense together a great deal of information, they have a core insight which gets introduced and developed in a half a page to a page of prose, and then they move onto something else. It is to the traditional college essay what Hemmingway was to Hawthorne. They take you through all of the steps of the argument; they support it; they anticipate and head off potential criticism; they draw on both the readings and their
personal experience. Some of the paragraphs make you weep for joy. Yet, they have difficulty connecting them together to form larger units in part because they learned and rehearsed their writing on discussion lists, where they acquired skills at compression and where extended development is apt not to be read or dismissed as long winded. (Trust me, my own verbosity is often held up to me as a reason why I am "not really a blogger.") I am not ready to dismiss this as bad writing, but I would work hard to make sure they could create a larger framework through which to connect their ideas.

The film makes the point that they are often multitasking in the classroom and that they believe they are better at multitasking than current lab research suggests. I certainly encountered situations where most of the students had a lap top open in my class. In some cases, they were performing quite mundane tasks, such as compiling code, which required very little of their attention and would be mind-numbing if performed with their full attention. They are multitasking in the same way that a faculty colleague would knit during faculty meetings: the actions were routinized, most of the time they didn't require much thought, but they absorbed a certain amount of nervous energy. I am also reminded of Irving Howe's World of Our Fathers which described how factory workers in the Lower East Side of New York in the early 20th century would pool their money and hire someone to read to them as they did mind-numbing labor. We often see such a gesture as the mark of a literate society, yet they were also, dare I say it, multitasking, combining two tasks, one of which required manual knowledge but not intellectual engagement with another that was all brain to keep them stimulated and engaged. We might see bringing coding to class as very similar.

In some other cases, their multitasking is monitorial, they are scanning their environment looking for changes in status, much the way the guy who works at the desk in my condo keeps his eye on four or five television screens to make sure nothing bad happens to the people in the building, even as he deals with signing in packages, chatting with residents, and doing a range of other tasks. He doesn't need to stare at the screens every moment, but he does need to be peripherally aware of what's going on there and act when it requires his full attention. One of my concerns with the lab based experiments on multitasking is that they assume each task is equally critical or that they all require a high level of accuracy and attention to detail. Sometimes, all that is needed is a quick scan or sweep in between other tasks that demand more focused attention. I hope that my lecture is not what is being scanned, but I know that the humanities are not always their top priorities and I would rather they get some of the content than to skip the class altogether when the Institute demands more of them than they can deliver. I've seen a student look hopelessly absorbed in their computer work, shift into active engagement with a class discussion, make very pertinent comments, and then go back to work, just as I've seen exhausted students make a great comment and then fall asleep before they heard their classmates response. It is not the ideal in either case but sometimes it reflects the crunch of a university system which pushes its students to the breaking point and beyond, just as adult multitasking is a product of unreasonable demands placed on us by current economic practices.

Some of the students make bad choices and pay the consequences for them. But then some of them stay up too late, don't read the assignments, put off doing written work, and make a range of other decisions which also negatively impact their performance in my classes. The reality is that even bright students sometimes make bad choices, and part of our task as teachers is to help them to see the consequences of bad choices and model more constructive relations with technology.

Some of the students are indeed engaged in activities which constitute distractions from the course work, but before the computer, you would see people flipping through textbooks, reading newspapers, doodling, or simply day dreaming in class, and the computer simply makes these actions more visible to people around them. I am not happy that they are doing these things, but as a teacher, it's my job to be more interesting than these minor distractions.

Most often, they use the computer to take notes, to record information that emerges for the class discussion. This is a generation that learned its keyboard skills in elementary school and often finds penmanship torturous. Why shouldn't they be allowed to use the computer to take notes?

They might also use the computer to draw on information relevant to the discussion. I made a conscious strategy of engaging with these aspects of their computer use, posing questions for them to look up information online just as I might ask them to look up something in a book. I might suggest examples that they might want to look at later and they would pull up the links and bookmark them for consulting later. They might check me if I was struggling for a bit of data and they might propose videos from YouTube which helped to illustrate the points we were exploring in the discussion. It's hard to call many of these uses multitasking in the negative way the film uses the word, because these are very much on task and help to reinforce the lessons through alternative media channels and help increase curiosity on things they could look at later. Students would often look at these book marked materials and send me e-mail about them which encouraged us to extend the discussion through another channel.

The charge that they are multitasking and thus not retaining information rings false to me. I have found that MIT students have incredible recall -- they can recount point by point details of class discussions weeks later. Many of them are very close readers of texts, having mastered close reading through their engagement with online fan and gamer discussion lists and can apply those skills to a range of media artifacts. Many of them are gifted problem solvers and brainstormers, having collaborated through social networks and online forums for much of their life. They would tackle theories almost as engineering problems, breaking them down analytically, resolving conflicts and confusions, and putting them back together again. In a liberal arts college, students rip into the theories like a pack of savage wolves, trying to see who or what will survive their terrorizing, but at MIT, students tinker with theories, seeing what each allows them to do, looking for their strengths, and then patching together their weeknesses, to see if they can build something stronger in their place.

As someone who lived with MIT students, let me tell you that computers have not displaced books. Almost every student has a stack of well loved and well worn books in their rooms, alongside their electronic computer. In some cases, textbooks, but even there, they were textbooks they chose to keep in a world where poor students can quickly sell off used textbooks they don't value. Many more of them were literary works -- particularly science fiction and fantasy, but also classics from the high school lit class, which have continued to speak to them in meaningful ways. I've certainly engaged in long conversations with these students about the books they read, sometimes well into the night. I even remember sitting up one cold December night until dawn taking turns reading A Christmas Carol as a group -- a project initiated by the students themselves. Unlike some adults I know who want to pit the computer against the book, they have no trouble giving both their proper respect, using the computer when it seems meaningful to them, reading books when it seems the best choice. They do so programatically in search of information, but they may also use both as a source of pleasure and self reflection. What I saw in the dorm renewed my faith that the values of book culture are surviving into the next generation.

Yes, they often use computers and mobile devices to navigate through the day, coordinating their activities with other equally dispersed and mobile students. Yes, they sometimes writing emails to people who are just across the hall. But they also still hang out in each other's dorm rooms and they particularly cluster in the lobbies of dorms to talk with each other. Our dorm was a thriving community, a support network for its members, a place where a great deal of learning took place through conversations, and I worry very little about the social skills of MIT students. Our dorm was perhaps the most vital social community I've ever been a part of -- and much of this was brought about because communication ocurred at multiple levels through a range of technologies. Sometimes there were fights through online spaces, but rarely were they allowed to fester, because they could always be resolved through face to face conversations. And yes, they formed strong connections with people they never met face to face -- which expanded their social networks, exposed them to new ideas. We also saw students who had come to MIT from other parts of the world able to maintain much stronger connections with their families and friends back home (or for that matter, at other universties around the world.)

I know what you are going to say -- that these are exceptional students at an elite university and not necessarily representative of students around the country. I fully agree. But keep in mind that I didn't choose to focus on MIT students. The filmmakers did. And they were trying to make the claim that MIT looked like where other students would be going in the future -- that they illustrated the traits of digital learning pushed to an extreme because MIT students are among the early adapters of technology and live lives that are more saturated with high tech experiences than most students. I am not sure that MIT students are really representative of much more than their own local culture and on the MIT campus, each dorm constitutes its own distinctive cultural community.

As someone who works through ethnography, I do not necessarily see any group as representative of the national norms. There is no one digital culture or digital generation, simply many different ways that groups have integrated digital technologies and practices into their lives, some rewarding, some potentially destructive, but each distinctive. At that point, I see a value in locating problems but I also see a value in locating success stories which might provide models for building more constructive relationships to technology. The work I've been doing for the past five years working on New Media Literacies has been to help identify what productive relationships to new media look like and to create materials which help teachers and students master needed skills. It doesn't assume everything we do online is equally valuable to us, but it also doesn't start from the premise, seemingly advocated at places in the film, that we should bar the school house gates to digital technology. For me, the potentials are much greater than the risks.