Tag Archives: technology

Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year, Redux: Kids These Days, Part the Third–On Being and Unbeing

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This is e. e. cummings

I’ve been writing lately about student behavior. In one blog I commiserated with my elementary school colleagues about young children who cause violent disruptions and I bemoaned the high school apathy I saw at my own school, and in another blog I wrote about surprising teenage shenanigans, you know, like bringing communion wafers to class. Today I want to write about an essay I’m studying with my 9th graders, an excerpt from “Nonlecture Two” by e. e. cummings. In this essay, cummings makes a number of assertions. One, that our idea of home is commensurate to our idea of privacy. Two, most of us have no conception of what privacy really is. Three, our “walls” are full of “holes.” Four (and there are more, but I want to linger here), we have difficulties being here, now, ourselves, and alone, in part, because we are terribly distracted beings, and here I have to quote directly and generously from the essay:

Why (you ask) should anyone want to be here, when (simply by pressing a button) anyone could be in fifty places at once? How could anyone want to be now, when anyone can go whening all over creation at the twist of a knob? What could induce anyone to desire aloneness, when billions of soi-disant dollars are mercifully squandered by a good and great government lest anyone anywhere should ever for a single instant be alone? As for being yourself–why on earth should you be yourself; when instead of being yourself you can be a hundred, or a thousand, or a hundred thousand thousand, other people? The very thought of being oneself in an epoch of interchangeable selves must appear supremely ridiculous.

Now, we’ve read a biographical sketch of our poet, and have read and probably even recorded the years during which cummings was alive. We’ve maybe even glossed over the publication date of this essay. But in our attempt at a close reading of this piece, that information does not resurface. Not right away. So here’s a tale of two different classes responding to the same text:

In my first period today, one student, in response to the above passage, in particular to the “pressing a button” and the “twist of a knob,” says, “He’s talking about our smart phones.” At this point in the discussion I am so excited that I can remember nothing of what was said afterwards verbatim, but I clearly remember talk about how our smart phones allow us to go “whening all over creation,” allow us to be “a hundred thousand thousand other people,” and perhaps most ominously, prevent us from being alone, from being and knowing ourselves. And I specifically remember the priceless look on another student’s face as she begins to understand. These moments are the moments I live for as a teacher. And when someone asks the question, “When was this piece written?” Our mouths all fall open with amazement when we remind ourselves that the book i: Six Nonlectures was published in 1953. The knobs and buttons cummings refers to are likely radio tuning knobs, rotary dials, and if one was lucky enough to have a television, the channel selector. The poet saw and (perhaps) exaggerated (maybe) the dangers of his technology but managed to predict with perfect precision the powers and the dangerous reality of our own. Our addictive use of smart phones epitomizes the point he’s making.

Second period. I try and fail to recreate the epiphany from the period before. I fail for a couple of reasons. First, I move against the tenets of this particular strategy that students must construct their own knowledge while the teacher simply records their observations, questions, and conclusions. Instead, I ask a guiding question: “Do you notice in this passage the images of pressing a button or twisting a knob?” Then I admit, “This absolutely blows my mind.” Then I follow up, having already established that the piece was published in 1953: “What knobs and buttons might he be referring to?” In response, students talk about their knowledge of 1950s technology, radio, maybe television. I ask another question: “What do you think of his claim that radio or television might be having these adverse effects on us? Why is your teacher blown away by this?” Crickets. And as I scan the room, I notice a different kind of failure: a number of kids, a much larger number than I would care to admit, stare intently at their smart phone screens. They are, in this moment, “whening all over creation,” distracted by others, being anybody else, incapable of being alone, incapable of grasping the fact that they are the subject and the object lesson of this essay. We are indeed in an “epoch of interchangeable selves.”

Five (I’m continuing here, with the list of the poet’s assertions): poetry is being, not doing. Six: and if you’d like, at whatever distance, to follow “the poet’s calling,”

you’ve got to come out of the measurable doing universe into the immeasurable house of being.

He continues with his seventh, eighth, and ninth assertions, expressed in these two glorious sentences:

I am quite aware that, wherever our so-called civilization has slithered, there’s every reward and no punishment for unbeing. But if poetry is your goal, you’ve got to forget all about punishments and all about rewards and all about self-styled obligations and duties and responsibilities etcetera ad infinitum and remember one thing only: that it’s you–nobody else–who determine your destiny and decide your fate.

I love it that he says that this is what you must do if poetry is your goal. I love that, because I don’t think it’s really what he means. Or, rather, he’s not being literal. Poetry is my life, or, poetry can be your life even if you never write a word! And that’s what my greatest hope is for my students, not that they run out the door with a burning desire to write poetry (although that would be nice), but rather, they live their lives as if they were poems, they recognize that poetry is being, that it’s difficult to be, much easier and “rewarding” to unbe, but that somehow they  gain the wherewithal and the self knowledge to regain their privacy, their aloneness, their sense of self-identity unclouded or polluted by the never-ending noise and distraction of the stupid smart phone, to determine their own destiny and fate so somebody else doesn’t do it for them.

 

 

 

 

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#236: Media Fast, Anyone?

no_social_media

I cannot help it.
I can’t look away.
It’s a train wreck,
a complete cluster,
and every morning
begins with the same
question:

What’s the outrage of the day?

And now that I’m on
a holiday break I’ve got
something like free time
to keep checking in on
the downfall of my
civilization.

I think I need to stop.

While it might make me
more informed, this incessant
checking of the news, it does
nothing for my present
happiness. I remember a
time, about 16 years ago,
before Facebook was a thing,
when I took a break from watching
the news. I perused the paper
at work so as not to live
completely under a rock,
but I spared myself from
the pictures and the talking
heads and the bullshit
advertisements, and I think,
for awhile, it made me feel
better, smarter even, and
certainly, less anxious.

It might be possible to skip
the stuff that makes me anxious
and only do those social things
that are pleasurable or that
create connection with loved ones,
but even these things, as
necessary as they sometimes feel,
can drive me a little drunk
with dependence.

The power and the influence
of the internet has changed
everything. It’s a bombardment
of the senses and its making
me, I fear, senseless.

So I am entertaining the idea
of a fast with little confidence
that I will be successful at its
implementation. I am thinking.

I am thinking.

And with me, that’s how it always
begins: a desire or a thought,
some words spoken or written,
a visualization in repetition,
and then finally an effort
to make something happen.
What mysterious gifts might
take the place of the ubiquitous web?
How long could I stay away?
What will I miss?  And will it matter?

 

 

 

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#149: Unspeakable

Night

Unspeakable

I’m trying to find words
to describe how I feel
when, during a reading
from Elie Wiesel’s Night,
I look up and see students
looking at their phones.
One student, in particular,
looks at me, and without irony,
without hesitation, and without,
I would say, consciousness,
says, as if it were a legitimate
explanation, that she was looking
at the new emoji images
now available to her for instant
texting gratification.
In moments like these,
it is hard for me not to simply
scream bloody murder;
it is impossible for me
to be magnanimous,
or tolerant, forgiving,
impossible not
to single out a move like this
for special public humiliation.
And so I say,
Really?
This is more important
in this moment
than the extermination
of 6 millions Jews in
Nazi concentration camps?
–to which, of course, she
cannot respond and we
move on as if it never happened
and she moves on as if it never
happened and continues to be
distracted by minutia and incapable
of attending with any seriousness
to human suffering.
These are the soul crushing
moments in a teacher’s life,
when the material seems
personally so monumental,
so absolutely engrossing in
its unspeakable horror,
and real, and true, and relevant, too,
while all around the world in the 21st
century people continue to suffer and die
in the wake of oppression and hatred,
that one is rendered mute, impotent
in the face of indifference and ignorance,
grieving and furious at this invasion
into our lives of these technological bobbles
whose sole purpose seems to be the
prevention of thought and absence of mind.
I have to remind myself
that she was one kid–and taken with
the two or three other boys I’ve caught
in the same unit of study playing
Clash of Clans, she is in a tiny minority
careless and thoughtless in the face
of the Holocaust. Conscientiousness,
though, prevents me from dismissing it,
from letting it go, keeps me going
over and over the scene, at first,
obsessively in counter productive circles,
until finally, it becomes a simple commitment:
No one, no one gets off the hook.
Everyone puts down their phones, must look.

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#138: A New Stupid Smart Phone

iphone-5s-08

1.
Stupid, perhaps.  But I bought a new iPhone today
because my wallet case broke, you know the one,
the wallet case I bought two years ago
to hold my i.d., some cash, and a 3G phone
I bought for $50 that was already two years
out of date. The old phone was fine, still,
but the wallet was now in two pieces and
there was no way I was going to carry
around two separate things in my pockets,
a phone and a wallet. Now I have this new
phone on which I can have meaningful
conversations with someone named Siri,
but the at&t store didn’t carry wallet cases,
so now I carry two separate things in my pockets,
a phone on which I can have meaningful
conversations with a person named Siri
in one pocket, and a wallet in the other.

2.
I hope it wasn’t a mistake; I have my doubts.
The at&t people sure did make it easy;
having  lowered my monthly phone bill
by 30 or 40 bucks, having rolled the price of the phone
into that lower payment, they sent me away
feeling like I had spent exactly zero dollars,
walking out of that technological zone with
a phone through which I can have meaningful
conversations with a person named Siri.
What’s worse, I think, is that before,
I really couldn’t give two shits about my 3G,
but I like my new phone; it’s pretty, it does
things, it’s fast, and I can’t quit fondling it.
I’m an adult.  I can handle it.  I am conscious.
This infatuation will pass.  Otherwise,
I have sold my soul to the cell phone devil.

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#54: The School Year Begins with a Crash of the Hard Drive

hard-drive-fire

The School Year Begins with a Crash of the Hard Drive

on which my entire life’s work
as a teacher was “saved.”
My technology guy, bless him,
was able to retrieve nearly
every last god-forsaken item–
except any kind of organizational
feature previously attached.
So all perhaps one thousand
assorted folders, documents, presentations,
audio files, images, film clips,
spreadsheets, and graphics
are identified now only by random
numbers in no particular order
and that makes me feel suddenly
like my teaching life is now
identified only by random
numbers in no particular order
and I don’t like it.
I could be planning, inventing,
decorating, creating new stuff
in this first week of work
before the kids arrive, but
instead, my technology guy
and I will be sifting through
all these thousands of files and naming them
and putting them back into folders
where once again they might be
useful, and where once again,
my life’s work as a teacher,
in ones and zeros, might be
protected and saved
at least until I can retire, please.
Then perhaps, the hard drive
can burn, burn, baby, burn,
because my legacy will be
carried by those who walk out my door
and not what sits, in ones and zeros,
in a box on my desk.

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Of A Twelve Step Program for Young Cell Phone Addicts

I’m serious.  There’s not a day that goes by any more when I don’t tell a student or several students, sometimes repeatedly in a single period, to put their cell phones away.  And lately there hasn’t been a week that’s passed without a serious discussion around the lunch table about the need for some sort of school wide policy about phones.  My school does not have such a policy; it is up to teacher discretion–and that causes some serious angst–because not all teachers handle it the same way, and that inconsistency makes it more difficult for teachers to establish a no-tolerance expectation.

Some teachers confiscate immediately.  Some teachers warn and then confiscate. Some teachers ignore the problem altogether–and either this causes them serious anxiety as they are exceedingly bugged but feel helpless to do anything about it, or they have become, as a survival technique or coping mechanism, totally oblivious to the problem.  It’s a battle many teachers don’t want to fight. Some teachers harass and harangue or appeal to students’ better selves by using a thing called reason. The messages are: I see you doing that, I’m bugged, it’s rude, it’s impeding your success in this moment, so put it away.  This tends to be my mode of operation, a strategy which, woefully, doesn’t work very well, at least in the long term.  They look at me, sometimes sheepishly, they apologize, sometimes sincerely, they put the offending thing away, and then 15 minutes later they’re back at it.  Even less effective, but sometimes amusing, is a habit I have developed lately of simply inserting the phrase “put away the phone” at random intervals during the lesson, sometimes mid-sentence.  “Ezra Pound was one of the first and most famous, put away the phone, translators of ancient Chinese poetry.” I can’t ignore it–because that would be wrong.  And I can’t make myself into a confiscator because. . .because. . .(I’m stalling because this is complicated).

I don’t confiscate because I’m indignant about the idea that I would even have to do such a thing with high school juniors who are several months away from adulthood. I’m incensed that this has become ipso facto part of my job description. I don’t confiscate because it is not my style or my way to be a hard guy.  I don’t confiscate because, if it becomes a struggle–as it often does when students feel a sense of entitlement around their devices or they have come to believe that using their phones at any and all times of day is a basic human right–the resultant adrenaline rush, the anger, the power struggle, these things make me feel shitty and throw off my entire teaching game.

Cell phones didn’t used to be such an issue.  Only a few years ago, the biggest problem, and it happened infrequently, was an inappropriate ringy dingy in an inopportune moment.  Easy problem to fix.  Don’t answer it. Turn off the ringer. Solved. But today, with the advent of the smart phone and all its glories, students are receiving incoming digital information in the way of tweets, facebook posts, instagram messages, and texts–incessantly. They are being bombarded by this stuff 24/7, in every waking moment, and they are loath to pull themselves away, incapable of resisting, obsessed with any little blip on the screen that might amuse them or flatter them or titilate–while I’m trying to teach them about ancient Chinese poetry.  They are addicted, plain and simple.  They need a twelve step program.  They need interventions.  They need a detox.

Here’s what the sharing at the meeting might sound like.  Feel free, if this is your problem, or your kid’s problem, or your spouse’s problem, to use it as a script.

Hello, my name is _____________and I am a Smart Phone Addict.  I admit I am powerless over my cell phone and that it has made my life unmanageable.  My cell phone owns my dumb ass. I spend more time looking at a screen than looking at faces of real people who are in rooms with me.  Even on dates, I am more present with my phone than I am with my date. I am constantly distracted.  I can’t seem to concentrate on any one thing for any length of time–but I can look at my phone for hours at a stretch, anticipating every notification alert with a kind of euphoria that I can’t feel any other way.  While waiting for a message, I like to stroke the phone, tenderly, as if my loving attention will bring other notifications faster.  I sleep with it under my pillow.  The quality of my sleep is suffering, my grades are suffering, real face to face conversations about any substantive topics never occur, my English teacher is always angry at me. I have come to believe that a Power greater than myself could help relieve my suffering.  I have made a decision to turn my will and my life over to God as I understand God. (Or, for the atheists: I have made a decision to control my own behavior through conscientious, deliberate practice).  I have made a searching and fearless moral inventory and find that nothing about the Smart Phone makes me smarter.  Nothing about the cell phone makes me a better person or helps me live a better life. I am ready for God as I know God (atheists: I am ready) to remove all my defects and shortcomings.  I’ve made a list of people I’ve harmed, insulted, ignored, dismissed, and angered by my incessant cell phone usage.  I will make direct amends with these people whenever it is safe to do so.  Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps (even atheists can do this),  I will carry this message to other Smart Phone Addicts and practice these principles in all my affairs.  Thank you, brothers and sisters.

That’s what I’d like to hear from some of my young charges who seem to be incapable of turning off their phones.  I would so much like them to open their eyes to the fact that all the kids around them who are NOT engaged in Smart Phone Addict behaviors are twenty times more successful in almost every conceivable way.  In the best of all possible worlds, I would like young people to come to these conclusions and CHANGE, rather than devise some punitive measure (anything from a giant cell phone compactor to a less draconian cell phone ban) to force them to comply. But maybe that’s pie in the sky rose colored glasses.  Goodnight.  I have to get the iPad away from my son so he can take a bath.

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