As I plan my courses for spring (one is a conversation-based core course; the other, a performance course) I brace for what has become normal: face-to-face, interpersonal behavior that undermines collective focus, presence and wholehearted intellectual participation. It is more common than not for interlocutors, regardless of how it comes across to others (who have put their own devices away, and who are trying to be fully present) to indulge in the perpetual entertainment on the screen in their hands AND to defiantly excuse their constant checking: “You just don’t understand! I MUST read this text! I HAVE TO respond to this post! I can’t POSSIBLY sit here without my phone at arm’s length, its screen ready to distract me, just in case something happens somewhere ELSE.”
It is acceptable to opt-out of even the most basic prosocial exercise of granting full attention to what a friend, teacher, parent or child is saying in the actual, physical space we share. It’s discourteous, yes, but apparently fine anyway, to avert one’s eyes to the little personal distractor; to openly read texts and to respond, even while the other, present party may be valiantly attempting to develop a topic or co-create a good conversation.
It’s usual, now, to eschew the awkward, human discomfort of our own feelings of social embarrassment, to avoid trying to bridge the weirdness of our differences: differences in background, culture, attitudes, values, even differences in communicative styles.
Phubbing—for so compulsive phone-checking is called—is not healthy, but it’s apparently the standard way that we’re now “together”. My students increasingly react with barely-concealed rage and defensiveness if I suggest that having their phones out, competing with the present, physical human exchanges, isn’t productive under some circumstances, in some settings, in some contexts. “You can’t make me put away my phone” has become the outraged cry. *
Argue as one may about how one, personally, can multitask out the yingyang—fine, whatever, aren’t you something—doesn’t it depend upon the tasks? Working on a project with a friend, both of you on computers, chit-chatting and murmuring responses to one another while looking at something online, is very different from trying to talk through a personal issue; different from listening when someone is telling a story, and very different from meeting the demands of contributing to a difficult, nuanced conversation in which thinking of and posing thoughtful questions depends upon having followed the thread.
In fact, even if one could, miraculously, pay full attention while actually only paying partial attention, one cannot have a committed, thoughtful, connected conversation about many subjects when one is simultaneously signaling, nonverbally, to the other person or persons that one is not exactly fully-engrossed in the moment being shared. That’s because, one is not really sharing it. One is also on alert for something more interesting and entertaining to come across the transom at any moment.
Imagine kissing someone you really like, for the first time, and having them glance at their phone mid-kiss. Why are other acts of social communion that demand our full engrossment any different? Classroom teaching and learning are similar to that kiss in this respect: they have the potential to transform; to be challenging if not mind-blowing, intimate and profoundly satisfying, but only if mutual. A meaningful relationship is one in which the physical and intellectual presence of the other–and all the vulnerability and trust that presence implies–costs something: it costs attention. And often, not always, it fully repays and rewards.
There are many sides to be admitted. Not all human exchanges, in fact, probably most, are worth the hopes and efforts we may put into them. Some parents go on and on, repeating themselves or just filling the air with sound, if you grant them your undivided ear; some friends are only capable of holding court and never return the favor of curiosity or interest; some teens prattle, rant, criticize and exhaust patience; some teachers abuse the power of the podium and deliver boredom; some of us just suck at face-to-face communication, don’t care, expect others to carry the burden of liveliness, and over time become the problem. Granted, all that.
Finally: I’m not without resources, and this post isn’t a request for advice or explanation. I see, think about and understand the issues; I get the complexities. I read the studies, and I try interventions all the time: I have various approaches that work, more or less, or don’t. I have the conversation with students; I balance dialogue with a combination of suggestions, policies and in some cases (never beneficial to the learning process, but only to keeping things easy for myself) lots of tolerance. I’m not posting this in exasperation– I’m beyond exasperation; I’m reflective now– and I’m not asking “So, what do you do?” The topic is proposed as food for thought: here we are, all connected, constantly, addicted consumers, consuming the entertainment of connection like it’s pure heroin. To me, this present condition is alarming, perhaps even more an impoverishment than it can be a boon, and with every passing year, our device-based social behavior contributes to fewer and fewer collectively-focused, mutually-engaged and engaging exchanges in the classroom. We’re less brave, face-to-face. Less likely to create connections across difficult divides. Less tolerant of conversations that might start slowly and need encouragement. Less inventive in our interplay. Kind of… well, less interesting to be around, what with all the zombielike glazed eyes, fixed anxiously upon our glowy, beepy, demanding little objects.
* Which creeps me out, and ought to creep all of us out. What have we become?