I love my cell phone and would not like to go back to a world without them. But like Hal, the bossy computer in Stanley Kubric’s great film, 2001: a Space Oddysey, these little machines are messing with our heads.
I teach first-year university students, and have noticed two new developments this year: 1) cell phones have turned malignant, and 2) the English language seems to be falling apart. Each observation deserves its own column, and this is the first of two.
Remember the embarrassing old days, when ringtone snatches of I Can’t Get No Satisfaction, or a creepy science fiction riff, or clanging church bells would interrupt the class, symphony performance, family dinner, or prayerful moment in church whenever a call came in? Those moments don’t happen so often now. Cell phone etiquette has finally settled in, and we have gotten used to silencing our bossy machines.
It is the very silence in which messages now seep through that is malignant. Students in my classroom can place their cell phones on a nearby surface and check for messages without any auditory interruption. They don’t even need an earbud any more because they communicate through text messages. There is no sign of activity other than the flicker of their eyes as they glance at their cell phones. Without moving their heads, they glance down to check messages. I tell them, “We need all of your minds engaged here,” but the messages are irresistible. They remind me of Ullyses in The Oddysey. In order to get home, he had to navigate the channel between the Sirens, and his crew lashed him to the mast to prevent him from being seduced by them. Where cell phones are concerned, the seduction is not physical but mental, and there is no way to lash my students to a mast.
It isn’t that simple. They are distracted by specific messages, but also by the POSSIBILITY that at any moment, a message might arrive. Their minds are sutured to the cell phone at all times, even if nothing is going on. Something soon might happen!
In this eternally distracted state, it was not uncommon for a student to lose track of our class activities and thus not be able to answer a question. They sometimes do not clearly draw the line between Siren and Class.
I needed to find a solution, or the class would fall apart. So at the beginning of every session I checked that there were no pending emergencies that would require them to monitor their cell phones, and with their affirmation that there was not, they were able to resist. Usually.
The problem is even more confounding. They use their cell phones to take notes, read assignments, and access the Internet for class-related activities. Not every person glued to a cell phone can be assumed to be on personal business. At the recent meeting at my university, the presenter asked the audience to turn off their cell phones before the speaker took over. When I saw a student typing furiously on his phone, I asked him to put it away. “I’m taking notes,” he said.
In one class, I asked students to read each others’ papers, and one student handed over his cell phone to his fellow student. It is difficult to read large amounts of text on a cell phone, but they are getting used to it. It would be impossible to make notes or corrections on the essay, but the cellphone manufacturers will soon integrate better editing functions.
The ubiquitous text messages are being written in a new, special language which features frequent lol’s, omg’s, btw’s, yolo’s, and wtf’s. Each person gets to make up his or her own style of punctuation and abbreviation, and there are usually no capital letters, and no more than a scaffold of a thought. Just enough to get the thought across.
Since students so often write in this playful, personalized style, they lose sight of the rules of language which we call “grammar” or “syntax.” Standard English lies buried under a pile of bits and pieces.
My second column will feature sentences taken from the last essay written by my class. You will be surprised.
Exercise: Have a discussion in class, maybe listing pros and cons on the board, of the usefulness and influence of cell phones in the classroom.
I am constantly apologizing to my students for the dumb rule that punctuation goes inside the quotation marks, “Yes, that’s what I apologize for.” This makes no sense, and no wonder everyone ignores it.
But help is on the way — a move towards logical punctuation is gaining ground, as more and more people ignore the rule and place the punctuation where it makes more sense, “Yes, they are placing it here”. Trained (in the Pavlovian sense) to use the old-fashioned rule, this still looks odd to me, but I think I will soften my classroom bloviation to allow logic to prevail.
We can do that, you know.