I have taught in computer classrooms for as long as I can remember. I’ve taught roughly 100 composition classes and only a handful of them have been in rooms that weren’t wired.
In the early days, I lost a lot of students to the Internet. It’s not hard to tell when one scans a room to tell who is with you and who isn’t. At first it bothered me. One semester, I had a kid who sat in the front row and would randomly click his mouse fast and furious 30 or 40 times. One day I interrupted myself and asked, “student (I’ve forgotten his real name), what are you doing?”
“Oh sorry, I’m playing a game.”
“Ok. I’m going to start calling you Clicky. That’s a little distracting, Clicky,” I said.
Clicky would occasionally have clicking fits and I’d just say, “Clicky…” and he’d stop.
Another semester, I handed back argumentative essays. It was a small class, about 12 students in a 102 class. A girl sat in the back row with her laptop open every class, often times with ear buds or headphones on. Her paper earned an F. It was horrible. In fact, I wish I’d saved as an example of what not to do. She came up to me after class in tears.
“I don’t understand why I got an F. I thought I did really well on this,” she sniffled.
“Well,” I said, “you actually did everything we talked in class about NOT doing. You alienated your audience in the first sentence, it’s not well organized (three paragraphs, one a page long), it’s not supported with anything but your opinion, you chose a topic I advised against because it’s too difficult (abortion), there is not style to Works Cited page. That’s just a start.”
“Oh…” she replied.
“You know, it might help if you didn’t sit in the back row and play on your laptop the whole class,” I suggested.
“Yeah, I’m working on that,” she said.
“It’s easy,” I said. “Just shut it.”
Now, games are less common. YouTube (laptop girl distraction of choice) is also less common. They’ve been replaced with Facebook and Twitter, mostly, and while this bothers some instructors, and occasionally me, it’s something we could, as writing teachers, embrace. After all, social media is all about words. And so is my class. Maybe they can work together.
In his essay “Digital Underlife in the Networked Writing Classroom,” Derek Mueller presents some interesting ideas about the nature and purpose of students goofing around on social medias in class.
Robert Brooke, building upon sociologist Earving Goffman, defined underlife as “the activities (or information games) individuals engage in to show that their identities are different from or more complex than the identities assigned them by organizational roles.”
Underlife leads to “backchannel” communication. Backchannel communication subverts the primary communication channels. I’m all about subversion and as a community college instructor, I’m all about shaping a new identity and sloughing off the labels society gives us (see Label post from 2012). Ironically, I friend and man of the clothe is promoting a theological conference this spring called “Subverting the Norm.” In jest, I asked why it sounded familiar (becuause he has really been promoting), he replieded “not sure. Maybe because it is the goal of both of our lives?”
Maybe. There is one main problem with this digital underlife, as with all underlife and backchannel communications–it can distract from information my students need to know (ie how to cite a Facebook conversation).
But how can I use it? As much as I want to deny it, my students think of me as “the man” and I am (as a representative of the academy) the one being subverted. Friending them on Facebook or having them follow me on Twitter takes the “back” out of the “backchannel.” If open, honest expression is what we hope students gain from the self-forming activities of underlife, then we best not mess with it. In other words, the first rule of underlife if don’t talk about underlife.
Maybe how best we can use it to ask students to use it. Encourage discussion of in-class topics outside of class. For example, a few semesters ago I had the ex-wife of a youth pastor in class. Because she’d left her cheating husband (who, ironic for this discussion, cheated on her in “World of Warcraft”), had one foot in the evangelical world and one foot out.
In the course of discussing “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King, Jr., we came across the passage “But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.” I asked for reactions.
My student said, “well, I just posted it on Facebook, so we’ll see how it goes, but it rings very true to me. Here we are, almost 50 years later, and it seems to have come true.” Backchannel communication based on class discussion. Who could ask for anything more?