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Silent Language

Mark Bauerlein claims rightly that those students who are always texting, etc., are missing something about "the silent language".  A reasonable point, one reason why we shouldn't allow the use of computers and other gadgets in a classroom, where both kinds of conversations--and verbal and non-verbal--take plac.

Categories > Education

Discussions - 6 Comments

I keep thinking someone is going to disagree with this article, though mine is a quibble, not a full-fledged quarrel. Perhaps anyone who more readily engages with written words is is going to have a problem with the "silent language" of human beings. On the other hand, maybe some of us retreat into text because of the problem of reading faces and bodies effectively.
However, the only thing the young do with their eyes more frequently than reading reading their hand-held electronic devices is watch TV or movies. Those screens are showing viewers facial responses and body language in our codified Western way and visually excluding much of distraction of normal real life encounters. In some cases, even in commercials, we see faces in close-up, reacting, and in a much closer proximity than we normally would. Could training in the reading of faces have ever been easier or more frequent?
This does not dispute that we should not allow the use of laptops and other gadgetty distractions in the classroom. Students in my classrooms who are fussing with those miss far too much and and are often the ones who fail my classes. That is not of some spite on my part. I am just observing a correlation between eyes (and probably minds) focused elsewhere and subsequent grades.

The exception for me is in teaching writing. The college has a laptop cart and I can distribute those electronic devices and watch my students in the act. We can talk about what they are doing as they do it and interact over their writing as it is in process. As I sit next to them and read what they written, too often badly, we can talk about it, interacting as student and teacher. Certainly this is an exception to the rule and is to say that there is a time and a place for everything.

Excellent article.

While on our recent camping outing, we had occasion to have dinner at an excellent restaurant near Yosemite that I always look forward to frequenting as a special treat away from my own cooking. While there, a table of firefighters (I use this term because there was, in fact, one female in the bunch) arrived, all blackened and sooty from their valiant efforts. They were not lively upon their arrival -- no doubt they were dead tired -- but as the meal began to work its magic and refresh their souls, they opened up and a splendid display of camaraderie and sparkling conversation ensued. Much of it was, as you say, non-verbal; but all of it was understood . . . even by jealous spectators. By contrast, there was another table of a "family" and I use the quotation marks advisedly. Actually, they were seated at two tables that were not joined together. One table had the "adults"--that is to say three elderly sorts and one near or mid-thirtyish sort of person. They gobbled up their meal and barely looked at one another throughout. The other table had a gaggle of young girls approaching 20--each of them, seemingly, absorbed in a deeply entertaining "conversation" with some other person or persons who were not present. They all had iPhones or BlackBerries . . . or some such device. All five of them. And they were all exercising their their thumbs much more vigorously than it had ever occurred to any of them to exercise the rest of themselves . . . excepting, perhaps, their jaws (which managed to make quick work of the meal though it is impossible to know whether it was enjoyed or appreciated). Not a word was spoken at either table other than the occasional grunt or snicker in response to a text message. As I said, they seemed to be a "family" . . . for there was a striking (and unfortunate) physical resemblance in them. But it was a sad and quiet group absorbed, as they were, in other thoughts, other places, with other people and on greener pastures somewhere in the Ether--whether they had a phone or not.

All of which is only to say that the phones, while they did seem to be a distraction and annoying when I first looked upon them were probably the only things keeping those girls connected to any kind of tolerable reality--considering the lack of animation in their group. Perhaps there is a lesson in this for professors whose students would rather take up texting than listen to the classroom conversation, such as it is? The firefighters used their phones too . . . but only to call loved ones and report on their safety in the briefest possible terms so as to get back to their meal and the shared experience with their peers. And their phone conversations were public ones--usually on speaker--and many joined in passing along their good wishes to party who was not present and expressing an inviting sentiment that showed they wished more could share in their experience. These guys were engaged in the moment and with the thoughts of their fellows. The girls, I observed, looked with several side-long glances at the lively table in the corner . . . and I don't think it was merely because the firefighters were, you will forgive the pun, "hot." I think it was because their texting was an indication of the insufferable boredom and tediousness of a life with no apparent work or purpose or fellows with which to share something higher than food. They were eating food. The firefighters were having a meal. The phone was their way to search for or to make a purpose, even if it often results in them causing trouble . . . these were girls who needed something to do. A good teacher will give them what they are looking for and will find that he hasn't got many "texters" after that. Or so it seems to me. But what do I know? Texting did not exist in the sense that it does now when I was teaching or attending classes. Of course, that did not prevent daydreaming or note passing or doodling . . . all of which are, more or less, the same thing.

Julie, that was good, but probably front page material and too good for the comments section. It is about life and how to live life well, more than about silent language, although you were reading those people.

This business of students visually gripped by their electronic devices is new to me. This summer class I taught, full of students who were taking the 6 week (cram) course because they hate English, had two girls who were attached to their laptops; smiling into them, absorbed, (email, Facebook?) even when the rest of us were chattering away about books and words. There were also two young men, busy with cell phones, texting or gaming or something. "Girlfriend" one boy admitted apologetically. "If I don't text back, she thinks I don't love her." (Yes, like passing a note, but passing it right out of the room. ) The other boy was just vacant. Even when he wasn't texting, I don't think he was really there. His writing topics were about celebrities and he turned every assignment into a reason to discuss the lives of rappers and movie stars. It was pitiful.

Bauerlein's point about disconnected students was especially poignant for me on account of those four students. One young friend just commented that Internet access was as vital to life as utilities such as electricity or water. To connect, or to disconnect, that is the question. Considering those girls you mention, "Love the one you're with" takes on a whole new meaning.

I wonder if it isn't better for those students who are so compelled to check out--no matter the quality of the conversation (because, yes, there are some that no wizard of classroom magic could ever reach)--to simply be supplied with the means by which to do it. It keeps them occupied . . . like naughty children placed in front of a television so the grown ups can have a conversation without their interference. Of course, most people gasp in horror at the suggestion because you're not supposed to do that. But he who won't admit to the sometimes usefulness of this device either lies or is probably in desperate need of a lobotomy. Sometimes it is the only way. Of course, with students--even more than your own children-- you're supposed to be patient and understanding and draw them in. You are being paid to do that. But at some point that is just horse pucky. I say, let them text (if they won't leave) and carry on without them.

Oh, yes. That's just what I do, let them watch their screens. And then they fail; though one of the girls actually scraped to passing because her written assignments were merely poor and not dismal. These are adults, albeit young ones. I am a Social Darwinian in the classroom and the unfit do not survive.

If it comes up again I will ask that the otherwise-absorbed all move to the back of the room, where the class and I can more completely ignore them. The boy, with the grace to explain did so because his chummy front-row neighbor nudged him in annoyance. His answer made us laugh and he did not offend again.

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