Monday, September 26, 2005

Totally Connected or Comfort Food for the Mind

It’s spring break 1977, coming to the close of my first year in graduate school. I’m in the back seat of a classmate’s car. He is driving and his girlfriend is sitting along side him. We’re on I-80 headed to Denver. It’s about 2 AM and we’ve just left Nebraska and are on the Northeast plains of Colorado. There are snow drifts on the side of the road, perhaps 8 feet high. The car’s headlights beam of the drifts creating a spectacular looking dancing effect. Our fatigue contributes to wonderment of this light show. I’ve never seen anything like it, before or since.

Then, later in the summer, on another trip out west with a different friend, this time in my own car and we’re driving somewhere in Utah on our way to Zion national park. The sun has gone behind the clouds. Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” is on the stereo and it’s starting to crescendo. It reaches the climax and as if by cue the sun pops out from behind the clouds. The view is awesome. The music amplifies the magnificence.

These little memory fragments are meant to emphasize how I recall that non-work time was spent when I was a student. Much of what I did, though quite enjoyable, had elements of newness, mystery, and wonder. The music was part of it (and the Grateful Dead song “Truckin” had the emblematic expression as its tag line).

Actually, much of this sense of journey happened by watching films. Starting as a junior at Cornell, I began to watch a lot of avant-garde movies, mostly Italian and French initially. This was a way to get perspectives about things I wouldn’t get otherwise and be entertained at the same time. I developed quite a taste for it.

My first couple of years at grad school at Northwestern I didn’t own a TV and the first year in particular, I worked extremely hard on the economics. So that film habit was put on the back burner. When my classmates and I finally caught our collective breath, we started to find other outlets beside the Library for our entertainment, extra curricular education, and socializing. The Chicago Reader, a free weekly magazine in newsprint, had a film columnist, Dave Kerr, and I enjoyed reading his reviews. His tastes paralleled mine and I recall going to quite a few films at Facets Multimedia on Fullerton, which at the time was a dump but it had great movies. Often, I believe, I went to these on my own. Occasionally, there’d be an interesting film at a better theater, perhaps the Biograph, maybe the Art Institute. Then I’d go with a friend and we’d go for dinner before or afterwards. The Norris Center Union at Northwestern started to show some interesting films my second or third year and it was quite a bit more convenient.

The other big part that I recall about my social life at the time was going out for dessert. There were two places we frequented regularly. One was a place for cheesecake on Sheridan Road, across the street from Loyola. The other was a pie place in Skokie, I believe on Dempster. I had a particular friend who dropped out of the program after the first year, but whom I sill saw on a regular basis and that’s where we talked. The food enabled the conversation. I have no recollection of those conversations whatsoever, but I think they were important to me, not just time fillers but rather a way to get perspective on things.

Northwestern was the first time I lived on my own and that obviously affected me in some ways. But I think I maintained my east coast sensibilities throughout, in the sense that there was a need for there to be an intellectual aspect to the non-work time and that one needed to maintain a broad perspective on things to be considered a well educated person. Perhaps it wasn’t the east coast at all, but maybe it was coming of age in the mid ‘70s or maybe it was the particular classmates I chose to hang out with. I don’t know.

Things changed when I came to work at Illinois in 1980, imperceptibly at first, then more obviously after a while. There is now a wonderful New Art Theater in downtown Champaign and several places on campus to watch serious films, but when I arrived the situation here with respect to films was rather dreadful. And after a while I stopped going to them. Also, I now had real income, more than I knew what to do with. So I got a new stereo and big color TV. I subscribed to the New York Times, The New Republic, The New York Review of Books, and Scientific American and did manage to read much if not all of those. But there way much more of the “veg out” activity in front of the tube than there was in graduate school.

My peer assistant professors hung out as a group – beer and popcorn on Friday afternoons at “Coslows” and golf in the early weekday mornings in the summer. (It is hot here in the summer!) Some of this was just good natured fun, but some of it was venting about the department and a release from the frustration of department politics. I had always done pure waste of time activities but I think for the first time some of that was being offered up as a way to release the work related pressure. And it increasingly became the way to interact socially. Intellectual diversions I did more on my own.

Several years later, this amplified even more after getting married and having kids. I didn’t know the expression “comfort food” until I met my wife. And I didn’t understand that certain regular activities – “A Prairie Home Companion” as one example – and a taste for certain films – “When Harry Met Sally” is the quintessence here – can be based on a need to relax and to enjoy as primary rather than a need to be challenged and to grow. My wife is actually something of an outlier in her family, having earned a doctorate and taken on a university faculty position. The other sibs have done well professionally but not in an academic setting. So my perceptions about what is caused by living in the Midwest (Jello with marshmallows as a side salad, ugh) are jumbled up with different type of family background and different parts of the life cycle.

All of this is background. Let’s get down to the issue. All those kids who between classes are walking around with some plugged into or held close to their ear, either a cellphone or an mp3 player, are they bringing the world into their universe by being so connected? Or are they blocking it out? I read somewhere quite recently (tried to find the source but after 10 minutes of searching I decided getting this post out tonight was more important) about some grade school kid doing schoolwork who couldn’t imagine doing it away from the computer. She needed to be connected to her sources via Google searches. There wasn’t another alternative. But what about the kids being in half a dozen IM conversations at the same time, while they’re doing their homework, while the stereo is blasting or the TV has got some soap on, or both? Is this multiprocessing at work? Or overindulgence of the auditory and visual senses where communication and background noise become non-distinct because they seem so much alike?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. I’m of the belief that Tom Friedman’s global flattening is happening at the same time that we are becoming more and more provincial and somewhat paradoxically with all this information at our disposal, ignorance is on the rise. The possibility for connection does not in itself preclude the desire nor the capability of blocking out the rest of the world. My sense is that we are growing closer together and farther apart at the same time.

Perhaps the real difference between my generation and the Net generation is that they can have their sense of privacy wide out in the open while I need to hunker down in my office or if on the road go back to my hotel room to check email. We in educational technology need to be careful about this because as we promote student connectedness we may inadvertently encourage disengagement and alienation. Again I don’t have the citation when I need it, but I definitely recall the replicable result that many students don’t want so much technology in the classroom. They simply want to be able to have a conversation with their professor.

1 comment:

Mrs. Catton said...

I agree with much that you said. I know that despite all of the technology that I use in my 6th grade classroom, the activity that my students enjoy most and from which I get the most information about their thinking is a socratic seminar. They love to talk, to listen to their peers, and to have their peers listen to them.