Friday, May 29, 2009

She nails it

This article by by Diana Senechal: Solitude: a Flashlight under the Covers addresses one of the things that I am made uneasy by, but never quite could put into words, as concerns the brave new world of social networking.

People are never "alone." There is not the time to sit and steep in one's thoughts.

Oh, don't get me wrong - I'm not saying we are all wired into the matrix by force; those of us who want to avoid the whole mess still can. (Though for how long? I have heard rumblings of some college campuses "suggesting" their profs start Twitter accounts as a way of staying in touch with students).

But what concerns me is that like so many things, people will go into it thinking it is totally harmless, something fun, and then they find themselves trapped. Or it changes their life in ways they're not totally aware of.

In the article Senechal talks about students being "bombarded" with group work (and I will admit to one of my prejudices here: I HATED "group work" when I was a student. I hated it both because I seemed to always wind up in a group with at least one slacker who took the attitude of "Well, YOU care about a good grade, so I can not do any work and you'll pick up the slack because I know you still want an A" and also because I was often the one who was on the losing end of personal dynamics - there is an old saying, if you put three little girls in a group, two will become best friends forever so they can pick on the third? I was that third little girl.)

The other thing Senechal mentions is the sense that, just as nature abhors a vacuum, the modern classroom abhors silence. I refer to the trend dismissively as "dancing ducks and explosions" - the need to have more, better, and louder, to drag the kids' attention in, because it has (apparently) been so weakened, stunted, and shortened from television exposure - in other words, give 'em more of the same because they can't cope with anything else..

And it frustrates me - this even seeps in at the college level. I've had students ask me why I never show movies in my classes. (In Ecology? I can't think of any that would be appropriate and would actually teach something better than either going out into the field or discussing research that has been done). I regularly get complaints, especially from my non majors, that the class is "too hard" and "too boring" - mainly because I DON'T show movies, nor do I do the kind of touchy-feely, "Let's sit around and talk about how things make you FEEL" discussion.

Because it seems pointless to me to ask a student how they "feel" about stem cells when they can't really tell me what a stem cell IS.

But anyway. I know I rail too much about what I see as the rising tide of noise in modern life - the babel sounds of cell phones when you're in a grocery store or waiting in line somewhere, the need for the news to be BIGGER and LOUDER and MORE SHOCKING in order to draw eyes to the screen, the proliferation of televisions EVERYWHERE - in the grocery store, in the waiting room at the mechanic's, in the dentist's.

But solitude - periods of quiet - are necessary to getting useful work done. I have, myself, had to reconfigure my office so that when I am WORKING on something (as opposed to sitting in office hours desultorily grading quizzes) I am turned away from the computer to resist the temptation to surf. Because I know that kind of multitasking leads to bad work and having to redo things.

So I do feel a concern that maybe some folks have thrown themselves too headlong into the world of being "connected" at all times - I think it would be terribly hard to write a book, or solve a complex math problem, or compose music - if you were also sort of "on the alert," waiting for the next Twitter message to come in. (Maybe that's just me. I know I do my best work when I know I cannot be interrupted by the phone or by someone stopping by my office "just to talk." I've actually unplugged my phone and closed my office door when working on something really complicated to avoid those distractions. And I do need to be better about avoiding the temptation to surf the web when I should be working concentratedly; perhaps the reason I have four articles in various stages of not-being-ready-to-submit rather than four articles currently in press is that I spend too much time sitting in my office doing just that).

But near the end of her essay, Senechal brings up a happier note: that solitude and especially the hunger for it, does still exist. Describing the girls in a book club she leads:

"Many of the girls have special reading places: nooks and stairwells, forts made of blankets and chairs, and the great classic hideout, the place under the covers with a flashlight. Like Sara, they know how jarring it is to be interrupted when reading. They find the places where they may read without pause."

I used to sometimes, in the summer, take my book and climb up one of the trees near my house; it had an area where several branches fanned out, making a place where a person (well, a small person, like I was in those days) could sit and read. I also sometimes would sit under the (unused) dining room table in the afternoons to read.

Of course, I grew up in a household where someone reading was not likely to be disturbed, so I more commonly read stretched out on the sofa in the living room or sitting on the floor of my bedroom, but I do remember that kind of solitude, where you could read for an hour or more without having to be "in touch" with anyone else.

And I would hope that anyone who desires (or needs, but might not necessarily realize they desire) that kind of solitude - free from interruption, free from the trivial nibbles of information that daily life seems to want to throw at us - can get it.

1 comment:

Sheila O'Malley said...

I am a person who has always needed to have huge chunks of "downtime" where I am by myself. Since I was a kid I have needed that.

I try not to worry too much about what everybody else is doing (I wrot a post about "trends" recently that was kind of about that) - and take care of my own needs, whether or not they are "in" at the moment.

I am not always online. I screen all calls. My private time is sacred to me - and increasingly I have to protect it. And that's fine. I am willing to do so.