I treasured the hours between the time I got a letter and the time I answered it. I loved ordering my thoughts and savoring the agenda. How would I arrange fact and impression to let my friend know how things were with me: describe a mood, pass on information, think out loud about a book or an event, build an atmosphere on the page larger than the facts. Writing a letter was a greater pleasure than receiving one: yet a shared excitement.
-- Vivian Gornick in The New York Times
Not too long ago, a lady in my literary circle remarked that she found the irony of Hester Prynne, protagonist in The Scarlet Letter, interesting, in that the character wore the letter “A” as a symbol of scorn -- not as a badge of honor as it would be worn today. She was more right than she realized: young people would be particularly impressed by Prynne’s ability to express herself in just one of the 160 characters she could fit into a text on her mobile phone.
The job of an English teacher, in high school or college, has become exponentially more difficult over the last 15 years as the phenomena known as texting and tweeting emerged as primary forms of written communication for most of the civilized world. New challenges abound in cultivating young writers, as professors must now override students’ instincts to ignore grammar and punctuation, use emoji in place of human descriptions, and instantly share their unfiltered thoughts without a moment’s reflection.
At the risk of sounding like a grumpy old man … kids these days.
The texting generation of today, and its partner in crime, the Facebook, Twitter and Instagram crowd, have all but eviscerated the concept of contemplative thought. Perhaps if students texted and tweeted for the sake of expediency, mindful of its intended purpose, the tolerance levels of English instructors such as myself would be higher.
Sadly, this is not the case. Generation Y, or the digitally minded techies, have adopted these new-age tools as a way of life and all but lost the concept of confronting and pondering ideas as it has been taught for centuries. Students have been seduced into believing that these immediate exchanges are the CliffsNotes for the challenge of critical thinking, when, in fact, such mediums are not even up to those humble standards.
Even for preteens, it is virtually unthinkable to be untethered to their phones, not unlike Linus and his security blanket. The angst suffered by those who are not included in Facebook’s roster is akin to losing one’s sense of self, brought on, in my opinion, not by a desperate desire for human interaction, but a cathartic need for approval. For better or -- as this writer believes -- worse, we have traded down from the precious rewards of personal pride to the hollow recognition of others.
It’s apparent by the time students reach high school -- if not before -- that these shortcuts and outlets for mass communication have compromised their mechanisms of creativity and, more importantly, analytical thought. Our pedagogic predecessors never encountered this modern dilemma, and therefore, as self-appointed champions of the English language, it is our responsibility to devise new methods to enable our students to overcome this modern-day threat to literary artfulness and flair.
The goal here, then, is to wean the students off their electronic devices, convince them of the precious time lost to the use of their cell phones and then impart to them an appreciation of the transmission of ideas through the classic use of the written word. Aside from requiring students to power down during lessons -- this should be a universal requirement in all classrooms -- here are some suggestions to open their app-filled eyes:
Permit students to use their cell phones for a new assignment: texting a friend about a recent experience, one emotional in nature. Then assign them to do it again, but this time in essay form.
Using a 15-minute time limit, have each student text and then write a Dear John letter to a partner, real or imaginary.
Give them a hypothetical do-over. Assign the students to share personal thoughts -- first via text, and then in a letter -- that they feel should have been said prior to the passing of close relatives or friends.
Set a timer for 10 minutes and have the students compose a 100- to 200-word Facebook status update about a recent enjoyable experience -- such as a vacation, night out or weekend plans -- with the intention of putting it on their walls. Rather than submitting the posts, they should hand in the updates.
After the first three assignments, the students should compare the text and essay forms and evaluate which messages served as better reflections of their feelings, which form of communication captured the essence of what they wanted to convey. For the fourth, return their unedited assignments the following week, have students examine their words with a critical eye and ask if they are comfortable posting the status updates with no changes whatsoever.
My hope is that these exercises will shine a light on the shortcomings of our modern forms of communication and demonstrate the potential of the deliberately crafted written word. We must reveal that the inherent depths of language convey a power stronger than a combination of abbreviations and smiley faces that culminates with send.
Ronald Neal Goldman is a professor of English at Touro College and University System.