The longer I teach, the more aware I become of a growing ideological separation between myself and my students. It’s not that I’m morphing into an out-of-touch, elbow patch-wearing professor (OK, I do have elbow patches), but there is definitely a widening divide, and over time, I’ve come to realize that most of that divide is digital. Each day, I become more acutely aware that my personal relationship with digital media is shifting: information overload, fake news, and the psychological effects of social media are very real, very urgent problems for me. And yet, somehow, the majority of my students assure me that for them these concerns feel neither urgent nor real. As educators, what can we do to deal with these issues in the classroom? What do we do when we feel the effects of information overload ourselves? And, more importantly perhaps, how many of us feel somewhat traumatized by technology and social media, even as we teach our students how to recognize and respond to the rhetorical situations surrounding their use?
Over the past few months, I’ve had countless conversations with friends and colleagues about my own use of social media, which has come to fill me with a looming sense of dread. In his recent stand-up special, Annihilation, comedian Patton Oswalt discusses a similar feeling of dread when he wakes up each morning, before he’s logged into Twitter to see what the president has said or done overnight. Lately, I’m with Oswalt on this––feeling almost physically unwell when I look at my phone or laptop to see “what’s going on.” This growing awareness of my online habits recently led me to make a decision for my mental health: a decision to disengage a bit, which included deactivating my Facebook and Snapchat accounts, and spending only an allotted amount of time per day using my phone.
But I also find myself in the midst of teaching a technology-heavy communication course which requires daily classroom analysis and utilization of these same platforms and technologies. It’s possible that teaching this material is what led to my desire to disengage from social media in the first place. Or maybe it’s the endless stream of global political turmoil splashing across our screens. It seems impossible to escape trauma these days. There’s no trigger warning for life.
The classroom itself can also be a source of information overload––for instructors and students alike. In an attempt to make classes more enjoyable for both my students and myself, a few years ago I started incorporating my own research interests into the courses that I teach. As a poet and musician, it’s fairly easy for me to incorporate my interests into the composition classroom, but it took me a bit longer to figure out how to weave them into my courses in technical writing for Business majors. In these courses, I ask students to research the brands of contemporary musical artists whom they respect and admire via collaborative, semester-long projects. In keeping with Georgia Tech’s emphasis on multimodal communication, these projects require that students address the rhetorical situations of various platforms, modes, and technologies as they conduct their research. Students really take to these assignments; many have said they are their most engaging and enjoyable assignments to date. Moreover, in the process of creating the required deliverables, students not only learn to be better rhetoricians, but also gain valuable skills, learn new apps, and create extremely impressive, highly creative artifacts that can be added to their portfolios.
This is my fourth semester incorporating these types of music-based, tech-heavy projects into my technical writing classes. But every time I lesson plan or speak to students, I find myself wanting to ask, “Don’t you feel overwhelmed?” As music consumers alone, we have far too much choice when it comes to the songs and albums available to us, and with apps like Spotify and Pandora, most of these files are free to access––unlike my own adolescence, when I had between ten and twenty tapes or CDs at any given time, and only three or four of those got my attention each week. Nevertheless, that attention was rapt. These days, I get into my electric car, open the Spotify app on my phone, connect it to my car’s Bluetooth speaker, and . . . I have no idea what to listen to. There’s just too much to choose from, and too much choice feels debilitating.
This feeling of being “overwhelmed by choice” isn’t a novel concept: in a 2006 article for the Harvard Business Review, Barry Schwartz notes that for a long time, the general assumption in both business and psychology was that “the relationship between choice and well-being is straightforward: The more choices people have, the better off they are. In psychology, the benefits of choice have been tied to autonomy and control. In business . . . to the benefits of free markets.” However, Schwartz notes that “psychologists and business academics alike have largely ignored [the fact that more choice] requires increased time and effort and can lead to anxiety, regret, excessively high expectations, and self-blame if the choices don’t work out.” This sounds very similar to the feelings I experience when I spend too much time looking for new music on Spotify or, more broadly, when I spend too much time on social media and feel that despite investing several hours in that pursuit, I have in fact accomplished nothing of worth (and man, do my eyes hurt).
Though I deactivated both Facebook and Snapchat, I still maintain my Twitter and Instagram accounts––surprisingly, once I deleted the others, I began to enjoy them more than I had in the past. Perhaps having constant access to several applications was another form of information overload that I wasn’t quite ready to admit. In truth, I feel much less guilty spending time on Twitter and Instagram, since scrolling through tweets and photos is much less time intensive than scrolling through an overwhelming Facebook feed or watching all my friends’ Snap stories in succession. In other words, perhaps Twitter and Instagram require an amount of time I am comfortable sacrificing to the gods of social media.
I often ask students which apps they prefer and why, and many tell me they only use an app “until they get tired of it,” then delete it. In this way, my students seem much better equipped than I am to deal with the psychological effects of social media, at least when it comes to “deserting” a platform. It’s possible that our students, as digital natives, can more readily respond to their feelings about social media with direct action, even if they can not explicitly name the reasons for their discomfort. Or have our students been so inundated by choice that they no longer realize the sheer number of options available to them is a key motivator behind the decision to “digitally desert” something? If this is true, then it is also likely they are unable to recognize the social impact of digital desertion, whether the thing they are deserting is a song on Spotify, a conversation with a Tinder match, or an app. Because for them, there’s always another song, another Tinder match. There’s always another app.
As for me, in my moments of weakness, when I think of reactivating Facebook just to see, I remind myself of Schwartz’s article, his discussion of choices; I remind myself that too many choices can lead to feelings of “anxiety, regret, excessively high expectations, and self-blame if the choices don’t work out. When the number of available options is small, these costs are negligible, but the costs grow with the number of options. Eventually, each new option makes us feel worse off than we did before.” The types of digital literacy I teach my students, I have learned, can include digital desertion. Sometimes, our best option is to say no.
Schwartz, Barry. “More Isn’t Always Better.” Harvard Business Review, Harvard Business Publishing, 31 Jul. 2014, https://hbr.org/2006/06/more-isnt-always-better. Accessed 22 Jan. 2018.