Conference Talk Notes: Turning Digital Natives Into Digital Citizens

Note: I’m going to be talking tomorrow morning (with my friend Amy Hauber from SLU’s Art Department) about our use of blogs and other electronic media in the classroom and with our students. I’m going to use this post to sketch out the main ideas I want to discuss. My hope is that I will be able to offer a few brief and trenchant comments that will start a conversation. I would much rather have a dialog than present a thesis, since I don’t have a thesis but only some ideas in search of a thesis. I would specifically like to invite conference participants (as well as anyone else who is interested) to use the comment function to extend the conversation.

By way of introduction and transition, I’d just note that while Amy’s goal with her students is to get her students creating digital works, my goal is to use digital technology to investigate and interrogate literary and cultural texts of various kinds. I want to share my experience and my combination of enthusiasm and disappointment with using what we now just call “technology” in the classroom. Philosophically, I am actually suspicious of technology and its particular ways of intervening in the world and determining human experience. I don’t think it is capable of solving problems by itself and at its worst it can stand as an impediment to authentic experience by creating a mediating distortion effect between the subject and the object of his or her observation, in my world usually a text. Nevertheless, here I sit with my laptop. Nevertheless, I have been blogging now for nine years — I was a very early adopter for someone in the Humanities. So I was amused to read the Booklist review of Palfrey and Gasser’s Born Digital, our text for this conference:

“Boomers may think they’re too cool and forever-young to find themselves on the wrong side of a generation gap, but technology has created a great divide. Digital Natives, the Internet Age generation, are so acclimated to cyberspace they verge on being another species. Palfrey and Gasser, lawyers who specialize in intellectual property and information issues, document the myriad ways downloading, text-messaging, Massively Multiplayer Online Games–playing, YouTube-watching youth are transforming society. Energetic, expert, and forward-looking, the authors serve as envoys between the generations, addressing issues that worry parents and educators. . .”

I may be unusual, but my experience at Clarkson suggests that I am much more at home in the digital world than ninety percent of my students. Another way of saying this is that I am more comfortable on their turf than they are on mine — you know, the dusty and fast-fading world of print. On the other hand, when it comes to applying technology to education, there is plenty of confusion as well as some obvious failures to communicate between instructors and students. Inside Higher Ed carried a story just a couple of days ago reporting on a survey suggesting that academics are pretty satisfied with their and their institutions’ use of technology, but that students feel quite differently. When faculty were polled they responded as follows:

  • 75 percent said that their institution “understands how they use or want to use technology.”
  • 67 percent are happy with their own technology professional development.
  • 74 percent said that they incorporate technology into every class or almost every class.
  • 64 percent said that they teach in what they consider to be a smart classroom.

But when students were asked, the picture looked different. According to the IHE report,

. . . when students were asked whether their professors understand technology and have integrated it into their courses, only 38 percent said Yes. Further, when students were asked about the top impediment to using technology, the top answer was “lack of faculty technology knowledge,” an answer that drew 45 percent of respondents, up from 25 percent only a year ago. And only 32 percent of students said that they believed their college was adequately preparing them to use technology in their careers.

This would seem to support  Palfrey and Gasser contention, in Born Digital, that “the educational establishment is utterly confused about what to do about the impact of technology on learning.” I will readily assent, based on my own confusion — the result of technology’s failure to work magic as I had hoped — and the confusion I’ve observed among my colleagues in the Humanities and Social Sciences, which is dramatized as lack of interest or self-deprecating invocations of Ned Ludd. Of course my hope that technology would perform magic in the classroom runs directly counter to my previously stated suspicions, but such is the seductive power of technology and technique. But know-how is not going to perform any miracles.

We could perhaps learn from Buddhism to be interested in non-doing as well as doing. Undoing is a futile undertaking. So after using blogs or wikis in virtually every class I’ve taught over thae last three or four years, I decided this term to become a technological Buddhist –if not a complete ascetic — and do without them. Instead, this term, I asked students to use online resources and incorporate the information into their essays for my classes. I want to describe very briefly four classes I teach, the first two that I’m currently in the middle of and the other two that I teach on a regular rotation but am not teaching this semester. In all these courses, along with presenting a body of knowledge, I try to bring students to an understanding of the ways in which their subjectivity (including aesthetic responses) is constrained and conditioned, not as a way of inculcating relativism or nihilism, but in an attempt to help them understand both the power and the limits of their human agency.

1) In my freshman writing course, I have asked students to use selected websites that deal with scientific subjects, as well as the New York Times archives — these students are currently writing about the future, what they think the world will look like in fifty years. I’ve asked them to research news stories on a particular current problem or issue — environment, genetics, population and demographics, education — and project it into the future. We’re reading Margret Atwood’s novel Oryx and Crake, in which she portrays a near-future North America depopulated by environmental disaster and the hubris of corporate science. I have not yet seen the final work on this assignment, so I can’t report the results; but if my experience with their earlier essays (which asked them to respond to literary texts withut reference to outside sources) is an indication, they will have a difficult time representing the views of others into their thinking — at least in so far as their thinking is revealed by their writing. Students in this course routinely impose their own views on a given text without seriously encountering the language and context of whatever they are reading.

2) In my poetry course, I have asked students to use two online resources in their written discussion of the course materials, the Oxford English Dictionary, which Clarkson offers online, and the Modern American Poetry site, which presents brief passages of criticism on a large number of poems. Perhaps unsurprisingly, only the students who show their engagement in class discussion have incorporated these materials into their writing, producing an extended discourse that develops a multi-voiced relationship with the primary text; other students, with access to the same resources and encouragement to consult them, have produced essays that don’t rise much above personal reaction.

In these two courses, currently underway, the digital natives have not convincingly demonstrated an ability to make their way around the precincts of their own city. They’re home playing video games, perhaps. As previously noted, I’m not using anything very interactive in either of these courses, though I am using Turnitin’s Grademark system to read and comment on their papers. From my perspective as a digital elder, this is a great convenience; for some of the digital youngsters, though, using the software has proved difficult. They have had technical difficulties because they do not know how to save a file in plain text, for example. I like the Grademark software enough, however, that next term I am going to expand my use of it by incorporating its peer review functions.

Now I’d like to describe two courses I’ve taught multiple times — both designed with the needs and tastes of digital natives in mind:

3) Understanding Vietnam: I teach this course as a lecture / discussion and use a great deal of media: my own images from years of working in Vietnam, documentary film, powerpoint-illustrated lectures, and dramatic films. I have also usually had a weblog for the course, on which I post my notes, additional links, and questions designed to elicit comments and discussion. [Here is one example.] The results have been mixed, with occasional bursts of real online engagement amid great spans of superficial and vague opinionating that usually focuses on trivialities. The primary block to really engagement in this course is that students seem to have been conditioned to believe that any serious disagreement, especially political disagreement, is to be avoided. I attempt to meet this issue head on by including a statement in my syllabus that explicitly lays out the need for discussion of and disagreements about controversial issues. I then discuss this on the first day of class, with further reminders as we go through the semester. They give up their agency in the service of a tepid sort of comity.

4) The Literature of American Popular Music: Another media-intensive course in which I have used a blog, with mixed success. If the digital natives in my other courses have failed to fully engage digitally out of a lack of confidence about the material and the means by which we study it (which I suspect is true), the natives in this course are so confident they are masters of the material that they are virtually incapable of seeing the ways in which their own subjectivity is conditioned by the forces of commerce, history, and mythmaking. Their own biases in the realm of popular culture are almost completely invisible to them; their own use of cultural symbols in terms of dress, music, etc. seem completely naturalized and unexceptional, even uninteresting, to them. Among other things, this course attempts to get them to see their own culture — and recent American popular culture — as strange. I ask them to do a sort of self-ethnography. To this end, I use film and audio and try to get them to reflect critically, which they find increasingly difficult as we approach nearer and nearer to their own time-period and their own mythos, though they don’t have a particularly easy time seeing John Henry or Stagolee as mythic figures at the beginning of the course either, despite all the images we look at and narratives we read and songs we hear and blog comments we write about them.

When I was first asked to participate in this conference, I misread or misheard the title as involving “digital citizens,” not “digital natives.” (In fact, I think that Palfrey and Gasser use the terms more interchangeably than I would.) In any case, as these authors note, we still don’t have a very good fix on how students’ learning is changing in the digital landscape we all now inhabit, some more comfortably than others. Realizing my mistake, I began turning over the differences between natives and citizens. That Booklist review I quoted earlier goes on to talk about “global citizens,” but that’s obviously just the rhetoric of marketing. I particularly started toying with the geographical metaphor of being native to a place and how that might differ from citizenship. I went to the OED and found that natives appear to not be as enfranchised as citizens and that the word native frequently has been used in a derogatory way.

You have to go to the third definition, second part, for the word before you find native equated with citizen. Of course, you can’t prove anything with definitions, but they are suggestive of the ways people have thought about certain important distinctions and differences. Natives inhabit a place, but citizens, to a greater or lesser degree, own it and know its history and geography. Our students are certainly digital natives and they have the tendinitis in their thumbs to prove it, but most of them are not yet citizens of the digital world. Most are not yet really literate, either in the old print world, nor in the new world of ever-shifting media landscapes.


Our bedroom window looks out over the river, though this time of year the leaves of the maple trees mostly screen our view of the water. This morning I woke around six-thirty and looked out at the trees bathed in soft morning light. The leaves are turning orange now, though there is still quite a bit of green, especially by the water. I could hear Canada geese making a racket over by the island — really a sandbar with some low bushes on it — near the bridge that carries the highway over the river a half mile down stream from us. It is fall. Tonight we built the first fire of the season in the woodstove.

At school I have been reading tenure files and writing tenure letters, teaching, meeting with two groups of independent study students, teaching my classes. I have also volunteered for a couple of departmental committees, though I am trying to be a little less involved in such work than I have been in the past and am not serving on any university-wide committees. Amazingly, with a couple of retirements this year, I will be among the most senior members of my department. I’m enjoying my teaching this term, though yesterday my poetry students sat on their hands and looked down at their books, giving every evidence of not having read the assigned work. They’ll be getting a quiz on Monday. Same as it ever was.

Later: Why give them a quiz? It is what it is. Why impose my authority that way? Doesn’t it ruin the poetry? Well, I say in reply to myself, they can’t get the poetry — the real juice of it that I love and believe they might love — if they don’t read the poems.


Clarkson held its Convocation — our opening ceremony — last night and I marched in with the rest of the faculty (to bagpipes blaring!)  wearing full academic regalia, something I never did until I came to Clarkson, where they bought my gown and hood for me when I received tenure. The speaker was James Ransom, a Clarkson grad and the elected Chief  of the Akwesasne Mohawk tribe. He structured his talk around our summer reading book for this year, Sherman Alexie’s Flight, a book I didn’t like all that much, though I’m an admirer of Alexie’s work in general. I thought the novel too didactic, which actually turned out to be appropriate for that most didactic of forms, the address to the entering class. Ransom gave a wonderfully articulate reading of the story that, incidentally, taught the literature professors in the audience a thing or two, in which he invoked the hero’s journey and the ghost dance in order to offer advice to the incoming class. Occasionally I thought he tended a little too much toward a Chamber of Commerce / Kiwanis vibe, toward what William James called “healthy-mindedness.” But then I would think that, given my own “sophisticated” and post-modern perspective.

Back in the Classroom

I’ll be returning to the classroom after eight months away on Monday and I do so with a little trepidation, if not anxiety. I was on campus Friday and saw groups of new students roaming about, excited and curious and, probably, anxious. But mostly to me they looked tall and slim and terribly young. I actually still remember my first day on campus — the first day of classes, that is. It was raining in Seattle and I was headed to an introductory anthropology class. I had scouted out the location the day before, so I knew where I was going, and it felt very important to be going there. I come from a family without much academic achievement and being on a university campus, headed to a class, felt like a success. I wonder if any of those new students flocking the campus yesterday felt that way. Some of them must. And some must be filled with dread, or boredom. When they plunk themselves down in front of me tomorrow and Tuesday, the students facing me will bring all those attitudes and more to the work I will ask them to do.

I wonder how many of them, though, will take their education personally. How many will see what they do in the classroom and with all those expensive books as something integral to their development as persons? (Not in those terms, of course.) How many will have that sense of signifigance I had on that first day of classes in Seattle back in 1970? I was just leaving the church of my parents when I went off to school, turning away from a fundamentalism that had come to seem narrow and cramped and invasive and simply mean; I had begun to find literature, especially poetry, as a scaffolding on which to build a new set of values. That’s what I mean by taking education personally. Is it really true, as I suspect, that most of my students lack this sense of personal commitment to their educations? I fear that for most of my students going to college is about earning a credential that will allow them to live what they imagine is the good life. Ironically, my college mostly prepares students to function effectively in a corporate culture, but does not really prepare them to lead in that culture (though of course a few leaders will emerge from any group). And my incoming freshmen, while they will be trained in skills that will allow them to earn a solid middle-class income, will not become nearly as successful (read: wealthy) as they imagine.

When I was a freshman at the University of Washington in 1970, I read Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. (Bad scholarship, like bad translation, has the paradoxical ability to reveal, sometimes, deep truths.) Anyway, this was long before “follow your bliss” pop psychology, but I understood that the meaning of those stories was the possibility that one might lead a meaningful life. I remember trying to explain to a girlfriend — I can recall the exact position of my hands held in front of me — that I wanted to be a “hero” in that sense, the sense of leading a life that has a shape and even a purpose. “Oh, no one can live like that anymore,” she said, laughing. Was she right? I don’t know if I’ve succeeded — perhaps we never know — but what about my students? Do they aspire to lives that have a meaningful shape?

More Books on Writing Fiction

A few more books for the beginning fiction writer — or for the poet long in the tooth who decides to give fiction writing a try — starting with a couple of good anthologies:

The Story Behind the Story — Andrea Barrett & Peter Turchi: This is a good anthology of short stories by many of the usual suspects in many of the usual modes. It includes fairly brief statements by each author describing the genesis of the story. These statements tend toward the personal rather than the technical, so, while they are interesting, they remain idiosyncratic and not terribly useful to the student, except insofar as a student needs to see what sorts of  experiences (ulikely or ordinary) can generate a story. (Judith Grossman’s brief explanation of her story, “I’m Not Through” goes right to the heart of the fiction writer’s problem, however.)

12 Short Stories and their Making — Paul Mandelbaum: This anthology is similar in conception to the Barrett & Turchi book above, except that each author is interviewed by the editor and the interview appears after the story. Because Mandelbaum is interested in technical as well as personal matters, he pushes the writers to explain their methods, which the attentive student will find useful. Because Mandelbaum asks his various authors similar kinds of questions (while allowing the interview to find its own shape), there is much more consistency of response than in The Story Behind the Story.

Narrative Design — Madison Smart Bell: This is the most theoretical and narrowly focused of the books under discussion here, with the fewest stories. Bell divides narrative structures into “linear” and “modular” and provides several examples of each, with extensive analysis that includes an almost line by line set of notes for each story. His general discussion of each story is clear and useful; personally, I get bogged down in the detail of the notes, but others may find these useful. Again speaking personally, I liked the “linear” stories Bell selected much more than the “modular” ones, with the exception of a piece by Miriam Kuznets, “Signs of Life.”

The Half-known World: On Writing Fiction — Robert Boswell: This is a collection of essays dealing with specific issues and drawing on particular works of fiction with which the reader will need to be familiar. Not really a beginner’s book, it’s probably going to be most useful to those who have read a good deal and already written some fiction. One of the most useful things Boswell emphasizes is that in literary fiction, the writer only knows the half of things, that his / her characters and plot emerge from the unknown and must remain partly mysterious even for the reader. This was a great relief to me as a beginner, since that is how I find things in my stories.

Modern Library Writer’s Workshop — Stephen Koch: This book takes the attitude of a coach, addressing specific problems the writer will face in trying to get a story on the page. It covers the basics in a friendly and direct way, referring to many works of (mostly short) fiction to illustrate its points. It also quotes many writers — too many, sometimes — on various subjects related to the craft of fiction. Along with LaPlante’s book (see my earlier post), this is a sensible and encouraging guide.