Young people live in a cloud of stimulation laced with data. Facebook, Twitter, the web generally, cell phones, iPods – let’s call them collectively “the Buzz”. The Buzz has many virtues, but one unfortunate consequence (noted often) is that many Buzzers do not have the time, and sometimes not even the capacity, to think long or hard about anything that is not connected immediately to the Buzz. I say this with great sympathy for them. They are young, and especially vulnerable to flash and change, and they shouldn’t yet know any better (unlike their older counterparts).
So it should come as no surprise that when these young people come to campus, there is a problem. For college for several centuries has been an island of intellectual repose, a way station between life at home and life on your own, a book-ended retreat into texts, ideas, and reflection. Or that’s been the legend, anyway. But now even that legend is gone. Students never leave the mainland; the Buzz keeps them firmly tethered to the same world they have been in, and the world they will continue to be in. But they enter an institution that has long seen itself as an island. College faculty insist that students take their special subjects seriously, and sometimes for the sake of disinterested inquiry, all while the students are consumed with the effort of maintaining their Buzzing connections and now extending them into new territories.
So, given their perspective, it is natural for the Buzzers to request the faculty to explain to them at some point why they should be interested in what is being taught, and how it will inform their lives. Students are young, and they are fairly tolerant of a wide range of possible explanations, but they want at least some sort of explanation that connects with their lifestyle, immersed as it is in the Buzzing cloud.
But this is precisely where the great disconnect between faculty and students is located. The world as the Buzzer finds it has “ME” squarely in the middle of it, with various links reaching outward in all directions to friends, places, favored media, celebrities, social issues, goals, and fears. But the world as a faculty member finds it has “MY SPECIALTY” in the middle, with various ties of relevance to other ideas, disciplines, theories, and information. The two sets of maps are plainly incommensurable. To repair the difference, students need to adopt a fresh, disinterested approach, or else faculty need to creatively imagine how the stuff they find so fascinating will fit into the buzzing world of their students.
What’s to be done? Well, I’m a faculty member, and a senior one at that, so it is no surprise that I think it is the students who need to give way. When I see my colleagues’ attempts to “buzzify” college material – attempts to integrate social media and apps into the coursework, with the hope that Shakespeare will be more interesting if you can friend him on Facebook – I can’t help but feel that an important battle has been lost, and flash has won out over substance. Any meaningful thing, I say, can be learned only in thoughtful, reflective retreat into one’s self: distraction is the enemy of the deep. And I know it from personal experience, that the Buzz consists entirely in distraction.