Teaching in the Buzz

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.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
This entry was posted in Items of the academy / learning, Meanings of life / death / social & moral stuff. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Teaching in the Buzz

  1. I’m going to tweet this immediately!


  2. Susan Stewart Rich says:

    I am 33, so not exactly “young” as you describe and not in the “thick” of college (I think I’m finally done with that phase of life). But I will say, just for the sake of it, that I detest the “Buzz.” Student’s should cut off the cord and think, converse, interact and most importantly, read, a lot (and spend much of that time highlighting, circling, referencing the dictionary, re-underlining, etc). I have a difficult time reading, but if I do it, in a disciplined manner, it pays off big time (I know this is obvious but perhaps those young’uns need a remind’n). I am convinced at this early stage in my life that any success I have achieved both professionally and (here comes the sexy part of this sentence) personally is based on my ability to read and comprehend, an ability I am constantly trying to maintain and improve.

    A fellow classmate of mine scored a 180 on the LSAT exam. For those new to the LSAT, the exam required to get into to most law schools, a 180 is a perfect score. When asked in an interview what lead to his success, he simply replied that he read a lot growing up. He majored in philosophy because he knew it would foster this important skill set. He read a lot. Sounds really simple, right? Well, getting a perfect score on the LSAT is tough-tough. I predict, from my throne on high, those distracted by the buzz will have little success remaining in the low end of the bell curve (not that success is all about that damn curve, but I digress). Why? Because you can’t read with all that buzzing in your ears. Sorry for the emotional tone here, but really? Do students really think if they “like” Nietzsche on Facebook they will learn how to think critically? I’m scared for our future!

    I feel for you Dr. Huenemann. The “buzz” that you describes seems like the opposite of what I envision when I think of the ideal setting for teaching and learning. No amount of “buzzing” will replace what it takes to learn the serious discipline of reading and writing. My prediction is that buzzers will land mediocre jobs and lead mediocre lives. Those that unplug (to the degree reasonably possible) will be happy-happy and calm.


    • Susan Stewart Rich says:

      One last comment before I implode. I remember what I learned in your Philosophy 101 course. Why? Because I read the material, did my homework and then discussed and asked questions. Years later, while in coversation with collegues and friends, I will think about Plato’s cave, Decarte’s “I think, thereore I am”, Locke’s “free will” and the idea of determinism, Kant’s categorical imperatives and my favorite, Dennet’s “brain in a jar.” I remember because I learned through disciplined reading, writing and your thoughful, well lead discussions. Bottom line – don’t change a thing. Take this email back to the “board” and beg them to do what works – please! Tell them you have a student who took your class in 1996 who remembers what you taught and there was nothing electronic about it. I beleive this ends my rant. Thank you.


  3. Huenemann says:

    Thanks for the comments, Susan. My post sounds more apocalyptic that it should, and I should have stressed that not all students are addicted to the buzz. Philosophy majors, and all serious students, seem able to disengage from it and concentrate. But more and more I run into students for whom I need tailor my explanations to no longer than 30 seconds each shot. If I go on longer than that, they begin to lose the thread. It’s kind of funny, in a way. Still, I think anyone who forces themselves to disconnect for long periods of time will find the time well spent.


  4. Jane says:

    Am I the only one reading this that remembers a favorite summer pastime of “reading”? We even made lists of the books we wanted to read during summer vacation. I grew up in a nerdy family, however. One of us even became a philosophy professor, of all things!


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