Teaching the (Not So) Tech-Savvy, or, Why My Students Wouldn't Get This Meme

Screenshot of meme featuring an elderly woman looking at computer with text Wikipedia is Down, What Do They Have Against Soap?


James Wiedner

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When I was informed as to what text we would be engaging in our introductory rhetoric classes this year, I was simultaneously heartened and shaken.  I was heartened because the subject matter of the substantive material we would be engaging was of tremendous import to everyone- as students, as individuals, as participants in the flow of e-commerce. The issues we would be examining were being addressed and discussed right now, by everyone from politicians to niche nerds with alarmist blogs.  (I was actually halfway through "The Filter Bubble" for my own interest before I found out that it would be the text I'd be working with for the next semester.  What that says about me, I care not to speculate).

Almost immediately after this moment of enthusiastic anticipation, however, I was hit with an equally powerful punch of anxiety. It occurred to me that I would be walking into a room full of students who- as much as it pained me to admit it- were a full generation younger than me.  The internet was something that had been part of the everyday lives of most of them for as long as they could remember.  They had long ago eschewed the landline at their houses for the texting, IM'ing, posting, tweeting, and probably a whole litany of other means of communication that my old ass hadn't even heard of.  No matter how much I read up on these subjects, I was going to be in front of 20 kids half my age, with twice of my knowledge on the subjects being examined.  Having been assigned a classroom with state-of-the-art technology suddenly seemed less like a chance to enhance learning, and more like a chance for me to demonstrate my comparative cluelessness as to the technological devices and subject matter we'd be engaging.

I had flashbacks of my sister and I laughing hysterically as we watched my dad try to figure out the remote control for that newfangled VCR he'd bought.  I had a flash-forward wondering what other awful surprises Karma had been waiting to pay me back with...

After much fretting, I resigned myself to the fact that there was simply no way I could hope to be as tech-savvy as a group of students who would struggle to even remember what it was like to have to use a phone line to get online.  And, given that their demographic is always the first to know about the latest video trending on YouTube or the new social networking site, any teaching examples I found on the web were going to already be so woefully dated that my students would have to stifle laughter at the luddite that was supposed to be the one imparting knowledge to them.

This is all a long-winded way of saying that I was utterly amazed at the apathy, inexperience- and (frequently) downright ignorance- that my students displayed on so many technology-based matters.  This was true both with respect to their lack of knowledge regarding the ins-and-outs of the technology that was so central to their lives, but also with respect to their ignorance and apathy regarding technology-based policies and politics that were on the tip of everyone's tongue (or so I thought).  Having been a beer-swilling undergraduate myself, their lack of interest or knowledge of larger policy-based matters didn't throw me into shock.  But the complete lack of knowledge about the technology that they were using virtually every minute of every day astounded me.  Not a single one of them had any grasp of what Wordpress was, much less how to use it.  Embedding videos in a WYSIWYG window was a new one for them.  Conducting online research was overwhelming and pointless.  Completing the most basic tasks on the course wiki was something at least half of them never did get a handle on (which I guess is a failing on my part as their instructor).

As for privacy issues, they were even more in the dark.  SOPA, personalized search results, user tracking, electronic scanning of their gmail accounts, questionable data collection policies of the phone carriers--all of this was more or less new to them.

Naturally, I've spent the past 12 weeks trying to explain the reasons behind this ostensible obliviousness.  I've arrived at the conclusion that this generation of students knows nothing about things that I consider fundamental to an understanding of the present state of technology for the simple reason that they've never had to understand.  I never had to figure out the science behind my dad's VCR remote, I just had to know how to use it.  These students don't need to know how online tracking works, they just need to know how to enter address A and address B into MapQuest on their iPhones.  As for programming languages, that sort of thing was not even on their radar.  

For every stride forward in human-computer interfaces, there is a certain amount of cognitive offloading that takes place.  Things are the way the way they are and they work the way we want them to--does it really matter how google knows to give you advertisements for overstock.com at the same time you've been emailing and gchatting with your "bros" about what sort of cologne you should wear on your date tonight in order to achieve your desired ends?

In the end, their profound lack of knowledge on these issues was gold for a rhetoric class.  They were exposed to eye-opening ideas about matters that impact them personally and profoundly.   Some found themselves content with the state affairs even after being exposed to these new ideas, others were ready to burn Mark Zuckerberg at the stake (which is especially amazing when you consider that 95% of them had no idea who Mark Zuckerberg was a couple of months ago).  There were always plenty of issues to debate, and there was (and is) an endless stream of "texts" to pay a little more attention to.  They became much more adept (in class, anyway) at watching commercials, reading articles, and listening to political pundits with a critical eye and ear.  

To the extent this is the case, I think that using "The Filter Bubble" in teaching students about the what's going on "behind the scenes" with the technologies that they take for granted left them a little more informed and a little less susceptible to blindly following the stated positions and policies of the people presently determining what our future will look like.  And if they did, indeed, walk away with (1) newfound factual knowledge regarding internet privacy,  (2) a desire to become part of the discourse at large, and (3) armed with the rhetorical and critical thinking skills to be productive voices in that discourse, then I cannot imagine a rhetoric course with more appropriate subject matter than that which we engaged this semester.


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