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Sync: Virtual Blackout in Basic Writing

posted: 4.8.13 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

What happens when we are so wired into technology that we experience immense discomfort if we need to power off our electronic devices? What happens when we connect the dots between our discomfort with the loss of electronic access and our perceptions that students in Basic Writing seem reluctant to take on difficult texts? This past week, the students enrolled in my Basic Writing class and I addressed these questions by participating in a one-day “virtual blackout.”

As part of the virtual blackout, all of us placed our omnipresent mobile devices into our pockets or books bags. Students who needed to be on-call for their children, family elders, or employers, set the phones on vibrate. Additionally, even as we held class in the computer lab, we did not use the computers and I used the white board instead of the smart board. We engaged in this experiment to observe whether the quality of our attention would change if we did not have to contend or consult with our electronic devices during class time, as David Levy and others have suggested. 

Initially, we were uncertain if we could adjust so easily. How, for instance, would we keep track of time, since almost all of us used mobile phones in place of wrist watches? What would we do if we needed to look up a word or a reference? Moreover, on that day we were taking on the arduous responsibility of preparing for the midterm. We had already read an excerpt “Allegory of the Cave,” from Plato’s Republic, ” a text with which generations of students have grappled. I invited students to look closely at Glaucon’s rejoinder to Socrates about the imprisoned inhabitants of the cave, “How,” remarks Glaucon, “could they see anything but the shadow if they were never allowed to move their heads?”

For the midterm, students would synthesize the “Allegory” with Sandra Cisneros’ House on Mango Street, a novel about a young Mexican-American girl’s coming of age in Chicago. Students would need to become experts in inventing their own frames for synthesizing the connections between these two seemingly very different texts, and also to practice the difference between a simple “comparison/contrast” essay, and the more intricate process of synthesis that the midterm—and their subsequent coursework— would offer.  Added to these challenges, the students could not rely on social media for help. Because of the virtual blackout, they would need to rely on hard copies of both texts and they would need to read closely.

Yet, the increased quality of our attention was palpable in the classroom. Most of us sat together at the tables pushed together in the center of the room; a few students, needing more space, studied along the perimeter of the room at workstations with darkened and silenced computers. Students read, reread, took notes, wrote down ideas, quietly consulted with each other and with me to keep themselves on track. Soon a student arrived with a wristwatch to serve as timekeeper. Another student left briefly to track down a reference at the library. Some students, having felt the vibrating of their phones, stepped out for a moment to take calls. But there was a less frantic quality to this activity. The quiet felt soothing, and the ease of co-operation among writers offered a comforting atmosphere.

Perhaps the most significant benefit of our labor became evident in the last half-hour of class, as I transcribed the students’ synthesis research onto the whiteboard. During a previous class period, the musicians in class had developed a metaphor for explaining the composing processes for introducing and concluding an academic essay. “It’s remixing,” the musicians explained, “it’s syncing the beginning of the essay with the end of the essay.” This class period of our virtual blackout, the students expanded on that metaphor to define synthesis. “Synthesis is synchronization,” they suggested, deliberating offering the longer term for syncing, “When you synthesize, you synchronize the ideas from two different works and link the ideas together.” Indeed, the students synced the texts at the point of miscommunication, prejudice, and stagnation— of the prisoners of the cave and characters in Mango Street across differences of class, race, and gender.  If they concentrated too much on those differences, the characters in the book became as stuck as prisoners “never allowed to move their heads,” to experience another way of life.

By that time, the only remaining empty space on the whiteboard was at the very top and I could not reach high enough to continue writing. In an era of smart boards, I had forgotten about my short reach—but had not forgotten how to accommodate it. As in the days before smart classrooms, I requested that a tall student (all of the students in class were taller than I am) to take my place as transcriber. The new transcriber finished filling the board with notes and the class period ended.

Whiteboard Triptych: Excerpt from classroom white board on our day of virtual blackout, 4/2/13: our experiment with syncing “Allegory of the Cave” with House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros.

After the official end of the class period, nearly everyone pulled out their phones, and several students turned on the computers in the lab classroom to complete homework. My phone, which I thought I had silenced, began to scream out a friend’s familiar ring tone. As I ruefully turned down the volume, I felt a deep joy and relief. We had proven to ourselves that life in virtual blackout could help us to focus more deeply on the tasks immediately at hand. We could leave the cave, and also could return as needed, calmer and perhaps wiser, for having moved our heads away from the shadow.

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