Generation Text

by I.A. Isherwood

I am in the midst of a serious relationship crisis. For two years now I have had a smart phone. I love the convenience of it – it makes life on the move much easier – but the convenience of it, I think, is killing my concentration. Perhaps this is dramatic or perhaps this is just me falling victim to my own domesday inclinations about modernity, but the damn black box in my pocket has a strange hold over my time and my ability to really focus on anything for longer than fifteen minutes or so without answering texts or emails.

I know I am not alone because I see everyone around me walking around, staring at their own damn phones, walking into each other, missing the world around them for the sake of checking in with all of the truly unimportant things going on in an artificial world.


First World War texting. © IWM (Q 27100)

I know – another blog post about social media and the youth  – but this was the basis of part of our conversation in my WWI class yesterday about the way we read academic texts in history. And I think this is an incredibly important conversation for humanists to have with their students (and non-humanists – just humans – to have).

I began the class by asking students how they could improve their reading habits. We put on the board some useful tips:

  • Taking notes by hand to help concentration.
  • Underlining.
  • Writing astute marginalia/engaging with the text by commenting on it.
  • Summarizing chapters in bullet points.
  • Rewarding yourself with goldfish crackers, just one, when you finish a long paragraph.

We described combining these techniques in the same way WWI tactical commanders learned to combine arms by the end of the war.

But then the conversation turned to the easy distractions of social media, our phones, and the frustrations many of my students have with their own concentration. At first sheepish to talk about their attention spans, soon the floodgates opened, not fully, but enough, and students discussed their struggles to manage their own cyber-temptations. Hiding phones across the room under stuff, putting phones in library lockers and turning the key, installing software to prevent on-line access/social media, etc. etc. etc. All admitted the distractions were great and that concentrating for longer than thirty minutes on reading something was pretty difficult. The compulsion of checking-in is just too great.

I felt every single bit of their frustration. Though not sharing the same generational convenience of social media for most of my adult life, the last five years have been difficult for me, because I have been multitasking so much that I have forgotten the benefits of single-tasking – really focussing on one objective – and forcing my critical faculties to do one thing really well before being distracted by other things. And those things are mostly insignificant.  As we were talking I felt really quite discouraged because it seemed like we all knew the wisdom of simplicity – all wanted simpler lives and more meaningful relationships with each other and more engaged learning – but all also felt the futility of trying to strip away the very heavy varnish of our own cyber-vanity.


I promise we’ll get back to WWI next week. For now, I want to post this blog, close my computer, and just go for a walk with my dog.