Over the course of a few months, a realization began to dawn on me. Or perhaps less a realization and more a synthesis of observations made on a daily basis. Either way, I reached a conclusion that both stunned me and didn't surprise me at all.
We spend a lot of time looking at screens.
- Here's an average Monday for me: I arrive around 8:15 and open my computer. I check email, glance at Oncourse (our learning management site), guiltily flip to Facebook, speed read two or three news articles. Then I finish prepping for class and head off for my 9:30.
- When I get back seventy-five minutes later, I open my computer, check email, glance at Oncourse, guiltily flip to Facebook, speed read two or three news articles. I comment on a student draft or two, which I do using Track Changes in Microsoft Word.
- And hey, look, it's time for lunch! I've been working hard, so to take a break while I'm mindlessly consuming my salad, I check email, glance at Oncourse, guiltily flip to Facebook, read another article or two.
- Then it's time to get back to work. Maybe comment on another draft or two, maybe read some scholarly articles, maybe beat my head against an article draft for a little while. Then the day is done. Phew. That was hard. Better check my email before I go home.
- I'd better pack my laptop and take it with me so I can spend some more time working later in the day. (In fairness, I rarely work at home, so carrying the laptop back and forth across the Ohio River is more a sacred tradition than anything else.)
This isn't a post about time management, although there are some clear issues with that. This is about how the life of the mind seems to have become the life of the screen.
When I was an undergraduate, I would occasionally see one of my favorite professors walking around campus with a book in his face. This guy really took a stroll while reading. I would probably fall and break my face, but I recall being impressed by this engagement. When I stopped by his office, his computer was sitting in a corner, sadly neglected, while he was sitting at a table reading a book or writing on student drafts. It looked great.
In my strolls down the hall, it is extremely rare to see a colleague reading a book. I mean, it is an odd sight. Do we read less? Of course not. Well maybe, but I don't have any data to support a claim like that. Instead, I will go so far as to say: We read in different environments.
Above, I broke down what a typical Monday looks like. Here are the tasks that absorb my time on a typical day:
- Reading and commenting on student drafts
- Searching for and reading scholarship for my research
- Putting together plans and documents for classes
- Conversing with colleagues dispersed all across these United States
But of course, the biggest problem with being available through multiple avenues is...we are all available through multiple avenues. We receive student emails at all hours of the day, and we feel some compulsion to answer them quickly, even if it's the next morning. Faculty members email one another from thirty feet away to conduct business that would probably be wrapped up faster face to face.
We are no longer absorbed by screens: They absorb us and we become in important ways indistinguishable from screens. They become what we are because most of our work is there. Just imagine if you teach online courses. For now, I do get out of my chair on Mondays and walk down two flights of stairs to teach my course.
When I was writing my thesis, way back in the before time, I drafted whole chapters by hand, but I imagine that has more to do with the relative expense of laptops at that time. But I remember those drafting sessions with fondness. I had spent hours with sources that I knew I would be using, condensing notes and quotations onto cramped notebook pages, so that they would be portable. Then I would go to libraries, coffee shops, wherever to escape that damned screen. And I would draft.
This past week, I have been revising a presentation that I will give at a conference in a couple of weeks. It's writing, so it's screen work. I used to draft by hand, but that stopped years ago. I wrote my entire dissertation on my laptop, most of it sitting at a tiny little desk in a TA office cubicle. But when I'm revising, I try to disconnect. I turn off the screen and mark up a printed copy. I have to get away from the screen. The screen becomes a distraction.
It's freeing to scribble new phrasings on the margins, or to mark out entire paragraphs that I know no longer have a purpose, or to draw arrows to suggest reorganization schemes. I can be bolder when I'm scribbling on paper. After all, I'm not really "rewriting" it yet. That's screen work.
I am feeling a desire to get away from the screen more often than I do. Computers, tablets, smart phones, the Internet--all of these technologies have enabled me to accomplish lots of things. This blog is the product of those technologies. But maybe it's time to remember what I can do with other writing technologies. Maybe it's time to find out if I was a better writer when I wrote entire chapters by hand. Maybe I want to be that odd guy on that long hall of offices who is filling up notebooks rather than writing one email after another.
You know, I think I'm going to leave my laptop on this side of the Ohio this weekend.