Multi-tasking, Connectedness and Emerging Adults

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Our opening faculty workday was so thought-provoking that I have to add a brief note for students, parents of students and faculty, or maybe just for myself. Two of our deans, both experts in the development of students, Randy Worden, Dean of Student Life, and Kevin Reimer, Dean of the School of Humanities, Religion and Social Sciences, teamed up to help us understand current generation in and rising into the university (ages 18-28) and what they and we face in the educational process.

They both emphasized that in our overly connected world (smart phones, IPods, wireless connections everywhere…) students are simultaneously connected through many channels, on multiple devices, texting and responding to multiple people at once. At the same they are studying, or trying to connect on some authentic level. But we have learned that we are not good at multi-tasking. We can only do one thing well at a time. And the multiple electronic channels, and twitter-type communication of texting and Facebook, often inhibit authentic human connection, and deeper understanding, reflection and personal and spiritual development. I was reminded of the discussions a few years ago about communications addictions.

Randy and Kevin addressed the developmental agenda of emerging adults as identity formation to become responsible and authentic adults. They gave us some ideas for how to both work with and confront this situation. They seem to me to be good suggestions for those of us who teach, for parents, for students and friends as well.

Kevin suggested a communications “fast” each day. Take off a full hour from the phone, the laptop, the IPod, the IPad, the TV, etc. Encourage ourselves (we are part of this too) and our students to break out of the trap of being so connected that we cannot be connected in a meaningful way. We can then practice a deeper engagement with our studies; we can learn to reflect on what and how we might engage our time and each other.

Randy emphasized that we must not expect our students (and sometimes ourselves) to know how to engage at a deep level when everything around them is filtered through media and much of it is superficial. We might find ways to step out of the overly connected web associations and spend time with a single person, look at them face to face, experience the world directly, learn to form relationships through more than texting sound bytes—in other words to reenter the world to learn and form relationships with depth. We think student come into college ready to be adults. We find instead that our technology and social context has inhibited certain aspects their personal development.

We as professors need to understand this new situation. A past generation was not so connected, could reflect and perhaps form relationships more easily, but had to be trained to find information and develop complexity. The new generation experiences a shallow complexity, has more information than they can assimilate, but lacks experience with reflection and deeper relationships. No wonder we are sometimes baffled by the responses we get in the classroom.

We were reminded also by other colleagues that we ought not to blame technology. I thought of the studies I have seen recently that demonstrate that on-line students report deeper engagement with course material than students in face-to-face courses. There are ways of using technology to foster deeper relationships and set up courses where it helps us engage deeply.

For now it seems like we have a new twenty-first century spiritual discipline forming, the communications fast. I started my day an hour late—didn’t check emails, did not go anywhere on the web. Of course I knew my first meeting was not until about 9 because I had looked at my calendar on my IPhone late last night.

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