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We act out our cultures, plugged in or not

When it comes to personal digital satellite communications devices - what we used to call "phones" - I am not a technophobe, or even a 12:00. I own a cellphone, but use it for the strangest purpose: to talk to people.

When it comes to personal digital satellite communications devices - what we used to call "phones" - I am not a technophobe, or even a 12:00. I own a cellphone, but use it for the strangest purpose: to talk to people.

I don't take photos, I don't send text messages, I don't download from the Internet, I don't track my friends' global positions, I don't play music. I don't do any of the things most people under 30 think phones are supposed to do.

In a world of smartphones, mine scored only 900 on the SATs. It's not the phone's fault. It's how I choose to use it. This places me squarely inside the category once known as Fuddy Duddy.

And I'm OK with that. The world is not passing me by. I have simply opted out of apps. Steve Jobs would have gone broke designing products to attract customers like me. Mark Zuckerberg would have had to invent something other than Facebook if he needed me to friend him.

I don't need no steenking "likes" to feel validated. This is not a principled contrarian position on modern technology and social media. It's more of an uninterested shrug.

My wife is fond of saying, "Bad news will find you," meaning that if I'm found dead in a ditch somewhere, someone will tell her. That's how I feel about the latest must-have communications technology. I don't have to go looking for it; it will find me.

Which brings me to the ultimate Fuddy Duddy topic: What's the matter with kids today?

I have taught part time at a number of local universities (Drexel, Temple, Rutgers) for more than 30 years. Since September 2005, I have taught an 8 a.m. English 101 class every spring and fall semester at my alma mater, Montgomery County Community College, where a teacher launched my interest in journalism.

This means that, for the last eight years, I have been observing, listening to, and reading the words of 18- to 20-year-olds who are taking a required English composition course at 8 o'clock in the morning! Dante could have added a 10th circle.

The good news is that despite gloomy forecasts of declining English language skills and abbreviated text-message vocabulary, most of the students I've taught are capable writers. Getting them to talk in class is another matter.

I teach using a variation of the Socratic method. I ask questions and the students answer with silence. As a teacher this can be exhilarating, in a masochistic, slowly twisting in the wind, kind of way.

I don't give up, of course. These are bright kids. I rephrase, I use examples, I pose hypotheticals, no metaphor goes unmolested, no simile unsullied. At times, I impress myself when my desperate enthusiasm results in a brilliant and totally accidental insight.

Triumphantly, I await their response:


Not this semester, thank you. For whatever reason, my 8 a.m. English 101 students are relative chatterboxes. They will speak in five-, even six-word, answers. I only resort to dental extraction tools and dynamite every other week.

But there's a pattern I've noticed. These kids are much more comfortable talking with their fingers. They communicate constantly by text message on cellphones or iPads. In cyberspace, no one can hear you scream.

We use a textbook called Acting Out Culture by James S. Miller, which is filled with previously published essays that examine the way we behave as individuals and how we are supposed to act as members of groups in the 21st century.

What do we want to do? What are we expected to do? What is considered "normal" in 2013?

The bright-orange cover of the book shows a black sheep with earbuds listening to an iPod. What does this image say about students and sheep? What does it say about alienation and technology? What does it say about us?

We're all plugged in to our own individual playlist, and yet we all look the same. We are independent, yet part of a common flock. Some of us will be sheared. Some of us have wool no one wants.

My students are acting out culture in front of my eyes. And I suppose I am acting out culture in front of theirs.

As part of a lesson on social media, I had the class read three columns written by students in the Temple News of April 9. One of them, Chris Montgomery, admitted to an unhealthy addiction to Facebook.

"Sometimes the first thing that pops into my mind when a friend in 'meatspace' says something funny or does something cool is that Chris Montgomery should take that funny or cool thing into cyberspace and explode it all over the windshield," Montgomery wrote.

Meatspace. That would be where human beings spend face time with each other, like in a classroom or a bar. That's where I was Sunday afternoon at Dirty Frank's in Center City, having a conversation about current movies and presidents with my friend Harold Evans.

"In many ways, Barack Obama is the Jackie Robinson of presidents," I said. "He can't fight back."

"Oooh," said Harold, "I gotta tweet that right now!" He turned to walk outside, but stopped and said: "No, man, that's yours. You should write that in a column."

We act out our culture all the time. We just don't recognize it as it's happening.