Has Conversation Died… or Just Changed?


flickr photo shared by Marc Wathieu under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC ) license

Sherry Turkle has come up a number of times in EC&I 832 already. With her latest book coming out on Oct. 6, 2015, she’s getting publicity by writing posts about her concerns with conversation. The newest one I encountered was specific to the classroom in higher education, the title implying the article would be a “how to” on teaching in an age of digital distraction. After offering a description of students struggling to pay attention and the anecdote of students actually coming forward, admitting to texting during class and regretting it, Turkle begins to talk about ways instructors and theorists have dealt with digital distraction. She sets hyper attention against deeper thinking, suggesting that being too caught up in being focused on something all the time keeps students (and the rest of us?) from insights they (or we?) might otherwise have.

Turkle’s concern, a clear tie-in with her book about to come out (and the cynic in me sat up and took notice of how often she has been published online lately with this book nearing release), is that students are missing out on conversations. To her a conversation happens only face-to-face and a true CONVERSATION (as she has raised the concept up to an ideal) is a deep and intimate experience. It involves wandering through ideas. It can take a number of conversations to arrive at the one spark that might generate something. To Turkle, we have lost this because of devices. Allowing technology in the classroom precludes this kind of engagement. For example, she bemoans students using Google Docs for projects, giving up “long tables, cold coffee, and late nights.”


Is this the way group work should look? flickr photo shared by Kathleen Tyler Conklin under a Creative Commons ( BY ) license

I admit, I feel the need to be an apologist for online education at this point. Reading her article was reading a dismissal of the work I do, of my understanding of the possibilities of online classes. Actually, it is a dismissal of my experience of online classes too.

But, to an extent, she is right. It is easy to lose those types of conversations these days.

I think more than technology has driven this push for hyper attention but also hyper focus. As students get older, they are taught that when it comes to education, the grades matter. Actually, grades are the only things that matter. Standardized testing, pressures of employment, the need to get good grades to succeed, get scholarships, go on to additional schooling. Failure is the end of everything. Even the classes that do encourage conversation tend to time it, put boundaries on it, because it is time to move on so everything that is on the syllabus can get covered because this course is a prerequisite for that course and the “learning” must meet the objectives. In reality, I mean the teaching must meet the objectives. There is not always time for everyone to learn.

Eventually we get told we need a paper trail. Did we take notes? Do we remember what was said? We are taught that the only things that tend to matter (i.e. be given a numerical value that impacts so much of our education) are those that are written. We need to get it in writing. We need to write that paper, show our work, detail the calculation, write the lab report. All of these things come into play when we start to talk about the end of conversations.

But where do we learn about conversation? Turkle’s despair at university students avoiding conversations assumes that they should know how to do this but don’t. Or that university is the place to learn how to have conversations. Are conversations truly dead in K-12? And what about the role of families? I admit, I learned conversation in my family setting, with parents’ friends or sitting quietly with my mom and talking through deep things. The latch-key generation didn’t end conversations where families rarely had time to sit down, so where else did kids learn this? As I got older and the internet came into my home, I found conversations there. I have had all sorts of deep conversations on the internet, including in chat rooms where the text flew by at the speed of light. Instant messaging didn’t kill deep conversation. Voice chat makes it so easy now. A friend tells me about her daughter always being connected to her friends, always on a Skype call with girls all over North America.

Maybe the issue is that there is a difficulty in conversing with adults, in bridging the generation gap? Is that what Turkle’s students are really feeling? Dismissed by her assumptions and unsure of how to communicate with her?

To be fair, in 2012 MIT made some headlines for teaching courses on being social. Apparently their students were entering the work force without any concept of how to behave in an office. But that suggests that face-to-face courses did not help these students develop the art of deep conversation either, not without a focus on conversational skills. Maybe this is something that we need to introduce back into the curriculum? This is leaving aside the fact that different forms of communication use different languages. So is there a space where conversation and deep conversation is happening that Turkle isn’t seeing because of her biases?


flickr photo shared by Nguyen Vu Hung (vuhung) under a Creative Commons ( BY ) license

And, reading her piece, I also assume she is very much an extrovert. I can feel myself cringing when she critiques a student for wanting to email an instructor rather than meet face-to-face. I am uncomfortable meeting with new authority figures (and let’s face it, instructors are presented as such as much as she wants them to be sympathetic adults). I can engage in conversations and seem fairly extroverted but there are different forms of conversations. We won’t discuss how often I run over things to say in my head. I might think well out loud but when I am not put on the spot, I tend to think through possible conversations. A lot is going on in my head as I let ideas settle and mull while I’m working on other things (like checking Facebook). That is the world of the introvert. (Check out this adorable guide to introverts if you are needing a refresher.)

So who exactly is losing conversation? Are extroverts more impacted? Are introverts finding a voice in a different mode of communication?

Genna talked about another side of this issue on her recent blog about digital distraction and engagement. Maybe being engaged and having conversations looks different for different people. (And maybe apps can’t replace an instructor’s role in that.)

What do you think? Are younger people losing the art of conversation? What about the rest of us? Do you still have deep conversations?

6 thoughts on “Has Conversation Died… or Just Changed?”

  1. What a great post! I consider myself to be somewhat of an introvert and I had never questioned how technology affects introverts vs extroverts. Now you’ve got me thinking and I can definitely see it impacted extroverts in a more negative way and introverts in a positive way. Thanks for making me think haha!

    1. Kuulin, että Saksassa ja Itävallassa maito pastöroidaan eri tavalla ja siksi siellä ei saa niin helposti maitovammaiset oireita. Myöskään oma matkaseurani, jotka ovat vakuuttuneita laktoosivammastaan, ei saanut oireita Saksassa/ Itävallassa.

  2. I find this discussion interesting. I think that there are different environments in which people manifest themselves as introverts or extroverts. Myself for example. Most people would consider me an extrovert in situations I am familiar with. However, in new environments, or environments I am acclimatizing myself too, many would consider me an introvert, at times to the point of being standoffish (ouch). The reality to me is that when creating environments for learners it is vital to ensure that there are different opportunity for strengths and subsequent feeling of belonging to flourish.

    I liked your comment: “A lot is going on in my head as I let ideas settle and mull while I’m working on other things (like checking Facebook). That is the world of the introvert.” I’m always thinking about what I want to say in our class chat discussion, but it moves so fast, and my typing skills (I am a chronic hunter and pecker) leave me feeling behind and my well ‘mulled’ comments outdated.

    I would suggest that with many of us there are points where we all feel a little out of the loop, and conversely ones where we own the loop. It just depends on the environment we are interacting in. and the pace at which we move out of our shells.

    Thanks for the post!
    Shaun Horsman

  3. And unfortunately the post I was reviewing has been locked behind a paywall now. So my apologies to anyone who went to read it and discovered that.

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