LOL. BRB. ROFL. JK. NP.
This is the shorthand – and sometimes cryptic – digital slang that causes English professor Dr. Scott Yarbrough to sigh in frustration.
“There’s just this moving away from any kind of scripted language into this informal chat mode,” said Yarbrough. “I think it can harm the language, but I hope it will be a phase we’re going through like late 60s slang was.”
Yarbrough can indeed hope the trend will change, but don’t bet on it. The first generation of Internet babies are coming of age and populating college classrooms across the country. These are young men and women wired and ready to learn. They are today’s college students and tomorrow’s leaders and decisionmakers.
These college students may not know who Ernest Hemingway or William Faulkner are, but if you whip out a Blackberry, with a few taps of the thumb, they could Google them and find out.
Technology is GR8, eh? That means “great” to those not hip to today’s text messaging acronyms.
The New Generation
Welcome to the generation of high-speed technology: email, blogs, text and instant messaging. Young adults are mastering the art of communication, but, according to Yarbrough, the way they’re communicating is having a negative effect on reading and writing.
“We’re in an illiterate age,” he said. “We’re so caught up in television and movies so we don’t read, it’s all short, easy articles in magazine, not serious reading. It’s at a point, if I find out they’re reading the latest potboiler, top of the charts mystery, I’d be happy that they’re reading something.
“Their grammar skills have suffered dramatically. Even in their formal papers you’ll see them [students] using way too many commas and abbreviations where they just don’t belong.”
This frustrates Yarbrough because he loved to read for, as he put it, “as long as I can remember.” He grew up in the small town of Perry, Florida, (wedged between Tallahassee and Gainesville) where his passions ran from sports to pop culture. Perry, a modest, blue collar logging community, had no bookstores or movie theatres during Yarbrough’s formative years. Circumstances made it difficult for him to feed his passions so he wore out the public library.
“As a kid I had to get special permission to check out more books than I was allowed to and to get books from the older stacks,” said Yarbrough. “They’d say, ‘Here’s the Hardy Boys,’ and I’d say, ‘I was looking for Dashiell Hammett.’ As a kid I’d read comic books and instead of just reading I’d try and figure out – at four years old – ‘What is Superman really saying here?’”
Before he was in his teens Yarbrough was already writing, adding new, alternate twists to published work. “I had a tendency to want to start re-writing stories I read that I didn’t think they went as well as they could,” he said “ … and writing my own comic book stories and science fiction and Tarzan and the like.”
Yarbrough parlayed his passion for reading and writing into a career. After earning a pair of degrees from Florida State University (1987 and 1990), he went on to complete his Ph.D. in American Literature at the University of Alabama in 1992. Now, 15 years, a variety of published fiction and nonfiction articles and stories and thousands of classroom hours later, Yarbrough has an intimate and alarming perspective on what having our collective thumbs on the world of technology can do.
The Cult of the Thumb
In 2005 the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics published a report on workplace injuries and illnesses. Did you know one-third of all reported injuries were musculoskeletal disorders – or Blackberry Thumb (a.k.a. Gamers Thumb)?
It’s an evolution Yarbrough is not surprised by at all. “We have this faith language of text messaging … the Japanese have a term for them, they call them ‘The Cult of the Thumb’ because they’re always using their cell phones and Blackberry devices to text message each other.”
The thumb has quickly become the most valuable of all digits. It’s also being used as the primary finger for teenagers, college students and today’s business leaders.
Wired magazine reported the phenomena in October 2005. One 44-year-old information technology manager in Michigan started physical therapy, which included a combination of electrical stimulation and a massage. He told the magazine, “It gets sore and tender, but I’m learning to live with it.”
Chris Claypool, a 37-year-old sales director in Idaho was so addicted to the gizmo that, when his thumb began to ache, he switched to his index finger. When his index finger starting hurting he switched to his middle finger, then his pinky and finally the tip of a pencil eraser.
“It affects my business,” said Claypool. “I can’t whack my Blackberry like I used to. It’s just too painful.”
Doctors at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in New Jersey have reported a significant upswing in thumb injuries, all related to Blackberry Thumb. Treatment for Blackberry Thumb could include wearing a splint and applying ice to the affected area. If the pain persists, doctors may opt to inject the area around the thumb with a cortisone shot. And finally, if all else fails – surgery is an option.
Yes, surgery to repair Blackberry Thumb.
A user’s sore thumb is a sore subject for Yarbrough. The technology may be the future but the effect is knocking today’s college students into a reading and writing tailspin. The question is: How, if at all, can it be reversed?
“Part of it is to not accept mediocrity,” said Yarbrough. “We have to let them know that this is what we expect from college-educated students. It’s what having an education means. Your ability to communicate well will come to define you.”
Yarbrough witnessed this Titanic shift in the late 1990s with the explosion of the Internet, when America became a “dot com” world.
The professor noticed word processing became part of the English curriculum “ … rather than having to read Nathaniel Hawthorne.” The change marked the beginning of a new generation in education, an exciting shift for students, not so much for educators.
“The problem is there’s this ongoing urge to appeal to young people, not by telling them what they need to do, but appealing to them by making all lessons something that makes them happy,” said Yarbrough. “We’re at a place and time where everyone is telling them [students] what to think and the thing they’re not willing to do is think for themselves. The only way you will do that is to develop critical reasoning skills and faculties.
“Those of us who came up through more rigorous curriculum realized the teachers who we had that were best in high school were not the ones who were the silliest but those who pushed us and challenged us.”
Yarbrough spent hours developing a PowerPoint presentation to introduce Hemingway to students. Caught up in the gadgetry of the work, he incorporated animation, photos, colorful backgrounds, an eye-catching interface. One hour later Yarbrough was done.
“It took me 50 minutes of class to get through what should have been a 15-minute introduction,” said Yarbrough later.
Only later did he realize he fell victim to the novelty of the technology. Yarbrough was putting more emphasis on the look and feel of his presentation, than in the content. “That’s a problem with education, we fall for the exciting, new conveyor rather than the content itself,” said Yarbrough. “It’s [technology] very important, but at a certain point there is a law of diminishing returns. You do the best you can, but at some level you just can’t keep up with them. It’s like trying to get your grandparents to program your VCR.
“There’s a point where students have to step up to the plate,” he continued. “It’s incumbent upon teachers to stay in touch with a boundary but after that point, the students have to understand, whether we’re using PowerPoint or text messaging, the goal is I want them to understand what The Sound and the Fury is all about.”
The PowerPoint experience was a personal teaching lesson for Yarbrough.
He has learned to moderate teaching and technology integration. His personal rule of thumb is simple: Yarbrough doesn’t teach technology, but, instead, incorporates technology tools to enhance the education and learning experience.
“I do a lot more hands-on,” Yarbrough explained. “I bring my computer in; I carry them through the research process; I explain how to cite your sources properly; I lift the hood and show them how the engine works to help them understand why and how it works. The term we use in composition is process approach as opposed to product approach.”
Still, Yarbrough has found that, in many cases, he spends more time with freshman classes educating basic skills, than development and writing. “The problem is everyday I spend pulling up the hood and show them that’s your battery, that’s your starter and this is where you put the wiper fluid is one less day I’m not spending on Toni Morrison, Herman Melville or whomever.”
The Gift of Teaching
Still, Yarbrough enjoys the new challenge of educating in the face of the distraction. The arc of the learning curve may have extended, but the passion is stronger than ever.
“What it boils down to is, I still love to read,” said Yarbrough. “I still get excited about introducing students to something they haven’t seen before or helping them read it in a way they never read it before. I can still teach something the same way I did 500 times before, but when I see the light bulb go on, the hair still stands up on the back on my neck and I get chills realizing they’ve made the connection.
“It’s not only exposing them to these great works of art that shed some light on the human condition but also we’re trying to affect their ability to think and operate in the greater world for us when they leave. I really think the more you read and the better you are at it, the better person you are. Maybe not from a moral standpoint but someone who can in engage in life in different ways.”
Those moments of engagement, the connecting point, it’s what excites Yarbrough most about teaching. “A degree in English doesn’t prepare you just to be an English teacher,” he stressed. “It really can prepare you for almost anything. When you’re educated as opposed to training you can really train yourself to do anything. I can give a model of how they may be learning how to read Faulkner, and write a research paper about him, but those lessons can be applied to a variety of real world situations.”
Dr. Scott Yarbrough’s writing has been in published in Flyway, Iron Horse Literary Review, Main Street Rag, the Clackamas Literary Review, New Orleans Review, Thirteen Stories, Apalachee Quarterly, and 42Opus. He also has published articles and nonfiction in such journals as Black Warrior Review, The Southern Literary Journal, South Atlantic Review, and The Faulkner Journal. In 2006, The South Carolina Arts Commission awarded Yarbrough a fellowship scholarship for his fictional tale Enter the Snakeboy around Midnight.