I got a message the other day from Laura Petelle, an adjunct professor of philosophy at Illinois Central College, with an optimistic view of the effects of modern technology on writing skills and research abilities, the diametrically opposed to the ill-substantiated pessimism about cellphones destroying language and thought that Naomi Baron somehow peddled to a writer for The Economist. Says Laura:
I've been tutoring writing since I was in high school, and I think texting and instant messaging has made the job quite a bit easier! I used to get students who'd stare at a blank page, for whom writing was a chore, and translating their normal communication mode from talking to writing was like pulling teeth. Today, I get students (both in my college classroom and in the high school tutoring I do on the side) for whom writing IS a normal mode of communication.
Now instead of the twin hurdles of "I have nothing to say" and "I can't write," I just get "I have nothing to say" — and if they're willing to write, it's so much easier to work on the "nothing to say" part!
In fact, I turn I[nstant]M[essag]ing to my advantage. I used to tell students, "Explain your thesis to a patient friend; explaining something to someone else helps you clarify and organize your own thought." Now I tell them, "INSTANT MESSAGE your thesis to a patient friend and explain it; explaining helps you clarify and organize your own thought, AND THEN YOU CAN COPY AND PASTE IT RIGHT INTO A DOCUMENT AND USE IT AS AN OUTLINE!" (I used this technique myself quite a bit in grad school, with the result that my patient friend is appallingly well-educated on Catholic liturgical concerns.)
My students are more willing researchers, too — when a student asks a question I don't know the answer to, I say, "YOU go find out, come back and tell us all on Wednesday," and they're all savvy Internet searchers and can usually find what they want. They're accustomed to discovering for themselves, searching and sifting and sorting information. It only takes a little work to hone that skill and teach them to use it in the library as well as on Google.
Intellectual torpor, sure, but not the technology's fault, as you said. And the technology can, in so many ways, make life easier. If people would quit whining about how it isn't the 50s and everyone's grammar sucks (and they use words like sucks), and take advantage of the remarkable skills students now bring to the table on their own, that we used to have to teach them, they'd probably be happier people with happier students.
An appealing corrective to the prevailing generalized technophobic moaning which afflicts some parts of higher education. I am not at all opposed to critique of specific badly-designed products, of course; but this general chorus of wailing about how hand-held communication gadgets will wipe out research and linguistic expression and thought itself is silly. Laura Petelle refuses to go along with the general silliness. Good for her.