By Deborah Kelly Kloepfer
Having taught college writing for decades, I have become aware of a disturbing trend obvious in my recent classes of freshmen, who are pathologically attached to their cellphones. Their lives are defined by 3-by-5-inch screens displaying photos and memes and text messages fraught with abbreviations, acronyms, misspellings and emoji, a grammatically challenged system of fragments and hieroglyphs. These communications, apparently, require constant monitoring; failure to respond immediately to a text, I am told, carries grave social consequences.
This hypervigilance has brought with it multiple consequences. One great cost is the death of daydreaming, the forgotten pleasures of woolgathering. I never see a student just sitting, thinking; nature abhors a vacuum, they say, and so evidently do my college freshmen.
Another consequence, more relevant to my pedagogical concerns, is a drastic reduction in time spent reading. What’s “Romeo and Juliet” compared to, say, “Will i C U L8R? LMK.” Recently, when I assigned an essay requiring “references to the text,” a student quoted several messages she had received on her phone, noting in the margin, “These don’t really make much sense here, but you said to use texts.”
Bueller? Bueller? Anyone?
As Dave Barry used to say, “I am not making this up.”
Since my students don’t read much, there are many words they have heard but have never seen in print. One of my daughters used to call “leftovers,” for example, “slept-overs,” perhaps because uneaten dinner “slept over” in the fridge; we found her twist on the word charming, of course, and use it to this day.
Such locutions are less charming at 18 than they are at 4, however. A college student writing about how his grandfather died of a “hard attract” or discussing “the preverbal straw that broke the camel’s back” or confessing that he was in “a world win of pain” stops me in my tracks.
These are not spelling errors, mind you. (Spelling is a whole other issue that gives me, as a student opined, a “mind grain.”) No, I’ve come to understand that the issue here is students trying to imagine what words they have never seen on a page look like.
Many of these blunders are earnest, hatched in the effort to give advice or share observations about the world. Sex Ed, for example, “promotes safe sex, HIV testing, and ascendence.” Good to know. In this “fast paste” world, we need to remember that “marriage is a sacred joint between two people.” (Inhale.)
What has led to this linguistic car wreck? Perhaps bad schools, where “students run rancid through the halls”? Low “sefasthine”? (Close your eyes and say it out loud.)
Has this been a slow decline, or something that happened “all of a son”? Whatever the cause, it must be addressed because as we all know, “A college degree benefits a student in a world that demands exhalents.” The irony here is mind-bending.
I’m not judging these students because, I’ve learned, “we should not enter fear in other people’s business.” But then again, we should not “sugar code” the issues either. And, if you’re going to write, I say, “you minus well do it right.”
To be fair, some of what my students share is quite wise. Friends can be as close as brothers even if “they did not come out of the same whom.” Men should not put women “on a pedal stool.” Racism is a kind of “prejustice.” Don’t raise your daughter to be “a pre-Madonna.”
This is, apparently, the kind of thinking and writing that will lead the next generation forward, work that can result, one day, in their becoming – wait for it – the “valid Victorians” of their class.
Deborah Kelly Kloepfer is an adjunct professor in the English Department at SUNY Buffalo State.