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Cohn, Jenae. “Devilish Smartphones” and Students’ Online Practices. C&C, Dec. 2016. Posted 11/10/2016.

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Cohn, Jenae. “‘Devilish Smartphones’ and the ‘Stone-Cold’ Internet: Implications of the Technology Addiction Trope in College Student Digital Literacy Narratives.” Computers and Composition 42 (2016): 80-94. Web. 01 Nov. 2016.

Jenae Cohn analyzes student attitudes toward online and social-media interactions, arguing that student “skepticism about how social media impacts their relationships and literacy practices” (91) has not been adequately studied in computers and writing research (83). In general, Cohn states, composition theorists and instructors believe that online media should be included in writing curricula but have not taken into account how students themselves see their use of digital communication and literacy tools (91).

She examined 75 “digital literacy narratives” from first-year students at a large California research university with a majority Asian/Pacific Islander or White population. She found that 35 of the 75 students preferred face-to-face “embodied” interactions over digital ones while another 15 were “ambivalent” (82).

Keyword searches revealed the prevalence of the “addiction” trope when students discussed uncertainty about their online activities (82). While “addiction” was not the most common keyword (most common was “technology,” followed by “computer” and “Facebook), Cohn states that it was the most common word with a “clear affective charge” (82). Cohn details case studies of four students whose narratives about their use of social media employed the “addiction” trope (82).

Cohn explores the possibility that adults have created and spread the trope that teens are addicted to social media and notes as well that “addiction” is one of a set of powerful “popular tropes” that permeates discussions of media use (91). She argues that the adoption of this trope by the student writers reflects a true student concern rather than a effort by adults to, in the view of danah boyd, “gain control over a space that teenagers have claimed for themselves” (cited in Cohn 83).

Similarly, Cohn reviews criticism of the literacy narrative as a possible invitation to students to produce attitudes that they think mirror their teachers’ views of social media use as an interference with more serious writing (85). She contends, however, that taking the narratives “at face value” provides insights into how “myriad ideological influences” have impacted student views (85). She hopes as well that her own digital literacy narrative assignment will allow her a glimpse of how students who are presumed to be “‘digital natives’ . . . actually see themselves” (84).

In her view, her examination of these narratives suggests that the students she studied have accepted a common assumption that face-to-face interaction is inherently better than mediated communication like the kind required by social media (84). In this kind of narrative, Cohn writes, the shift to a “new technology” entails what Marita Sturken and Douglas Thomas characterize as a sense of “loss of connectivity, of intimacy, of desire, of authenticity in some way” (qtd. in Cohn 85; emphasis original). Moreover, according to Cohn, students see digital and “embodied” communication as binaries, generally rejecting the possibility of overlap (84).

Examining especially narratives that focus on cellphone use, Cohn distinguishes between two types of addiction narratives. In her view, the “distraction” narrative presents virtual communication as functioning to extract users from “real” experience, substituting less authentic relationships (88). As an example of a student’s concerns about cellphone use, Cohn presents “Lisa,” who, on a trip to London, decided that her desperation to stay connected online left her unable to remember any details of her London experience. Only after curtailing her phone use did Lisa claim to able to participate in what she saw as the “normal” life superseded by her phone use (86-87).

Cohn notes Lisa’s “clear bifurcation” (87) between her digital life and her embodied one. Recalling the trip, Lisa does not mention any use of her phone to take pictures to help her recall events. Cohn suggests that a cellphone might also have allowed a student like Lisa to share pictures with friends in an embodied social setting (87).

“Jack,” author of another “distraction” narrative, also laments the power of the phone to interfere with what he casts as “normal” life (87). Thinking he would use the phone for schoolwork, he claims that he soon found himself playing games and listening to music. Jack ultimately settles into a more nuanced view in which his inability to stay away from the phone “sham[es]” him (88) but also in which he tacitly acknowledges the usefulness of the phone for maintaining connections (89). Cohn posits that Jack is “nostalg[ic]” for a life without the rhetorical complexities imposed by digital communication; Jack insists on the importance of maintaining a sense of an embodied self not entangled with his online persona (89).

Cohn emphasizes the degree to which these two students saw themselves as completely passive before the power of their phones to distract them (88). Authors of the second kind of addiction narrative Cohn analyses, the “loner” narrative, also tend to see themselves as controlled by the technology and “pathologiz[e]” cellphone use (90) as a deviation from what they see as the normalcy of embodied life (89-90). In this kind of narrative, virtual interaction actually threatens normal existence (89). “Loner” narratives present the availability of cellphones as a temptation to “avoid face-to-face interactions” (89) and to “compensate” for “shy behavior” that is seen as “a source of shame” (90).

“Carly” sees herself as addicted to texting because she finds it emotionally easier than face-to-face interaction, while “Albert” describes himself as unable to articulate verbally in a classroom, isolating himself instead in a darkened room where he addictively communicates with strangers online (89-90). Both of these students arrive at a conclusion that virtual devices have benefits but that fellow students should seek “balance” (89). According to Cohn, they continue to endorse the view that “fluency in face-to-face interactions is more normative than fluency in online interactions” (90).

Cohn argues that writing teachers should teach critical literacy before assigning literacy narratives so that students can be more aware of how popular tropes can influence their conclusions about their literacy experiences (91). She notes that teachers should be alert to the ongoing rhetorical framing of literacy practices so that prompts can elicit more nuanced observations and attention to how different communication modes can accord with the exigencies of differing contexts (92). The article provides specific suggestions for classroom activities that can help students see both the distinctions and overlap among the different communicative practices they employ and can encourage them to value a wide range of skills (92).


Author: vanderso

I'm a recently retired associate professor of English in Southern Indiana. I've been teaching writing for twenty-five years, but I feel I have much to learn about how people really learn to write. In this blog, I'll be sharing research and thoughts and hopefully gathering information from others about the process of learning to write.

One thought on “Cohn, Jenae. “Devilish Smartphones” and Students’ Online Practices. C&C, Dec. 2016. Posted 11/10/2016.

  1. Pingback: THIS WEEK’S POST AT COLLEGE COMPOSITION WEEKLY: “Devilish Smartphones” | Virginia S. Anderson

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