“Self Destruction”: Black Student Writers in the Social Media Age

Kendra at HBCU Conference
Kendra N. Bryant, 2018 “Symposium on Teaching Composition & Rhetoric”

The following paper is the first half of a conference presentation I delivered at the 2018 “Symposium on Teaching Composition and Rhetoric at HBCUs” hosted by Howard University and Bedford St/Martin’s. 

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According to this year’s conference call for abstracts, One HBCU scholar once described managing student literacies and the technological resources afforded HBCUs as ‘trying to make a dollar out of fifteen cents.’ How might we shift the conversation on technologies and literacy at HBCUs in ways that acknowledge sound media technologies and apps as central to the education of students?”

 Well, in Samantha Blackmon’s 2007 article, “(Cyber)conspiracy Theories? African-American Students in the Computerized Writing Environment,” wherein she uses Tupac’s “trying to make a dollar out of fifteen cents” lyric to make her claim, Blackmon compares the challenges of managing student online literacies with trying to make something out of nothing.  That nothing included African American students’ outside of school access to technology and the Internet, coupled w/the HBCU’s access to technological resources, as well as Black students’ technological ability and interest—both of which were affected by the digital divide.  Since her publication ten years ago, while many HBCUs still struggle to afford in-classroom technological resources beyond the teacher’s desk computer and classroom projector, many Black students are accessing online writing technologies by way of smart phones and tablets.

As a matter of fact, students are writing w/technology much more now because of flourishing online writing communities (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr) and access to smartphones, which link them to their online accounts, than they were when Black Boy LaptopBlackmon produced her “(Cyber)conspiracy Theories.”  However, because of social media’s popularity amongst student writers, most of whom are members of the Google Generation or the Millennials, offering them writing courses and theories about how to write within those online spaces are often deemed futile.  As one of my former colleagues once exclaimed when I suggested creating a writing course that focuses on writing with social media and effectively using smart phones as a writing resource: “They don’t need no course in social media. They’re on it all the time.”

My conference presentation, which I have titled, “‘Self-Destruction’: Black Student Writers in the Social Media Age,” borrows from KRS-One’s 1987 Self Destruction single, which is a response to the violence that the hip hop community was inflicting upon themselves during that time.  In D-Nice’s verse, he raps:

It’s time to stand together in a unity
‘Cause if not then we’re soon to be
Self-destroyed, unemployed
The rap race will be lost without a trace
Or a clue / but what to do
Is stop the violence and kick the science
Down the road that we call eternity
Where knowledge is formed and you’ll learn to be
Self-sufficient, independent
To teach to each is what rap intended
But society wants to invade
So do not walk this path they laid
It’s…

Well, when I think of this gate-keeper, former colleague of mine, who quickly dismissed my suggestion, I received her behavior as a form of self-destruction. For, as Black educators, particularly in the HBCU, we are charged w/helping our Black students to navigate thru this white patriarchy—the same system that used Black Planet as a prototype to create MySpace, and has thus been developing, infiltrating, and distracting us w/social media.

You see, while this teacher claimed our students needed no course in writing with social media and using their smart phones beyond accessing their social media platforms, I was in a classroom—and often still am—where I had to tell my students to use their phones to look up words they wanted me to define for them. Often, many of them half ass Googled terms, and when I suggested they simply download a dictionary app, they looked confused (or maybe that was their “Dr. Bryant, really?” look).

While this teacher claimed our students needed no course in writing with social media and using their smart phones beyond accessing their social media platforms, I was in a classroom where students would bum rush me at the start of class to ask me had I gotten their email—which was written as a text message or tweet by the way—cause they didn’t get a response from me—although they had, but didn’t think to check their email app and/or didn’t have notifications configured on their smart phone.

While this teacher claimed our students needed no course in writing with social media and using smart phones beyond accessing their social media platforms, I was in a classroom where I asked students about their blogging practices, and the majority of them claimed they don’t blog—although they each had active accounts on various social media platforms, all of which are blogging spaces.

My point w/some of these superficial examples is that our Black writing students were not thinking about social media and smart phone use beyond their current frivolous practices. They were not thinking about how to use their social media platforms or to even create one solely for the purpose of writing themselves into a professional and/or academic online existence that would appeal to an employer’s or college admission’s ethos, logos, and pathos—the rhetorical appeals that we tell our first year writing students are the persuasive tools required for any argument they make.

But how are we writing teachers fully servicing our 21st century, technologically-laden writing students who prefer we email them at cutiepie2001@gmail.com versus their university given email addresses, which encourage their credibility, or who don’t realize the difference between Microsoft Word and Google Docs, so they can’t figure out why the name “Google docs” is printed on every page of their MLA required essay, and therefore, don’t understand why they are losing stylistic points—because, “Dr. Bryant, the computer did it.” Or what about the 21st century Google-aged student—who Googles everything, yet hasn’t been to Google Books, Google Scholars, or Google News?

Exactly how are we fully servicing our 21st century, technologically-laden writing students if we choose to not couple their traditional writing practices w/current communication technologies that are centered w/in a grand narrative that encouragesSocial Media Image our Black students to create digital footprints that seemingly mimic shuckin and jivin? (Cause after all, I do believe that social media and smart phones are two of the biggest conspiracies to distract its users from critical consciousnesses. Lately, folks be claiming “wokeness,” but we seem to be more like that sleep deprived woke, cause we up, skimmin Instagram pages of our “woke” friends in dashikis claiming #wakandaforever.)

My point is that our assumption that Google-aged learners know how to use technology and apply social media use and technological communications to the professional, academic space—that is situated w/in the white patriarchal space—because they carry smart phones and have social media accounts, is akin to expecting our senior (or more traditional professors) to move from paper gradebooks to BlackBoard or Canvas systems w/no training or any direction because, well, teachers have desk top computers—as well as MFAs and PhDs.

While I believe social media and smart phones can be a grave distraction more often than not, I do think it’s possible—necessary—to use these master’s tools, if you will, to help our Black students build their own houses alongside the jook joints they already have the wherewithal to create. In other words, if we don’t point our 21st century students in the direction to create online spaces that serve as reflections / of their academic goals and professions / then, we’re headed for self-destruction.

In the few minutes I have left, I want to share with you all a writing assignment I employ in my first year writing classrooms that invites students to use WordPress to compose an online, professional/academic self that makes them more marketable to employers and graduate school programs, while familiarizing them with the nuances of social media use and making them active contributors to current hashtag movements. Basically, I am integrating an online social media platform in the writing classroom so that 21st century students of color can practice, as Andrea Lunsford suggests, “writing in action,” beyond Black Twitter, Instagram memes, and rhetorically rich and verbose hashtags.

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Do click here for access to one of my student’s WordPress accounts. She developed it as I instructed in the ENC 1102: Writing & Rhetoric II course I taught at Florida International University, Miami. Briefly put, students were required to develop an online employment portfolio + blogging site that included posts in response to current hashtag movements.

 

Teens Carry Smartphones, But Are They Getting Smarter? A Response to My Fresh(wo)man Student

My fresh(wo)man composition students were charged with blogging reader responses to their chapter readings in Robert Atwan’s America Now text re: social media. In his first chapter, “Social Media: What Do We Gain? What Do We Lose?” authors Andrew Santella (“This Is Not About You,” 2013); Yzzy Gonzalez (“Technology Taking Over?” 2013); and Clive Thompson (“The Parent Trap: How Teens Lost the Ability to Socialize,” 2014) offer readers personal narratives and explications regarding social media’s influence/effect on its users, particularly its teenage and young adult users. Andrew Santella says social media encourages narcissistic behavior, while student writer Gonzalez illustrates her dependency to communication technologies–a dependency, says Thompson, for which parents are solely to blame. As I read through all of my student blog responses, one student (click here to read her blog, “Teens, Technology and Social Media”) posed two questions that I thought deserved an immediate response: “Are young adults the only ones active on social media?” she asked. “Why are we the only ones scrutinized when older adults have their smartphones in their hands just as much as us?” 

Well, Ms. Johnson, as a teacher who’s been in the classroom for 15 years, as an auntie who’s assisted in rearing two nieces (one who is nearing 17 years old), and as a sentient 36 year old being who longs and depends on human connection, I often scrutinize everyone’s attachment to and distraction with their communication technologies (smartphones and tablets) and social media networks (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter). I scrutinize myself. However, as is often the case when one generation gazes at another, “killin yo vibe” is easier to do because as a member of a generation who glimpsed at social media networks via Doogie Howser and Zapp & Roger, I have experienced the world without technologies that tend to distract, disengage, and dehumanize their users. In other words, you Millennial students feel just as alien to me as I probably felt to my grandmother–and I’m light weight stretching that notion because only TV and landline telephones could possibly distance me from my grandmother (although we watched “Golden Girls” and “Star Search” together, and I didn’t call my friends while I was at Grandma’s house. As a matter of fact, I don’t recall talking to anyone on Grandmother’s phone who wasn’t a family member.)

Nevertheless, I realize how student focus, creativity, and commitment to academia has dramatically shifted as communication technologies advance. While students are reading more via tweets, updates, and posts, neither they’re reading skills nor their interests have increased. Albeit, students write more with social media; however, issues in clarity, mechanics, organization and development, as well as spelling and word choices also continue to increase. Additionally, many students are challenged to focus their attention long enough to sit through a 50-minute class or read a two page essay. Nicholas Carr in “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” believes that folks aren’t as focused anymore because their brains are becoming like the communication technologies they use. As a matter of fact–and I was so exited about it–my student Brandon wrote about this very phenomenon in his blog response. (Click here to read his blog, “A Tweet A Day Keeps the Brain Cells Away.”)

Moreover, I’ve watched my 17 year old niece become the narcissist that Santella describes. With over 3000 Instagram friends, my niece finds it absolutely necessary to take a photo shoot of herself every single day. Her front yard serves as her backdrop, her mother the photographer, and her smartphone her camera. That child moves her body into at least ten poses including a fake laugh pose, the traditional peace sign pose, and what my sister has coined, “the Precious Moments” pose. I’m pretty sure if my niece received no likes on her daily postings, she would feel inferior, lonely, and unattractive. As Douglas Rushkoff writes in Program or Be Programmed, people’s connections to social media actually disconnect them from their authentic selves as well as the ability to form meaningful relationships with actual human beings. These feelings of disconnection actually encourage people to post more, tweet more, and Facebook more, because they are hungry for a sense of belonging. Look at me! Look at me! Look at me! Cause when you (followers) like my posts, it secures my sense of self. yiKes!

I’m just like my niece, however. Well, not just like. Since my smartphone purchase many years ago, I, too, carry my phone in hand and use it to check (at least 20 times a day) all of my social networks. Like Gonzalez writes in her essay, my phone is my alarm clock; it rests under my pillow. I take it with me into the bathroom where I enjoy my morning shit and check my work emails and Facebook messages, which I never have at 6 a.m. Then, I power up my tablet (I’m lying. It stays on.) and blast my gospel music playlist while I shower and get dressed. I don’t have time for a photo shoot in the morning, however. But occasionally, I’ll post a morning Facebook status while en route to work. Then throughout the day, when I am not teaching or conferencing with students, I, too, take hold of my smartphone and fish for likes re: my quotes, inquiries, and latest painting and/or outfit. I think I’m humorous, engaging, and creative, so the more likes I receive, of course my ego expands, and I feel like the Queen of Zemunda. Look at me! So yes, Ms. Johnson, I also engage in narcissistic behaviors. However, unlike my niece and the many young people her age (and even some of my own peers), I can live–happily and successfully–without social media networks and without a smartphone. And I believe THAT ability and experience conjure the scrutiny that young people receive re: their attachments to computer technologies and social media networks.

Of course, technology is AWEsome and beneficial to our lives. I can’t imagine having to have used a typewriter to type my 200 page dissertation, and I thank God I didn’t have to use quill pens and oil lamps. Shit, I can barely stand teaching in a classroom void of an overhead projector, document camera, and white board. So, I get it. Being born in an era where one has access to communication technologies that make life a virtual walk in the park is a privilege, seemingly a birth right. I get it. I’m completely at awe with myself for locating books via a library’s card catalogue, and for recording songs off radio stations and movies off HBO, and for retrieving lyrics from WordUp magazine–or by simply pausing and transcribing, pausing and transcribing, pausing and transcribing–by hand–lyrics from the mix tape I made. Yes, communications technologies are absolutely convenient. Long gone the days of retrieving the newspaper from the front yard in order to get the TV guide where I rummaged TV listings that are now made available through a simple guide button on my remote control. Goodbye clunky phone books, dictionaries, encyclopedias, almanacs, and thesauri. Farewell dusty chalkboard, germy payphone, and tattered address book. Smartphone applications are heaven sent. I feel like Jesus built a fence all around me when techies created apps like maps, flixster, shazam, webmd, turboscan, 1password, checkplease, aroundme, and wordbook. They have contributed to my increased proficiency in various areas, especially those grounded in mathematics. However, because my childhood and teenage experiences were void of such computer technologies, I have the know how to do what too many of my students claim they cannot or are not inspired to do.

I read books, for fun. I read seven novels this summer, and yes, doing so required me to put down my phone. (However, it didn’t stop me from tweeting and posting author quotes.) Nonetheless, I read, which meant, I spent a lot of time alone, in deep thought, inside a focused attention where I could explore myself and others. I also know how to research and find what I need without an app. I don’t need a machine to teach me how to think and problem solve. Before I ask Google (or even Siri) for a potato souffle recipe, or before I got to webmd for diabetic symptoms, I call my mother and retrieve her recipe, our family history. I also still write and mail letters versus solely sending emails and text messages. I shuffle through, purchase, and send greeting cards versus sifting through millions of giphs and memes. I give people my undivided attention when I’m in their company–during dinner, in school, while walking. In other words, I am present to real life situations that allow me to remain in touch with myself and other actual beings. So, does my concern for student awareness make me (or any of my peers, mothers and grandmothers born before the 1980s) a “scrutinizing” member of a seasoned generation who ridicules a current generation’s behaviors and innovations just because I think the ideas and behaviors to which I am accustomed are “right” or better? And really, if scrutinizing encourages self-reflection, is scrutiny insulting or debasing? (Shakes head.) Naw.

What I do believe, however, is that computer technologies and social media are just as distracting and disabling as they are connecting and inviting. Therefore, millennial students (or any person, really) who struggle with identity, who have not had to “troubleshoot” life, who don’t realize who they are, what they’re made of, or to whom they belong–these millennials, who don’t know what genius they carry–get carried away with computer technologies and social media networks. Alas, many of them don’t even realize their virtual walk in the park is actually costing them their true inheritance. And so, older folks like me, who have engaged in the aforementioned activities that my students claim happened “back in the day,” are in a better position to exercise patience, focus, compassion, understanding, problem solving, creativity, inclusion, and critical thinking–all of which help people to understand themselves in relationship to others.The ability and absolute beauty in knowing Self becomes a practice in spirituality that encourages human beings to live as authentically and unapologetically as possible. And for sure, I am constantly practicing.

So, Ms. Johnson, while older folks are carrying their smartphones just as much as you and your peers are, I think part of the “scrutiny” you and your peers receive are grounded in the disconnected, disabled, and dehumanized behaviors many of you showcase that just don’t seem to be about a generational gap, per se. Arguably, you all will continue to be scrutinized, especially if so many of you proceed to claim, “I can’t, I can’t , I can’t,” like, “I can’t live without my phone.”