Mobiles and the Appropriation of Place

Now teens and twenty-somethings generally do not set a fixed time and place for a meeting. Rather, they initially agree on a general time and place (Shibuya, Saturday late afternoon), and exchange approximately 5 to 15 messages that progressively narrow in on a precise time and place, two or more points eventually converging in a coordinated dance through the urban jungle. As the meeting time nears, contact via messaging and voice becomes more concentrated, eventually culminating in face-to-face contact. —Mizuko ItoMobiles and the Appropriation of Place (Receiver)

I don’t have a mobile phone. I did purchase a pair of walkie talkies (if memory serves, Bobby, didn’t I buy them from you at the Sears in Eau Claire?) that I take on day trips to the museum and so forth, so that my wife and I can split up temporarily. Charlie Lowe’s phone was an important part of coordinating social outings with bloggers and wikiers at the CCCC conference in San Antonio. But in general, I’m not part of a social circle of people with mobile phones.

The university is full of professionals whose relatively unstructured work days mean that it’s usually possible to find someone with whom to enjoy a chatty lunch for an hour (or two, or three). And at work, I’m never far from a networked computer, and at home our social outings are visits to nearby family members or play dates.

I wonder if the mobile phone culture, which permits my students to get together without asking them to plan ahead, and permits them to back out of a social engagement at the last minute (since it is possible to let the other parties know, and therefore not make them wait around or worry needlessly) has any correlation to the difficulty some of my students have getting to my office door to sign up for an oral presentation date or to schedule an office visit, or to follow through on those plans once they are made.

When a student doesn’t show up for an appointment, I rarely mind, since I just spend that time blogging or marking a paper. The problem comes when that student asks for a make-up appointment during crunch time… I can extend my office hours, shorten everyone’s appointment times, or say “no”. As the instructor, my job is to look at the student’s overall progress, while on any given class period, a significant percentage of students are mostly focused on surviving the week.

This isn’t a “kids today!” rant… I’m just pondering how a “just in time teaching” strategy might be able to tap into the flexibility that defines the social structure of today’s youths. I can beg and plead students to make appointments with me or the writing center, and I can jump around and wave my hands warning them not to fall into the procrastination trap.

In the past, in my desire to help students avoid common traps, I’ve inundated them with too-lengthy descriptions of assignments. Some students reported feeling overwhelmed, and didn’t know where to begin… thus, when I asked if anyone had any questions, some may have felt so unsure that they just said “no” in order to escape the uncomfortable feeling that they were already falling behind and they didn’t want me to know.

I’ll have to resist the temptation to believe that, if students aren’t lining up to meet with me, then everything must be fine. I suppose the key lies in Ito’s observation that, as the two parties start to approach each other, their communication becomes more frequent and more precise.