First Year, First Virtue: Attentiveness, Technology, and First Year Writing

If I want to rile students up and get debate going, I mention Vermont State Senator John Rodger’s recent proposed bill to ban smartphones for anyone under 21, and his remark that smartphones are “just as dangerous as guns.” Student response to the debate over technology is a mixture of spirited defense and despairing acknowledgement of its harms. More and more, this debate has taken a vocational inflection for me. I think that the first-year writing course is an excellent place to begin to make students aware of, concerned by, and proactive about that which imperils their ability to thoughtfully and responsibly engage in their many callings, and especially their calling to conversations.

In Living Vocationally: The Journey of the Called Life, Paul J. Wadell and Charlie Pinches suggest that the first virtue required to begin our vocational journeys is attentiveness. Paying attention, so the argument runs, matters because “at the basis of every calling, whether a friendship, a career, or being patient with a stranger, is a summons to responsibility; however, we cannot be responsible without an accurate perception of reality, and we cannot accurately perceive reality without growing in attentiveness” (159). For Wadell and Pinches, attention is a “situating virtue” (along with humility and gratitude) because “instead of the thoughtlessness or indifference by which we turn in on ourselves and become carelessly disengaged with life, the virtue of attention forms us into persons who are fully present to life” (157). I agree that attentiveness is essential to beginning our vocational journeys. And few things are under greater assault in our culture than attentiveness.

The readings I use in the unit on technology get the most push back from students, but they also get the most disheartened acknowledgements of the truth of the arguments. Well-known essays like “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” by Nichols Carr, or Carr’s later essay “How Smartphones Hijack Our Minds,”Stop Googling. Let’s Talk” by Sherry Turkle, or “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation,” by Jean Twenge, all elicit these conflicted discussions. TedTalks like “In the Mind of a Master Procrastinator,” by Tim Urban, “How to Disagree Productively and Find Common Ground” by Julia Dhar, and a video adaptation of David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement speech, “This is Water,” also get students thinking and talking about a great source of danger to their vocations. Which is always good.

After reading Waddell and Pinches’ list of virtues required for living vocationally—attentiveness, accurate perception of reality, and not turning in on ourselves and becoming carelessly disengaged with life—I realized that the readings in my technology unit had more or less organized themselves around those themes, and that Wadell and Pinches had given me even better language to frame these readings around discussions of technology and vocation.

I begin with the difficulty of attentiveness, especially in the tedious trenches of day-to-day life. “This is water” is excellent for this. To build on this and to lend spiritual urgency to the discussion, I use the first Screwtape Letter wherein C. S. Lewis suggests that reason, argumentation, clear word choice, attentiveness, and thinking about what you’re thinking about are acts of spiritual discipline, even spiritual warfare.

To start to help students understand the danger technology presents to our cognitive habits, I usually start with “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” The gist of Carr’s argument is a neurological one, namely that the internet and the style of reading it promotes is actually changing our brains. He quotes developmental psychologist Maryanne Wolf:

“We are not only what we read . . . We are how we read.” Wolf worries that a style of reading promoted by the Net, a style that puts ‘efficiency’ and ‘immediacy’ above all else, may be weakening our capacity for . . . deep reading . . . . Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged . . . . Deep reading, as Maryanne Wolf argues, is indistinguishable from deep thinking. 

Nicholas Carr, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”

This rather frightening thought is one that students often acknowledge to be the case in their own reading histories. They say things like: “I used to read all the time. And then I got a phone.”

Like Carr, many of us are concerned about the loss of inner spaces, the capacity for silence, solitude, and deep, contemplative thinking. Students, too, are troubled by this. Yet they seem resigned to the inevitable erosion of their inner lives. One student actually told me this without ever looking up from her computer while she spoke. Without the sustained concentration of deep reading and deep thinking, students will never arrive at an accurate perception of reality. These readings and this conversation start them toward that perception.

The inward turn, often dark, is addressed by texts like “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” and “Stop Googling. Let’s Talk.” Students are aware of the negative effects of social media abuse, but, here again, they often resist being typecast as a generation being destroyed by smartphones. I usually start with Twenge’s TEDtalk so we can discuss sociological arguments based on generational trends. Here is a link to it:

Students are good at finding ways that their upbringing has helped them fall through the cracks and not conform neatly to Twenge’s description. But they have a harder time gainsaying the assertion regarding smartphone prevalence coinciding with drastically increased reports of teen depression, anxiety, and suicide. Twenge is careful to point out why other factors wouldn’t account for it, and students become quiet, earnest and focused on coming up with some other variable that could account for why their generation, compared to several previous generations, is reporting these alarming trends. And this earnestness is good. They are being present to their world. I encourage them to disagree with Twenge. And I let them know that adults and professors struggle with these same things. We’re all in it together.

In “Stop Googling. Let’s Talk,” Sherry Turkle describes the loss of empathy that seems to happen when kids trade face-to-face conversations for screen-to-screen conversations. In face-to-face conversations, Turkle argues, we

learn to make eye contact, become aware of another person’s posture and tone, to comfort one another and respectfully challenge one another . . . [and] . . . empathy and intimacy flourish . . . we can find these emphatic conversations today, but the trend line is clear . . . conversation is there for us to reclaim. For the failing connections of our digital world, it is the talking cure.

Sherry Turkle, “Stop Googling. Let’s Talk.”

The good news is that this very debate with students is part of that “talking cure.” Waking students up, even riling them up, is to get them talking to each other and to ourselves. And in doing this, we are helping them begin to live vocationally.  

For further reading. On attention and attentiveness, see Mindfulness in Action: A Buddhist Reflects on Vocation; Seeking Moral Clarity in a Time of Epistemic Confusion; and How Good is Your Listening Quotient? On technology, see Digital Drag and Discerning What’s Real, Letting Go and Embracing Vocation: the Practice of Fasting, A Heresy Worth Considering, and Smartphones and Vocational Reflection.


Jason Stevens is an Associate Professor of English at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, MI. He is interested in the role of the imagination, particularly the poetic imagination, in places of political violence and distressed social conditions, and is currently at work on a book about Seamus Heaney, poetry, and purpose. Click here to see other posts by Jason at Vocation Matters.

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