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A Video Inquiry


In the spring of 2013, I taught a course at Oregon State University called Language, Technology, and Culture, a course that in the past focused on how literacy and material technology have interacted throughout history through the lens of digital rhetoric and new media studies. For me, planning to teach this course involved seeking out new readings and real-life examples while staying true to the initial focus and scope—a process to which many can relate. However, while pursuing work that discussed the implications of mobile technology on literacy habits, I found myself somewhat dissatisfied. There was no shortage of polemics against texting language and a few popular press books about cell phones, including those addressing radiation, business tactics, privacy rights, and parenting advice. Some organizations (PEW, Educause) actively publish studies about cell phone and Internet use, while scholars in sociology, anthropology, psychology, and communication (among other fields) have been busy nuancing existing survey results. Rhetoric and composition scholars are likely to be familiar with some of these more popular texts, including those from David Crystal (2009), Naomi Baron (2010), and Sherry Turkle (2011), among others.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, my students also seemed dissatisfied with these texts, especially the more assertive claims recently made by Sherry Turkle. In response to this these frustrations, we pursued a small video documentary project, with the goal of determining answers to some of our own questions about the roles that cell phones, and especially smartphones, play in our lives. Going into the project, I had very few preconceived ideas as to which questions my students would want answered, so while I set the basic parameters for the assignment, I did not specify much aside from the premise, the general timeline, and my own expectations regarding student participation.

The result of students’ work became the video Does your Smartphone Make you Smarter? which can be viewed in its entirety below (and a transcript is available here):

A note: This project was completed without IRB approval, as it was set up as a documentary video project and not an empirical research project. Students and I talked to other undergraduates, graduate students, staff, faculty, and friends for the video, and these populations are represented in the video. This documentary also exists independently from this article and should be cited independently as well.