Faulkner University

Teleconditioning and the Postmodern Classroom

Conrad Phillip Kottak

The previous articles in this part have dealt with ways and styles of communication and the manipulation of meaning. This selection by Conrad Kottak looks at one medium of communication, television. Kottak notes that the repeated act of watching television has modified the cultural behavior of Americans in non- television settings. He focuses specifically on what he calls the postmodern classroom, a setting marked by a blurring and breakdown of traditional cannon,. categories, and boundaries ." In large university classes, "teleconditioned" students are likely to treat instructors like TV sets, getting up for breaks, reading, talking. and occasionally turning off the "set" by leaving class early. In response, Kottak often roves among his student "audience" with a cordless mike, the academic version of a TV talk show host.

From "Teaching in the Postmodern Classroom. General Anthropology", Copyright © by the American Anthropological Association, 1994. Reprinted by permission of the American Anthropological Association and the author.

New culture patterns related to television's penetration of tile American home have emerged since the l950s. As technology, television affects collective Behavior, as people duplicate, in many areas of their lives, habits developed while watching TV. Television content also influences mass culture because it provides widely shared common knowledge, beliefs, and expectations (Conrad Kottak, Prime-Time Society: An Anthropological Analysis of Television and Culture.)

As the millennium approaches, linkages in tile world system have both enlarged and erased old boundaries and distinctions. Arjun Appadurai[1] characterizes today's world as a "translocal" "interactive system" that is "strikingly new. Whether as refugees, migrants, tourists, pilgrims, proselytizers, laborers, business people, development agents, employees of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). politicians, soldiers, sports figures, students, reporters, or media-borne images, people travel more than ever.

Postmodernity describes our time and situation--today's world in flux, these media-saturated people on-the-move who must manage new, shifting, and multiple identities depending on place and context. In its most general sense, postmodern refers to the blurring and breakdown of established rules, standards, categories, distinctions, and boundaries.[2] In multiple guises, post-modernity has invaded the classroom, as traditional roles, boundaries, and canons of behavior are contested challenged, opened up, and broken down. The electronic mass media, especially television, have played a major role in this process. I shall draw on my own experience in showing how.

I have taught introductory anthropology at the University of Michigan since 1968. I teach the course, which enrolls 550-600 students, in a large auditorium. A microphone is necessary if the perennial instructor wants to avoid cancer of the larynx. Each fall, I stand on a platform in front of these massed undergraduates. In 13-14 weeks of lecturing I survey the sub-fields of general anthropology.

Among the first courses taken at the University of Michigan, Anthropology 101 carries social science distribution credit. It also satisfies our new diversity requirement (a course dealing with race or ethnicity). Few of the students in it plan to major in anthropology, and many will never take another. Anthropology course. For these reasons, the lecturer must work hard to keep students' attention, and my evaluations usually give me good marks for making the course interesting. In this setting students perceive a successful lecturer not simply as a teacher, but as something of an entertainer. The combination of large auditorium, huddled masses, and electronic amplification transforms this assembly from a mere class into an audience. Although these conditions have remained fairly constant since I began teaching in 1968, there have been noticeable changes in student behavior, particularly in their less formal classroom comportment. Indeed, my observation of Anthropology 101 students helped turn my attention to the influence of the electronic mass media on human behavior (as elaborated in my 1990 book Prime-Time Society: An Anthropological Analysis of Television and Culture.

My students have never known a world without TV. The tube has been as much a fixture in their homes as mom or dad. Considering how common divorce has become, the TV even outlasts the father in many homes. American kids devote 22 to 30 hours to television each week. By the end of high school, they will have spent 22,000 hours in front of the set, versus only 11,000 in the classroom.[3] Such prolonged exposure must affect their behavior in observable ways.

I've discussed the behavior modification I see in my classroom with university colleagues; many report similar observations. The point I'm making here differs from familiar pronouncements about television's effects on human behavior. Other researchers have found, or asserted links between exposure to media content (e.g., violence) and individual behavior (hyperactivity, aggression, ''acting out"). Like them, I believe that content may affect behavior. But I make a more basic claim: the very habit of watching TV has modified the behavior of Americans who have grown up with television.

Anyone who has been to a movie house (or to an annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association) lately has seen examples of TV-conditioned behavior" teleconditioning. Audience members talk, babies gurgle and cry, people file out and in, getting snacks and going to the bathroom. Students act similarly in college courses. In the "golden age" before teleconditioning (the pre-postmodern world), there was always an isolated student who did such things. What is new is a behavior pattern characteristic of a group rather than an individual. This cultural pattern is becoming more pronounced, and I think it's linked to all those hours of ''watching television.'' Stated simply, the pattern, which I call teleconditioning, is this: Television causes people to duplicate in many areas of their lives styles of behavior developed while watching television, and this fuels the culture of post-modernity.

Remembering that postmodern refers to the blurring and breakdown of established canons, categories, and boundaries, some examples of teleconditioning in the postmodern classroom are in order. Almost nothing bothers a professor more than having someone read a newspaper in class. Lecturers are understandably perturbed when a student shows more interest in a sports column or Doonesbury than in the lecture content. I don't often get newspapers in class, but one day I noticed a student sitting in the front row reading a paperback novel. Irritated by her audacity, I stopped lecturing and asked, "Why are you reading a book in my class?" Her answer: "Oh, I'm not in your class. I just came in here to read my book."

How is this wildly improbable response to be explained? Why would someone take the trouble to migrate into a lecture hall to read'? The answer, I think, is this: after years of televiewing (plus rock music), many young Americans have trouble reading unless they have background noise. Research confirms that most Americans do something else while watching television. Often they read. Even I do it. It's not unusual for me to get home, turn on the TV, sit down in a comfortable chair and go through the mail or read the newspaper.

Research on television's impact confirms that televiewing evolves through certain stages. The first stage, when sets are introduced, is rapt attention, gazes glued to the screen. Some of us can remember from the late 1940s or early 1950s sitting in front of our first TV, dumbly watching even test patterns. Later, as the novelty diminishes, viewers become less attentive. Tele-viewers in Brazil, whom I began studying systematically in 1983, had already moved past the first stage, but they were still much more attentive than Americans. A study done in Sao Paulo illustrates the contrast. The study shocked Rede Globo, Brazil's dominant network, when it revealed that half the viewers weren't paying full attention to commercials. Worried about losing advertising revenue, Rede Globo challenged the research. (American sponsors, by contrast, are so accustomed to inattention and, nowaclays1 remote control tune-outs, that it would delight them if even half the audience stayed put.)

The student who came to my class to read a novel was simply an extreme example of a culture pattern derived from exposure to the mass media. Because of her lifelong TV dependency, she had trouble reading without background noise. It didn't matter to her whether the hum came from a stereo, a TV set, or a live professor. Accustomed to machines that don't talk back, she probably was amazed I noticed her at all. My questioning may even have prompted her to check inside her set that night to see if someone real was lurking there.

Another effect of televiewing is students' increasing tendency to enter and leave classrooms at will. Of course, individual students do occasionally get sick or have a dentist's appointment. But here again I'm describing a group pattern rather than individual circumstances or idiosyncrasies. During the past few years I've regularly observed students getting up in mid-lecture, leaving the room for a few minutes, then returning. Sometimes they bring back a canned soft drink or coffee and doughnuts (which campus groups have started selling in classroom buildings).

I don't think these ambulatory students mean to be disrespectful; rather, the rules and boundaries they recognize differ from those of students past. They are transferring a home-grown pattern of informality, including snack and bathroom breaks, from family (TV) room to classroom. They perceive nothing unusual in acting the same way in front of a live speaker and fellow as they do when they watch television (A few students manage to remain seated for only 10-15 minutes, then get up and leave. They are. exhibiting a less flattering pattern. Either they have diarrhea, as one student told me he did, or they have decided to turn off the "set" or "change channels."

Nowadays, almost all Americans talk while watching TV. Talking is getting more common in the classroom, just as in the movie house, and this also illustrates television's effects on our collective behavior. Not only do my students bring food and drink to class, some lie down on the floor if they arrive too late to get a seat. I've even seen couples kissing and caressing just it few rows away. New examples of post-modern expectations and/or teleconditioning pop up all the time. In two recent semesters, students requested that I say, publicly, "happy birthday" to a friend in the class. They perceived me as a professorial analogue of Willard Scott, the NBC "Today Show" weather caster who offers birthday greetings (to people 100 and over). Long ago I put into my syllabus injunctions against reading newspapers and eating crunchy foods in class. Now I feel compelled to announce,"I don't do birthdays."

In response to all this, I've modified my lecture style, trying to enhance students' attention, interest, and, I hope, learning. In search of ways of dealing with teleconditioning and post-modernity, I subscribed to a newsletter called The Teaching Professor (Magna Publication). I've heeded some of it advice for more effective teaching" "Don't stand passively at the front of the room and lecture." "Don't let yourself be chained to a chalkboard, lectern, podium, overhead projector, or microphone." "Move around and show your students you own the entire classroom."

These lessons led me to adopt the technology of the current television age to instruct students who have been teleconditioned. Now like the TV talk-show host Phil Donahue, I use a remote microphone, which allows me to roam the lecture hall at will. A teaching assistant sits at the overhead projector in front a writes down terms and notes as I walk and talk. Unlike Phil, whose studio layout promotes his elicitation of comments from the audience members (into whose faces Donahue regularly pushes his microphone), my mobility and personal encounters (student "feedback," "participation," or "empowerment") are constrained by an auditorium that is very wide and lacks a center aisle. Unlike Phil and Oprah ('Winfrey), I can't rush up and down the center aisle asking probing questions like "What do you think of serial monogamy?" or "Should Americans adopt bifurcate collateral kinship terminology?" I have to confine my striding to the front, sides, and back of the auditorium, occasionally moving a few seats into a row) sometimes activating the Boundary Recognition and Response System of students who have failed to recognize the reciprocal implications of post-modernity). Student attention shifts between me, the peripatetic lecturer, and the front of the auditorium, where my vigilant TA scribe works at the overhead and where loudspeakers broadcast my voice. Wandering from time to time to the rear of the room, I occasionally challenge the anonymity of a somnolent or note-taking young man in the last row (where only male students sit).

Sometimes, I let a student ask a question into the microphone. Often, if I see someone about to leave during lecture, my remote mike allows me to head in that direction. I believe that my roaming, which permits me to mingle with students more than I used to, inhibits the teleconditioned behavior that used to bother me (and that increasingly perturbs my colleagues who teach the same class without circumambulating). If you can't lick it, join it.

My students grow accustomed to my style and generally pay attention, but the supply of postmodern manifestations seems endless. Thus, students "empowered" by campus email send me questions, comments, poems, stories, even pictures of MTV's Beavis and Butt-head. (The Dean of the College and the President of the University get some of the same mail.)

As Fall 1993 progressed, I started noticing a young male student who perpetually arrived late and greeted me with a friendly wave. One day he extended his hand and gave me what seemed to be a secret shake. Another day, as I began my lecture at the front of the auditorium, he and two friends walked up to me, shook hands, and sat down in the front row. My most memorable encounter with this, my most postmodern student, came one day on the University of Michigan "Diag." He approached me on a bike, stopped, stuck out his hand, and said "Gimme five, Connie, baby." Conditioned by my own teen-aged son to do that without pause, I matched him, high and low, and continued my trek across campus. If Franz Boas were alive today to witness such behavior, he would, as they say, turn over in his grave.


[1] Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Economy, Public Culture, vol. 2, no. 2, pp. 1-24, 1990.

[2] The word is taken from postmodernism a style and movement in architecture that succeeded modernism, beginning in the 1970s. Postmodern architecture rejected the rules, geometric order, and austerity of modernism. Modernist buildings were expected to have a clear and functional design. Postmodern design is messier and more playful. It draws on diversity of styles from different times and places including popular, ethnic, and western cultural forms. Postmodern is now used to describe comparable developments in music, literature, and visual art.

[3] Too much TV Times Linked to Obesity in Children, Teens, Ann Arbor News, May 6, 1985.

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