Back in the early 90s, one of the greatest joys of my undergrad educational experience was the opportunity to meet and interact on a deeper level with people from many different walks of life. Developing face-to-face friendships, having deep intellectual conversations, and stimulating engagement in the classroom was sought by most class members who placed a high value on the privilege and opportunity, and yes, even the excitement of human interaction. A big challenge I have noticed in the classroom as a teacher almost 30 years on, is the shifting nomadic landscape of student interaction and connectivity. Students arrive to class, get out their cell phones and spend the minutes they have before class begins scrolling through social media feeds, texting, or checking email. Nobody talks, period. This “no talking” filters into the class itself, where trying to get students to interact can leave them looking like they just arrived at the dentist for a root canal. If students struggle to build a relationship with one another, how can they learn to build a relationship with God?
In today’s “super-connected” world, studies have shown that it can be harder for young people to relate to one another face-to-face. Jean Twenge’s chapter, “In Person No More: I’m with You, but Only Virtually” shares the experience of Kevin, a 17-year-old who responds to the question of why his generation is different: “My generation has lost interest in socializing in person—they don’t have physical get-togethers, they just text together, and they can just stay at home.” This shift in the dynamics of socializing is deeply affecting the classroom experience. I notice it especially in my class “Christian Spirituality” which has as one of its student learning outcomes: “How to build and maintain a relationship with God.” Class sessions include lots of face-to-face interactions with other class members, with multiple opportunities for deep sharing and practicing spiritual disciplines such as prayer, Bible reading, fasting, and reflection. Each component is designed to enhance students’ development in their relationships with God and with one another.
Each week students practice a different spiritual discipline and submit a journal in which they reflect on their experience. One of the disciplines that I have found to be the most effective in helping students learn about the importance of personal interaction, is the discipline of spiritual friendship which is taught in multiple ways. The week prior to the class on spiritual friendship we watched a film about a Christian figure from history demonstrating how their relationships, and in particular, their friendships over the course of their life greatly enriches their experiences through meaningful face-to-face interactions. I also have students read a Christian classic detailing a lifelong friendship between two people and discuss it in small groups before submitting a written response. Students are given a handout with significant quotes from the book, along with questions and spaces for students to write answers that invite deep reflection. I move around the room to each group, encouraging closer thought and analysis of the content to get students thinking deeply about the nature of friendship and its impact.
Jean Twenge, iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood and What That Means for the Rest of Us (New York, NY: Atria Books, 2017), 69.