It was long before the days of COVID-19. I was teaching a class when I became suddenly aware of an intense vibration coming from the chalkboard. Looking over, I saw not one phone on the eraser holder, not two, but three, all plugged in and suckling power from the outlets beneath. The reason was obvious, on one level: my students needed to charge their phones during class. They were paying hard-earned money or taking out massive loans for their educations; surely they deserved to get some electricity along with their degrees. But on another level, I couldn’t help but be in awe of the sheer neediness of these things, occasionally bleating as they slurped power.
Perhaps the digital humanities—with their promises of collaboration, innovation, and revolution—have unfolded alongside a field far more sweeping and interpenetrating. We might call this the cellular humanities: a field of nonstudy, of not looking at the devices in our pockets and hands. The humanities are undergoing a tectonic shift as smartphones proliferate, along with all the dynamics, gestures, and habitual motions that make these things legible (if often ignored) semiotic objects in the world.
And so, the cellular humanities are precisely about that to which we are not paying attention: the ubiquity of these small computers that more and more people have, as well as a cluster of mentalities, behaviors, and attitudes that develop along with the machines. They’re about how the social fabric is changing around us rapidly, and where we feel these changes the most.
The cellular humanities pose a question for our moment: Are our phones the bane of critical thought, or might they be our latest texts to read and interpret, objects worthy of inquiry and analysis?
I came to this question because, while smartphones were obviously changing the nature of the classroom, we didn’t really know how to talk about it. Then there was a curious incident where I teach.
For our required introduction-to-writing course, I wrote a prompt for my colleagues that asked students to reflect on the single most important thing they carry around with them each day. I assumed that many students would answer “My phone.” But the interesting part of that answer would then be why. Why exactly would this machine be so important to them?
The second component of the prompt was to describe said object. So even if most students chose their phones, how would they actually describe these things? And what might their descriptions tell us about their readiness to write at the college level?
I was in for a surprise. When I started talking to other instructors about the essays, they reported a lot of students writing on jewelry, good-luck charms, backpacks, medicine, and purses. But multiple instructors also reported that they had taken it upon themselves to advise students not to write about their phones1—preempting them, as it were, from choosing, and thus thinking and writing about, this most ubiquitous thing.
Several of my colleagues had spontaneously steered students away from the topic, as if it were a taboo. Apparently phones, to borrow from Freud, were “forbidden without any apparent reason; nor does it occur to them to question this matter.”2 But why urge students of so-called critical thinking not to think about their phones?
How would we make a phone an object of humanistic inquiry? What value might we derive from reading a phone like any other found text?
When I went to my first class of the fall semester—an introduction to the discipline for new English majors—a freshman came up to me before we began and asked if I had any tape. I asked what it was for, and she said for her phone: the screen was about to fall off.
I lived with a smashed phone for a couple of years, so I could empathize. My students all nodded and commiserated with their classmate as well. We all looked for tape (no one had any) and came up with alternative suggestions: a hair tie, a rubber band, a plastic baggie—whatever would keep the phone together. Such is life in the late Anthropocene, as we salvage and maintain the tattered ligaments of progress.
What interests me is how unflappable the student was in making her request. We have all become the maintainers of these machines, nursing them along and patching them together to assure seamless connectivity. Yet here, my students were performing the same maintenance together; the whole class was acting communally toward this wounded iPhone.
What is it about writing that is assumed to be at odds with—or perhaps the antidote for—the plague of smartphones?
It was as if the humanities in their most general and generous sense were already thriving: individuals thinking across differences and creatively working together to find a solution. And it was only day one of the semester. My students were putting the public in public humanities. A classroom fixing a phone together felt strangely akin to interpreting a poem together: asking questions, venturing ideas, listening to one another.
This is the wish image, anyway. Another way to look at my class was as a serious downgrade of college-level discourse or, for that matter, community. When I visited a remedial writing course, afterward the instructor told me the purpose of the class was “really just to get them off their screens for an hour.” While he said this, he pantomimed a student madly typing on a phone.
There was a curious dynamic at work here, as two forms of communication jostled for priority: analog essay writing and the digital phantasmagoria of smartphones. But do these two phenomena really pull in radically opposite directions? Or do they merely coexist in sometimes awkward tension?
And how did this task of regulating “screen time” come to fall on the discipline of English? What is it about writing that is assumed to be at odds with—or perhaps even the antidote for—the plague of smartphones?
One of my former students recently wrote a wonderful essay on the phenomenon of being ghosted. She asked me if I could look it over before she submitted it to a well-regarded online magazine.
Let me specify: my former student texted me to ask if I’d look at her essay, and then (because I was running errands that day) I read her draft on my phone and texted back some suggestions for edits.3
I was tickled to see so many class lessons turned into a form of praxis: my former student was using the tools at hand to engage the world of letters. And we were zapping messages back and forth over our phones—getting real work done, real writing.
This brings me back to my first class of the fall 2018 semester, the course for freshman English majors, the one with the broken iPhone. A curious thing about that class was that I had far less difficulty than normal with the students being on their phones. It’s not that we banned phones or even avoided them as a subject; in fact, as we slowly read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein that semester, we talked about our smartphones more and more.
For example, students said how the novel’s characters reminded them of desperate social media personae: begging for attention, constantly (if incongruously) updating us as to their status. Robert Walton is bragging about himself again. The creature ghosts Victor. Why isn’t Margaret’s own social media feed available to the reader? Henry Clerval’s avi always looks so happy and perfect; we know what that means. And so on.
In my freshman class, the students got incredibly into reading Frankenstein with painstaking slowness, even as they read the novel through an anticipatory framework of our own digital frenzy: Frankenstein was teaching them what it felt like to live in their present moment. It almost seemed as if they were appreciating the rogue space of the literature classroom as a counterbalance to their media-saturated lives.4 And yet, talking about phones was an integral part of that rogue counterweight.
My 18-year-old students in that class were already sick of their phones, all too aware of the traps, exhausted by the social media hustle. And in Frankenstein they saw a weird simulacrum of this world, which helped them articulate points of insight and critique. It was as if Mary Shelley had written the pilot episode for Black Mirror, two hundred years in advance. I found myself reading the novel this way too: Shelley’s nested narratives were a refreshing pause from our digital miasma while also bringing this very media mélange into vivid focus.
My students were not on their phones in class unless I prompted them to look something up. And when I did say “Look that up!” to a student, it was always a real quest, another gripping search for something specific, concrete—again, real. We began to sense the continuities between Shelley’s novel and our mundane, networked lives. And yet, it took the relatively quiet, analog space of the college classroom to make these connections come to life.
This essay is not a prescription but a provocation: an open question concerning our phones, these little best friends and worst fiends of ours, lively extensions of our late Anthropocene bodies. Because, in fact, there’s no real dichotomy between pre- and postdigital learning. The cellular humanities are beyond such binaries.
And this is as it should be. In 1985 Donna Haraway wrote “A Manifesto for Cyborgs,” in which she argued that—thanks to late 20th-century technological and cultural developments—the traditional binary oppositions had become productively confused and unsustainable. “Our machines are disturbingly lively,” she observes, “and we ourselves frighteningly inert.” I’m reminded of this whenever I see someone trip or bump into something while staring into their phone. It’s like the old adage about aliens seeing human owners picking up after their dogs: Who’s to say who is leading whom?
Smartphones are at once everywhere and yet weirdly elusive. In part this may be because of how rapidly they obsolesce. So how do we include these devices in our lives, in our classrooms, in our scholarship and research? How do we adapt phones for literature, for learning—maybe even for a different future to come? Or should we just not think about them and hope that they keep working for us, even as we work more and more for them?
One morning on the way to my office, I noticed a couple walking across campus, holding hands. As they got closer I realized they weren’t holding hands at all: they were each grasping their own iPhone, and the swaying of their arms just happened to be in sync.
Despite being in part cautionary, Haraway’s statement was not ever suggesting that humans should or could go back to a pure or prior state. In fact, she ends “A Manifesto for Cyborgs” with the proclamation that she’d “rather be a cyborg than a goddess.”
And I’m not suggesting we should return to a pure state either. The trick now is how to twist Haraway’s conclusion once more—to admit that we would rather be cells than cyborgs—and then to take this seriously, with all its biological and technological implications, in all its accelerating dizziness.
Everything really has gone cellular. And the humanities are about how to think about everything.
What might it be like to more consciously and vocally inhabit such a domain, which I’m calling imprecisely the cellular humanities? It’s not simply another academic subdivision of the humanities, like the energy humanities or the health humanities. It’s rather a reality that we’re living with, whether we admit it or not.
But if we admit it, then we can see how wide ranging the cellular humanities truly are, and how we can’t claim innocence or rely on mere ironic detachment. The college classroom brings the cellular humanities into sharp relief, if we let it, opening up an alternative space to discuss and reflect on the good and the bad of our phones, not to mention the ever more interpenetrating digital ecosystem around us.
Here’s a farther-flung example, brought to us by a smartphone camera and disseminated around the internet: on a recent commercial flight, a disgruntled passenger was recorded gently punching the seat back in front of him. The passenger in the row forward had reclined her seat and was, arguably, intruding on his space. The tussle became a viral point of controversy and debate concerning air travel etiquette, what space one actually rents when one pays to fly, and so on.
But maybe the skirmish had a more interesting subtext: that everyone had gone cellular. The angry passenger demanding his meager space, the video recording of the angry passenger, the sharing and liking and commenting on the whole situation …
It’s a paradox: we’re collectively packed into planes (really a metonymy for consumer society at large) and individually empowered by smartphones. We’re distressed if we’re on the plane, but more of us are distressed by the videos taken on the plane, and even more of us by the commentary on those videos from on the plane.
Everything really has gone cellular. And the humanities are about how to think about everything. So we need new ways of understanding the overlapping, dueling pressures between what’s real in the moment and what’s real in the long digital afterlife most of us think in. And the college classroom is the best place to start.
I wrote this essay in April 2019. As I reread it before publication, in May 2020, my anecdotes and positions felt both antiquated and quaint. What a different world we’re in, now: college and university classes 100 percent online; uncertainty looming about next year (and the next); courses being retooled into hybrid and blended formats, both of which rely heavily on foundations of internet-based pedagogy. But strangely, maybe the cellular humanities were making this transition easier, before we could ever have realized what would happen. An almost pleasant surprise in the early months of COVID-influenced higher education has been how well so many students took the transition. They already had the tools for it, in their pockets. As institutions scramble to provide free or loaner laptops to their students in anticipation of coming terms taking place largely online, we should probably admit that a lot of college work is being done—and will be done—on students’ phones too. All disciplines are rapidly turning into the cellular humanities, in this sense. So it’s all the more urgent to think about this new, yet familiar modality: ways of learning and being that we’ve been prepping for, for some time.
This article was commissioned by Ben Platt.
- The first instructor I talked to after class reported that an impressive 12 out of 20 students in that class wrote about their phones. Interestingly, that turned out to be something of an anomaly. ↩
- Sigmund Freud, Totem and Taboo: Resemblances between the Psychic Lives of Savages and Neurotics, translated from the German by A. A. Brill (Routledge, 1919), p. 27. ↩
- This was a student with whom I had worked closely in various capacities during her time at my university, and by the end we had each other’s phone numbers, as some of our projects benefited from quicker exchanges than email allows for. Not all my students have my phone number. Yet. (More of them do now, in the time of the pandemic.) ↩
- I even asked them point blank about this, and they nodded in agreement—and I don’t think they were just saying yes to please me. (As anyone who teaches this upcoming generation knows, they tend not to say or do things just to appease; they have been well trained otherwise, to get what they want.) ↩