I had another non sequitur in class today. I don’t know why they unnerve me but they do: the student who asks where the water fountain is during a discussion of Bakhtin; the request for information about the library in the middle of an explanation of epistemology; a question about Easter while I am orchestrating perspectives on girls and schooling.
Does anyone know what ‘non sequitur’ means? I had asked a different class earlier this week. Silence. If I tell them, I wondered, will they stop making them? I mentioned it to a colleague over lunch; had she noticed anything similar with her students? Oh yes, she said. Absolutely. It’s because they’ve got all their tabs open. Digi-kids who have grown up with online environments, she suggested, are used to having multiple sites open on their devices; quite comfortable switching between tasks and contexts, they instinctively multi-track, juggling a number of things simultaneously.
I found the suggestion fascinating; what I thought of as a non sequitur may be a student with multiple tabs open, shifting focus to meet multiple information needs? I, by contrast, rarely have more than one open at a time. My daughter laughs at the way I manage my digital life; you do know that you don’t have to shut that down, mum? You can just open another page you know. Do you want me to show you? But I don’t want to be shown; the idea of a lurking open portal unnerves me. I want to focus on one thing at a time. And because my single tab digital life is mirrored by a tendency to single track talk, I am prepared to accept a verbal non sequitur might be a reflection of a student’s digital life. This, I told myself, was an age thing.
Later, however, I realised my colleague’s observation was probably based on experience; plenty of people of my generation, after all, are quite happy ‘toddling’. Today, responding patiently to a student’s open tab, I wondered whether such a habit might change the part of our brain which manages thought and language. Or perhaps, I thought to myself, it could only affect neural processing if engaged in from an early age, while the brain is at its most plastic? And then (as I usually do when considering things neurological or linguistic) I thought of Dylan.
Dylan doesn’t have any interest in online environments but if I were to use the tab metaphor to describe his approach to life I would say that, like me, he has only one tab open. In fact a single tab is a pretty good way of thinking about him; Dylan can be dogged in his pursuit of a subject or activity, returning again and again to it no matter how many alternatives I offer. This is a quality which is often evaluated negatively and labelled as a fixation or obsession. It is equally possible, however, to see this as a strength; the metaphor of a single tab suggests a more positive image of Dylan as single-minded and determined.
Something I always loved about living with Dylan was the quirky view of the world he offered if I made the time for it. When he went into care, one of the things that made me sad was the thought that there would be no more opportunities to learn from or about Dylan. If I wasn’t walking in his shoes anymore, how could I see the world through his eyes? Today, thinking about tabs, I realised Dylan will always be my lens; that the world is Dylan-shaped, even without him.