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We live our lives in the middle of things. Material culture carries emotions and ideas of startling intensity. Yet only recently have objects begun to receive the attention they deserve.

The acknowledgment of the power of objects has not come easy. Behind the reticence to examine objects as centerpieces of emotional life was perhaps the sense that one was studying materialism, disparaged as excess, or collecting, disparaged as hobbyism, or fetishism, disparaged as perversion. (Turkle, 2007, p. 6)

Over the years, Sherry Turkle has both defended the Internet for its impact upon our sense of identity and accused Internet-enabled cell phones of negatively influencing the lives of young people. Her recent arguments against cell phones have attracted sympathy, yet they compete for our attention with claims that cell phones also help students learn. Further, her arguments against cell phones, most notably in Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (2012) conflict with claims from educators and research groups who suggest cell phones promote unique literacies and help students gain access to knowledge. Cell phone on deskWhile there is certainly no easy resolution to these different claims, this webtext presents cell phones as agents that can hold a great deal of influence in our everyday activities and literacies. In order to get closer to how these powers function in an educational context, this project explores cell phones through an explanation of a student video project and an actor-network/new materialist analysis of that video.

  • The page A Video Inquiry introduces a cell phone documentary that was shot on cell phones by students in a course called Language, Technology, and Culture.

  • The pages listed under the heading “Cell Phones and Composition” explore the popularity of cell phones and summarize how their impact on students has been seen as both positive and negative. This section then attends to the ways in which rhetoric and composition scholars have analyzed cell phones in the past and offers conceptions of critical literacy and access helpful in reconciling their complex position in educational settings.

  • The section “Cell Phones and Objects” identifies cell phones within the theoretical frameworks established by Bruno Latour (1993a) and Jane Bennett (2010). Focusing on cell phones as things and people who use cell phones as hybrid subjects, I show how cell phones are active agents in our lives. The goal of understanding (what Bennett called) cell phones’ thing-power is to open (what Latour referred to as) the black box of relations.

  • In “Cell Phone Documentary” I return to the cell phone video project completed by students in order to see how participants in the video articulate formations of cell phone thing-power. This video project also represents a pedagogical strategy to help students practice a form of critical literacy.

  • “Conclusions” plays host to some final thoughts about the project and my teaching practices, and the “Appendices” include materials from the course and the video, including a full transcript.