For someone who regularly writes about technology, science fiction, and artificial intelligence, it may be surprising to learn that Joelle Renstrom doesn’t own a smartphone.
That’s because a lot of her work and writing deals with the ways the phone is changing us for the worse. “Phones will be in our brains at some point, there is zero question in my mind about it,” says Renstrom, a College of General Studies senior lecturer in rhetoric. “A lot of students I have would do it tomorrow if they could… I really do think we’re more or less cyborgs already, because we can’t put our tech down.”
Renstrom attracted media attention in 2017 when word got out that she required her students to put their phones in a locked Yondr pouch during class. Although apprehensive at first, at the end of the semester many students said that they were relieved to be without their phones for an hour, and were less anxious and better able to focus.
Besides a Yondr pouch, Renstrom has lots of other cool curiosities spread around her fourth floor CGS office, like robot figurines, a “thank-you” note written in binary, her father’s old bumper stickers from back when he ran for local office in their hometown of Kalamazoo, Mich., and UFO decals.
Renstrom often talks to students about the jobs that robots and AI have replaced and will soon take over (check out her blog Could This Happen? about the relationship between science and science fiction). AI may make a stockbroker obsolete one day, she says, but what it can’t do is manage people or come up with creative solutions. “Critical thinking is the linchpin of everything,” she says. “I tell my students that creativity and critical thinking and some of these softer skills are going to become more important than the harder skills, because they will be the only ones that we can do that robots can’t.”
In our series “Office Artifacts,” BU Today highlights interesting artifacts professors and staff display in their office. Have a suggestion about someone we should profile? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.