When the cell phone isn’t about technology

Inside Higher Ed stoked up a bright, feisty discussion today (here) that anyone not in academia must think is pretty silly, and maybe a few within the halls do, too. The article in the midst of the blaze is by a philosophy prof who walks out on his classes when students text message.

Topics of respect for instructors, racial roles, student rights, and the cost of a year of college all are raised, sometimes flamboyantly. It shows how unsettled the professorate is about this particular piece of technology, and I think about “new” (let’s call it within the last seven years) classroom technology as well.

If someone other than the professor falls asleep in a class, I think we faculty all have a response we’d take, and it’s likely a response we saw or heard of some faculty taking when we were students. The same for students chatting off topic, arriving late, leaving early, or listening to music via headphones or ear buds or whatever.

Almost none of the faculty at today’s podium can say that about text messaging during class. It’s not really all that different from my other examples, but it’s uncharted territory in our experience, which means we’re free to blaze a new response of our own. We’re not always so good at doing this.

One prof decides texting is a flagrant disrespect and a personal insult. Another takes it as sneering at the her subject matter, and a third sees texting as a grand giving of the finger to all of higher education generally and his own college in particular. We have no tradition of response, but these responses all seem out of scale to me.

We all become thoughtless, particularly about things we do a lot. I would guess that students are all so used to texting and fondling their cell phones in various other ways that until someone blows up about it, it doesn’t seem like a big deal. They have no tradition about its classroom use either. A bit rude, they might think, but they all occasionally cross-talk, daydream and doodle in their notes during lecture anyway, so what’s the difference?

For as much as I want respect for the professor, and his academic subject, and the institution that employs him, I pretty much see things from the students’ perspective on this one. I’ve got other things to get lathered up over, like they haven’t done the reading or they’ve plagiarized their journal writing or they refer to Hemingway as “Ernie” in their papers on “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.”

So here are my guidelines for gauging my response to classroom behaviors

  • If it distracts other students from paying attention, it has to stop. Based on this principle, for instance, I usually let sleeping students sleep.
  • If it distracts me, it has to stop. For instance, butt cracks. I can’t teach if I’m losing my lunch, so cover it up
  • If it puts anyone in danger, it has to stop, and perhaps we have to leave.

That about covers it. I could list things like, “if it makes me look foolish” or “if it’s vulgar” or “if a student is drunk” but all those are problems mainly because of these three principles. After class I’ll get over myself or I’ll explain the impact of vulgarity one-on-one or I will try to get the drunk to a counselor, but the classroom is about a teaching-learning thing happening for the great majority of students who are polite, present and more or less conscious.

So the cell phone thing really isn’t about technology at all, and thinking that it is may well distract me into violating one of my own principles.


3 Responses to When the cell phone isn’t about technology

  1. The_Myth says:

    My problem with the texters is that they oftn become the student who comes begging for a higher grade at the end of the semester.

    “But I was at *every* class!”

    “But I tried REALLY hard!”

    “But I didn’t take notes. You never told me I had to!”

    In my experience, and those of others, is that the students who misbehave [and I do think texting is misbehaving as well as disruptive] rarely take responsibility for that misbehavior when it results in poor performance.

    Johnny slept through a week’s worth of class and then whines that he gets Cs on every quiz.

    Mary reads textbooks for other classes during my lectures, but has ZERO clue why she’s failing the course.

    I suspect many people don’t have an issue with the technology per se, but rather with the student ignorance of how it disrupts their education [and most likely that of those sitting near them].

  2. Ira Socol says:

    The conversation at IHE seemed so ridiculous that I couldn’t even join, but I’m with you here. Texting is no different than doodling or writing things in your notebook that are not course related – and I’ll need to remind people like “The Myth” that within 3 years half your students will expect to take their notes on their phones – which are – in in the 5-years-behind US – becoming full computers.

    So, it is disruptive (actually disruptive, not “conceptually”) or it is not. And personally I’d – for aesthetic reasons – prefer the phones in broad view rather than deal with the contemporary middle school and high school student solution where the texting is done with the phone remaining in the pocket (a remarkable skill I surely have not mastered, but one which makes you quite uncomfortable until you find yourself relieved to realize that the student is handling his phone).

    The key thing you say here is, “It’s not really all that different from my other examples, but it’s uncharted territory in our experience.” And that’s what came across on IHE. In institutions devoted to social reproduction, professors are screaming, “These students are not like me!” – That is, as always, a legitimate cause of discomfort. It is not, however, a legitimate cause for many types of action.

  3. Ira Socol says:

    oops – the phones “even in the 5-years-behind US”


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