The Professor Has Turned on the No Texting Sign.

Mike Arnzen writes about the thinking behind his decision to revise his syllabus to include a statement on the use of electronic devices in class.

In some ways, there’s no difference between a student texting and a
student flipping through a magazine in the back row of a class, but
there are times when we use technology to multitask and this is where
the issue gets thorny and complex. What if we’re discussing Foucault’s
“Panopticism” in the classroom and a student wants to quickly do some
web research on a referenced person in the article, like Jeremy
Bentham? I wouldn’t want to ban such ambitious impulses to learn more,
so long as it pertained to the subject at hand or contributed to the
collaborative learning of the class.

What I’m really concerned about is multitasking that puts personal
interest above the class interest, and the fetishism of technology that
reinforces gizmo play for its own sake. My hope is that I can help
students consciously rethink their gizmos as tools for learning and
research and communication, and to respect the social space and dynamic
of the classroom.

Mike does a great job putting forth the thinking behind his new policy, which carefully instructs the students with examples of what counts as an actionable offense. My own syllabus, rather than listing sample infractions, refers more generally to common sense and common courtesy.

I’ve considered having students in each class come up with their
own policy on the use of electronic devices, since, for instance,
students in “New Media Projects” will be sitting at machines
programming in Flash or working on 3D animations, and I hope the
in-class activity will be challenging enough that they’ll want to spend
class time on the course material. But in that class I’ll be asking
them to follow online tutorials, and to use the online user forums and
tutorials (as well as my personal feedback) to find answers to their
technical problems, so I would expect them to be online.

Our dependence on electronic gadgets — hand-held yesterday, ear-mounted today, cranially implanted tomorrow — makes classroom manners a moving target.  Manners depend on perception and context.  Several years ago, when I was experimenting with using a PDA to do all my in-class housekeeping (such as taking notes on class participation and oral presentations), a student was offended because, as he saw it, I was playing with my gadget instead of paying attention.  And once during an inspiring faculty workshop, I was pouring out my brainstorming into a word processor file, when the leader interrupted her presentation to ask, “Could the typing please stop?”  Whenever my preferred method of staying on task is perceived as rude, it stings a little.  But manners are socially constructed tools, and manners differ as contexts differ.  At academic conferences, I regularly see more than half the audience tapping or thumbing away; yet when a rising freshman asks, during a summer orientation, “Should I bring my laptop to class?”, I reply that each professor’s preference will vary. The student using technology during class may, of course, simply be wasting time. But as long as the technology does not disrupt anyone else, I tend to give the student the benefit of the doubt.

It’s downright rude when students entertain themselves instead of listening to their peers reciting their work, and really it’s no different if they choose to ignore me when I introduce a new concept or the next assignment. I try to work around this by promising that I’ll give students some in-class writing time in the last 15 or so minutes, but that for now they need to pay attention to this next topic. (Is that bargaining? Conceding too much power over how to spend our limited time together? Are my expectations too low?) 

Somewhere I heard of a professor whose policy is that if a phone goes off in class, he will answer it. I can’t imagine myself doing that. Not only am I concerned about appearing to be heavy-handed, and I’m also not sure that I need a separate policy for technological distractions.  Do we have or need to articulate a policy to deal with the student who sits, with arms folded, refusing to take notes (ever!) ?

Many years ago (not at SHU) in a technical writing class, a student who sat in about the second row often fell asleep leaning her head against the wall.  I had the fleeting thought that I should pretend to fall asleep during her final report, but rejected the idea. (Yes, she would have remembered the event, but for all I know she had narcolepsy, was up all night working a night-shift job to pay for her education, etc. etc.)  Instead I just spent more time right in front of her row, more time making eye contact with her.  She was actually a very good writer who made substantial, lasting contributions to the class. I’m not sure that shaming her in class would have helped. (Had she started to snore soporifically, so that other students also dropped off one by one, that would have been different.)

Another time, at the same school, I taught a class with a student who kept her chair aligned so that she was directly behind another student, no matter where I was in the room. She frequently talked with that student during class at inappropriate times, and when I looked up, I’d see the student in front whispering a reply, so I always assumed that the visible student was the troublemaker.  One day the fall guy was absent, so the ventriloquist sat in another chair so that she could pull the same routine on someone else.  At the end of the year, when I didn’t give the ventriloquist her full marks for class participation, she argued with me on the grounds that she never missed a class. 

Such cases of deliberate, immature, low-tech rudeness are rare, but the common technological infractions are often the result of simple carelessness. It’s happened more than once that a student who was in the front of the room had to interrupt her own presentation, walk back to her desk, get her bleeping phone out of her purse, and shut it off.  If I taught lectures with 100 students, where phones rang several times during each class period and the offenders were always anonymous, I might get more upset about the use of electronic gadgets. But so far, I find that the self-moderating social system functions fairly well, and what goes around comes around.