Commentary

No Phones, Please, This Is a Communications Class

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

July 06, 2015

Last semester I tried to create a college classroom that was a technological desert. I wanted the space to be a respite from the demands and distractions of smartphones, tablets, and computers.

So I banned the use of technology — because asking students to be professional digital citizens had not worked.

Simply requesting that students put away their phones was an exercise in futility. Adding a line in the syllabus that there would be grade penalties for unprofessional use of technology brought about no change in their habits of swiping and clicking.

They meant no disrespect. Technology pulled at them — and pulls at us — creating a sense of urgency that few can ignore.

I get it. This is not a college-student problem (I’ve been to faculty meetings). It’s a human problem. But I’m a college instructor, and so classrooms have become my sites of technological resistance and rebellion. It was time for me to usher in an era of digital death, at least for three 50-minute stretches a week.

After four years of teaching, I could not bear to look at one more student smiling at his or her crotch — the universally preferred location to keep one’s phone for "surreptitious" texting. (Note to students: If you’re smiling in that direction, your attempts at stealth are going to get noticed.)

I could not stand to hear one more refrain of frenzied keyboard tapping. When someone pounds with that much urgency, I can assure you he isn’t transcribing what I’m saying.

But as each semester came and went, I didn’t have the courage to enact a flat-out ban on technology use. It seemed antiquarian, technophobic, selfish, dictatorial. Besides, as a college instructor, wasn’t I supposed to help students maneuver through distractions without exiling problem devices? Wasn’t college supposed to prepare students for the real world and its distractions?

But then I read the manifesto of Clay Shirky, a New York University professor, on why he was asking his students to put away their connected devices. And I thought, why not? After all, a college classroom is not the real world. At its best, it’s a cocoon that allows its residents to try out new ideas, push boundaries, and stretch into a new sense of self. How can we let the latest cat video disrupt that?

What eventually persuaded me was Professor Shirky’s assertion that these devices are designed to be distracting — to grab, get, and keep our attention on them and away from everything else. If it’s a competition between me and an iPhone, I don’t stand a chance. And, more important, students don’t stand a chance to engage and participate when their phones lure them into the labyrinth of the digital world.

So I followed in Shirky’s footsteps and those of others: Henceforth, in my classroom, all phones, computers, and tablets had to remain zipped in backpacks. I was surprised when students accepted this new rule. Maybe they welcomed a break from the devices that pull them every which way. But I can’t report that all students obeyed the rule at all times. Even I found myself sneaking in glances at my phone to see if my daughter’s day-care provider had called. But that was OK, because violations were rare and did not compromise my goal of creating an environment in which students are not shackled to their devices.

This new normal meant students would daydream when they finished an assignment early. I had almost forgotten what it was like to gaze upon a group of people whose minds were allowed to wander freely, pencils tapping against desks. Imagine that! During class downtime, students opened books, played with Silly Putty, and just plain stared straight ahead.

They were allowed to be bored, and I was thrilled. Who knows what organic, stream-of-conscious highway their neurons were traveling down? I hope it was as beautiful as it looked.

At the end of the semester, I asked students how the ban worked for them. Their answer was practical: The early-morning hour made the ban easier, since they didn’t expect any urgent texts when many friends were still tucked in bed. Timing is everything, I suppose.

I’ve come to realize that the only way forward is to extract the problem from its root, by physically disconnecting the device from the hand. The devices fared fine for 50 minutes in a backpack. Afternoon classes, as students emerge into the prime of their digital day, might prove to be a greater challenge, but I think it’s one worth tackling for the calm that descends on a tech-free class.

For me it was lovely to coexist in a space a few times each week where we relied on earlier technological forms: those of the mind. Pings be damned.

Hinda Mandell is an assistant professor in the School of Communication at the Rochester Institute of Technology.