Reclaiming the Classroom With Old-Fashioned Teaching

Chad Hagen for the Chronicle

April 29, 2012

When we professors were students, we were all guilty of being off task from time to time during a class. Maybe you thought there wasn't any harm in jotting a note to a friend. Perhaps, in more recent years, you stole a quick glance at Facebook during a lull in the lecture.

No big deal.

But when I handed out an article in class the other day for my students to read silently, I was surprised to hear a keyboard clicking. I strolled over to see one student hurriedly pick up her article and pretend to read, and I quietly reminded her to stay off the Internet.

No big deal.

Not one minute later, I was aghast to see that the same student had put her article back down on the desk and was now moving the mouse around.

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This time it was a big deal.

Being in my early 30s, and having recently finished my own coursework, I grew up on the cusp of the instant-gratification generation, and I understand that short attention spans crave constant stimulation. I also teach my "Introduction to Journalism and Public Relations" class in a computer lab, where the siren call of online distractions is hard to overcome.

What differentiates me from students (who tend to be 18 to 22 years old) at my small liberal-arts university is that I felt a level of respect toward my professors that seems to be fading. As I spend too much time repeatedly asking the same students to stay on task, the gap between our versions of acceptable classroom behavior grows.

So when I asked my class for some anonymous feedback regarding online goofing off in class, what I got from several students was what I suspected, yet I was still shocked to see it in writing:

"I don't care if I get caught."

When I was a student, the main deterrent for goofing off online was the prospect of getting caught and the subsequent embarrassment of getting called out by the professor. But when that boogeyman is no longer scary, what do we as teachers have left? Some might ask, Why not just make students turn off their computers? But I know many of them use computers to take notes and work on in-class assignments. I don't want to penalize those who actually benefit academically from the ease of online access.

Students today expect us to be entertainers, and while we find the material itself riveting enough (since we have devoted much of our lives and money to its study), many younger students cannot usually muster the same enthusiasm.

I'm not proposing that we dance for our students or even attempt to meet their impossible standards for stimulation. What they want is an opportunity to connect with the professor and the material in a way that is meaningful and applicable to their lives and goals.

I don't think that is too much to ask.

As I retold the story of the disrespectful student to my colleagues, I was surprised that they did not react with the same disbelief. I began to think more deeply about the incident, wondering if the problem had more to do with me than with the students. Even though I didn't use a computer in class during my undergraduate days, there were plenty of ways I could disengage during a lecture—doodling, writing notes to friends, making to-do lists, or even just closing my eyes and zoning out. What was it my instructors did back then to keep my attention?

While working on a slide show for a lecture, a light bulb went off: I was trying to use technology to reach students, and they were using it to tune me out. What I needed—what we all needed—was a return to the kind of old-fashioned teaching that allows for the interaction and flexibility that will keep me and my students on our toes.

I find that the keyboard clicking subsides when I take a break from the PowerPoint and provide an anecdote that may help illustrate my point. For example, when teaching journalism students about the dos and don'ts of interviewing, my students are riveted by the list of places I was kicked out of—shopping malls, grocery stores, people's homes—during my days working as a daily-newspaper reporter in Florida. They especially like to hear my stories about a fellow reporter who once hung from a tree over a cemetery to cover a private funeral. And they squirm when I describe the time I tried to contact an accused child molester by knocking on the door of the home he shared with the victim and his mother. (I was on the police beat at the time.)

Students love hearing about my adventures and misadventures as a former journalist, and they are full of questions. The discussion that ensues not only captures their attention (and distracts from the keyboard), but it also allows me to covertly teach them about media law and journalistic ethics.

In my classroom, I fight for their attention because I believe the subject matter is that important. I try to bring the same zeal I had for my professional work into class in hopes of competing with such distractions as checking celebrity gossip on Twitter.

I recently assigned a project that required students to start their own reporting blog on a topic they will follow throughout the semester. Their immediate reaction was, "I don't know what to write about." So I asked them, "What do you like to do? What are your interests? What are you curious about?" Then we explored the answer to their favorite question: "When will I ever use this in my life?" Suddenly, they began to see themselves as the authoritative source on dormitory-living issues or campus crime or international affairs. They soon became eager to add their fame as a campus blogger to their résumés.

As the excitement over their work mounted, and their impulses to glance at e-mail during class waned, I overheard one student after class say, "I haven't been this excited about journalism in a long time!" And somehow, that gap between our versions of acceptable classroom behavior didn't seem so big anymore.

Jennifer Brannock Cox is an assistant professor of communication arts at Salisbury University.