“I get it,” the professor for my short-story course said, going over the syllabus on the first day of class. She was referring to her cellphone policy, which is basically a have-some-sort-of-decorum-I-beg-you rule. She asks us to be polite and use our good judgement.
“This is second nature to you guys,” she said, holding an invisible phone in her hand. “When I was in college, I would daydream about that guy I’d been seeing,” picture him, “and I’d tune out the lecture to wonder if he’d be at coffeehouse after class or not. You have Candy Crush.”
In high school, teachers used their sternest voices to give the “Put it away” command, confiscating smartphone after smartphone from students who did not—could not—abide by a cellphone ban. Everything a student is exposed to must go through a filter of distraction, the material taking a precarious path toward retention past Instagram and 2048.
My short-story professor realized this and perhaps thought, If my students can’t control themselves, what hope do I have?
I’m typing this article on my Macbook Pro, which is essentially a large flip iPhone. Under the Pages window is a syllabus, along with four other syllabi in their own windows. Under those: Spotify, a music player, Messages, a texting extension for iMessage, and Google Chrome, with no fewer than eight tabs up—some scholarly, some asinine. I eke out a sentence or two before I have to scroll through Facebook, change the song that’s playing, and reply to a few texts. It’s a compulsion. It does slow things down.
I guess I could close everything else, stopping Nick Cave’s voice mid-lyric, ignoring the “sup” text I just received, and abandoning the mindless scroll therapy, the thought-numbing act of skimming Facebook or Tumblr that I use to get through my work. But why?
Some would look upon my writing ritual with scorn and pity, perhaps remembering a time when typing was done on a typewriter, messages sent via telegraph, and distractions fewer. But that golden age is an illusion.
There is an episode of The Twilight Zone in which Burgess Meredith’s character is shamed for his love of reading print. Instead of working, he sneaks novels under his desk; instead of listening to his wife, he binges on poetry, a newspaper, a magazine, a cereal box. The modes of distraction have changed form, but they’ve always been there—and it’s always been our choice to either give in or get our act together. (The Twilight Zone character ends up alone on earth with all the books he could want but a pair of broken reading glasses.)
Likewise, some of us find out that in order to live competent lives, we must control our Netflix binge-watching. We learn this the hard way: deadlines missed, junk food ingested, hours wasted on Sister Wives and My Strange Addiction. We’ve ignored our responsibilities in the name of pleasurable distraction, and we’re going to pay for it tomorrow. If you choose to spend your class time reading Reddit, you’re only making things harder for yourself.
The integration of technology into our lives isn’t a “new, trendy thing,” as Dan Rockmore puts it in The New Yorker. Our relationship with technology is a constant adjustment to new technology and its effects.
I’m not arguing for laptops in the classroom. (The studies that Rockmore cites are consistent in showing the adverse effects of laptop use on the learning process.) I’m arguing for the significance of the option, and what it reveals in the student who chooses to listen attentively to the lecture or to listen to Spotify.
In a heart-to-heart discussion with a friend, a decent person will put down the phone and the laptop and give that friend the attention she needs. If someone needs to get work done, he’ll close all those extraneous tabs. If students truly wants to learn what’s being taught, they’ll choose to unplug, however briefly.
In the classroom as everywhere else, we must learn how to exercise control over our distraction impulse—not by some imposed rule, but by our own choice. Banning laptops—removing our choice to distract ourselves—is giving up on students, isn’t it?
My short-story professor, who at first seemed to be the one giving up, really did the opposite. She trusts herself and her lessons, but she also trusts that her students will (at least most of the time) want to learn.
Nicole Short is a junior studying journalism and English at the State University of New York at New Paltz.