Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Ask the Administrator: Texting and Teaching

I suspect this one isn’t unique. A new correspondent writes:

I teach at a community college and find that many of my students text in the classroom. My policy, which is stated on my syllabus, is that I ask students who use the phone to leave the class for the day. This doesn't seem to discourage cell phone use. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated!

A few thoughts, before I open the floor to my wise and worldly readers, many of whom have been in the classroom more recently than I have.

First, it’s great that you have a policy stated in your syllabus. From this side of the desk, it’s easy to stand behind a professor who sticks to the rules she set out in the first place. My nightmare is the professor who changes the rules midstream or applies them with obvious selectivity. A blanket ban is clear, easy to describe and defend, and obviously well-suited to a smallish class.

That said, sometimes there’s a gap between what’s clean on paper and what works in class.

One issue may be clarity. Those of us of a certain age -- sigh -- may think of ‘texting’ as included in the phrase ‘cell phone use,’ but some youngish students may see the two categories as separate. To them, ‘cell phone use’ may imply voice calls or web surfing, whereas texting is texting. They may think of texting as a less intrusive alternative to calling. If that’s all it is, then a little clarification may help. (And just having a policy on a syllabus usually won’t cut it, since students tend not to read syllabi. Make sure you announce in class the parts you want to emphasize.)

If clarity isn’t the issue -- that is, if they know perfectly well that you don’t want them texting but they keep doing it anyway -- then things get trickier.

It’s tempting to try to channel John Houseman’s character from The Paper Chase, but outside of a few select settings, that’s just not realistic anymore. And given cell phone ubiquity, student solidarity, and the reality of limited political capital, adopting a hard line position may wind up being more trouble than it’s worth.

Instead, I’d recommend thinking through what you’re trying to achieve with the ban, and then sharing your thoughts with the class. Presumably, most of us would be okay with exceptions based on childcare or medical emergencies, and it’s increasingly true that students often have such complicated lives that just trying to define “emergency” can become neverending. But it’s also true that it’s hard to have thoughtful class discussions when half the class is distracted by little screens in their hands. (In our house, we have a “no technology at the table” rule during meals. We’re not Luddites by any stretch -- regular readers know that I enjoy my gadgets -- but family mealtime is human contact time.)

I’d recommend sharing your concerns with the class, and moving from “police” mode to “problem solving” mode. If it’s you against them, I don’t like your chances. I won’t go all Cathy Davidson on you and suggest incorporating texting into the class, but incorporating the students into the class as adults, rather than treating them as recalcitrant children, may get you about 80 percent of what you actually want. Share with them what you envision a great class looking like, and let them know you think they’re capable of achieving that, but you’re concerned that they won’t get there if they aren’t looking. See what they have to say about it. Best case, you avoid the “police state” atmosphere that can easily poison the class dynamic, and actually improve the class climate through some thoughtful reflection on what you -- and they -- are really trying to achieve.

Good luck! I know you’re not alone in this.

Wise and worldly readers -- especially those currently teaching -- what would you suggest? Is there a more effective way?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.